Foundation Park: The Last Stop

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

Where do people go to live when they've been pushed out of the gentrified inner-city neighborhoods? For Southside Virginia, the answer is a private development called Foundation Park. From March 22 to 29, the Virginian-Pilot profiled life in this mini-city and exposed the failure of Chesapeake officials to use available funds to upgrade the 44-year-old project. Residents rallied behind the demand for improvements, the city initiated a request for federal funds, and fire and health officials began cracking down on the Park's owners. Series writers from the newspaper's Chesapeake bureau included Greg Raver-Lampman, Charlise Lyles, Kerry DeRochi, Tony Wharton, Matthew Bowers, Melissa Huff, Sarah Kinsman, Joseph V. Phillips, and Tony Stein. 


Chesapeake — The street signs seem like a cruel joke: Welcome, Fireside, Pasture. Cozy names for a grid of asphalt running through Chesapeake's Foundation Park, the largest low-income housing project in southeastern Virginia. 

With rents no higher than $205 a month for a three-bedroom, one-story row house, the privately owned complex built in 1943 provides Hampton Roads its cheapest available housing. Many of the 5,000 tenants are inner-city refugees, driven from Norfolk when neighborhoods in Ghent, Lafayette-Winona, and Colonial Place began going upscale. 

Foundation Park is "the last stop," says Arthur G. Meginley, Jr., executive director of the Chesapeake Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "There's no other catchall place like it." 

John H. Sampson, 47, a truck driver for Lone Star Cement, moved from Norfolk to Foundation Park with his wife and six children. "It's about as low as you can find," he said. 

Crammed onto 60 acres are 826 units with a population density higher than New York City's. Junked cars crowd narrow streets just off Campostella Road, about a mile south of Norfolk. 

Children play on paths covered with broken wine and whiskey bottles. On Welcome Road, a bedridden, 65-year-old woman illegally peddles liquor by the paper cup to make ends meet. Outside, three youths play with hypodermic syringes they found on the grass. 

Patricia Walker, 20, her fiancé and three children scrimp to save $1,000 they need for a deposit on a rental home in South Norfolk. But plans to move crumbled when Walker lost her job. As she speaks, a rat trap next to the kitchen sink snaps with a crack as loud as a shotgun. 


Once in a while, Foundation Park residents glimpse a city council member driving through their neighborhood. Once a week, they watch the single health inspector assigned to the 826 units ride by in his tan Toyota. 

That's about all they see of city officials. 

Of the millions of federal dollars that flowed into the Chesapeake treasury for low-income housing renovation over the past 20 years, not a penny has gone to Foundation Park, according to city spending records. 

Six years have passed since the former director of the Chesapeake Health Department labeled the Park as no longer a "viable place for human habitation." Little has been done to improve conditions in the development that houses 5,000 people. 

Foundation Park, built 40 years ago as temporary housing, has not gone before the city's minimum housing standards board in the last decade. It is called a fire hazard by fire officials, and health inspectors say it is the city's worst housing. 

The standard explanation for the forgotten promises of city officials and developers is that federal and state agencies have not come through with enough money to deal with Foundation Park and keep up with the rest of the city. 

Maurice Steingold and Simon R. Miller, the owners of Foundation Park, say that is why they have not demolished the project and had it rebuilt. Politicians use the same excuse to justify their failure to improve conditions. 

Not everyone believes it. Each time a solution to Foundation Park is proposed, it seems to fade without action. 

"Every time there has been a chance for discussion they have had some reason not to talk about it," said Rosa M. Alexander, a South Norfolk businesswoman who wanted to build 160 to 200 low-income apartments on Campostella Road, where the ruins of the old South Drive-In stand. "There is some political clout there to prevent discussion," she said. 

Her project failed to get approval for a loan from the Virginia Housing and Development Authority. The city did not act to keep the project alive, and she sold the property last year to a church group. 

In 1972, Washington, D.C. planning consultants Marcou, O'Leary and Associates drew up a Community Renewal Plan for Chesapeake that aimed to improve housing conditions across the city. It proposed, with the help of ample federal funds then available, to improve areas of Fentress, Atlantic Avenue, Crestwood and Foundation Park, among others. The plan would have used less than three percent of the city's capital improvements budget each year. 

In Foundation Park, the consultants proposed lowering the streets to prevent flooding and installing sidewalks, curbs, gutters and street lights. "Like the other local action projects, a combination public-private improvement program is proposed," the plan states. "The city would redesign and improve publicly owned rights of way." 

In return, the Beazley Foundation, then owners of the project, would continue and accelerate renovations necessary "to ensure long-term adequacy of the housing." 

Today the 180-page document is in a file drawer in the Planning Department. Those improvements did not happen. Neither the foundation nor Steingold and Miller accelerated renovations. 

The city carried out some of the plans for Fentress. Charles Jenkins, former director of intergovernmental affairs, said Chesapeake never got around to Foundation Park. "I don't recall anybody even discussing it," he said. 

The plans of Steingold and Miller also fell through. 

A cursory examination of the city's traditional financing methods and the more creative methods tried elsewhere in the country shows there is money available that has never been used for Foundation Park. 

♦ The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rental Rehabilitation program, which has provided the city with $114,000 for projects elsewhere. 

♦ HUD's Section 312 program for housing renovation, which brought $316,000 to Chesapeake. 

♦ Community Development Block Grants, which have totaled $18.5 million in 12 years. More than $2 million was spent on administration costs alone. 

♦ Tax-free bonds. 

♦ Tax dollars straight out of the city budget, which has grown from about $69 million in 1976-77 to $188 million for the 1986-87 fiscal year. 

Unlike most of South Norfolk, Foundation Park has no civic group or civic leader to represent it. Neighborhood churches are the preferred political forum in Norfolk, but the potential clout of Foundation Park residents is dissipated because they attend several churches, most outside the project. 

"It seems that if they don't have an organized constituency, no one will listen to them," said former Vice Mayor Hugo Owens. "It's the hard, cold facts of politics. The people with money and influence get things done."