by Paul Clancy
photographs by Jay Paul
As we swept along the Bay's southernmost shore on a brisk northeasterly breeze, my wife Barb and I witnessed a parade of changes along the long sandy beach of Norfolk's Ocean View: new houses crowding the water's edge, a new regional library with windows facing the sea, a new fishing pier, public beaches and a bandstand. Now, in the distance, our eyes were drawn to the long, low span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, then the jetties that mark the entrance to Little Creek, and, finally, hugging the shoreline right next door, the houses that define East Beach, darling of the city's coastal revival . . . and, maybe someday—if its developers are right—the Annapolis of the south Chesapeake.
While East Beach has been one of the major forces in transforming this once run-down stretch of Norfolk's Chesapeake shoreline into a new Gold Coast, it has also been an agent of change for its neighbor, Little Creek. Little Creek has long been a magnet for boaters, despite its prodigal neighbor, but now its prime location in the midst of this Bay-side renaissance has begun attracting new investors and a different kind of development.
The Little Creek magnet was tugging hard at Barb and me this past summer as we sailed along the shore on our way to a transient slip in one of its marinas. We had set out that morning from our mooring on the Lafayette River, cleared the Navy Base and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and headed east. The beauty of the long shoreline blended with our excitement about getting a fresh look at a place that has seen so much change in recent years.
Little Creek, roughly at the dividing line between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, has a distinctly split personality. If you were to go straight after entering from the Bay, you'd run smack into the "Gator Navy"—or, as it's officially called, the Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. This is the world's largest facility for training troops how to land on beaches—picture the invasion of Normandy, with landing craft (LSTs, mostly) spilling troops onto the enemy shore. Here you'd find about 18 ships, 33 landing craft, several air-cushioned vessels and dozens of other boats. It's a big part of the Navy, separate but complementary to the big Norfolk base we had just passed. In addition to Little Creek, it occupies three miles of beachfront east of the entrance.
But if you turn right after clearing the jetties, you enter a completely different world. Here is possibly the largest concentration of marinas and pleasure craft in the region. With seven marinas, two boatyards and possibly as many as 1,500 boats, the creek is a serious boater's playground. Probably the biggest attraction to all of those boatowners is the creek's proximity to the Bay. In a matter of minutes, they can be out on wide-open waters, for fishing, daysailing or cruising.
We had ample opportunity to see Little Creek's two faces. We arrived at the entrance at five o'clock on a Wednesday, meaning that for all of the creek's sailing hotshots it was race time. A steady stream of boats poured out of the creek, with crews scrambling to raise sails as they pointed to windward. At the same time, a distant plume of salt spray rising from the water indicated that a hovercraft from the amphib base was going through its paces, and a couple of black-hulled, fast-moving boats sped out of the creek and headed for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Ships passing in the night, they may be, but these two worlds have long comfortably shared Little Creek.
Finally entering the creek, it was hard to choose a marina (there's no way to anchor in the creek) because each has its strong suit. We wanted to be on the right side because that's where East Beach is, so we took the easy way and called at Bay Point, the closest to the entrance, and tied up stern-to at one of the marina's floating docks. Then it was time for another tough choice: a restaurant. There are half a dozen within walking distance, from fancy to plain. We chose Surf Rider at the far end of the creek, a bit of a walk but a welcome one after spending the day boat-bound. We shared soft-shells and crabcakes, and weren't disappointed. Because the place was crowded, we sat at the bar and fell into conversation with couples to our left and right. We talked with a Navy chief and her retired Marine husband, who regaled us with stories about their kids, their deployments and their plans for the future, until the food arrived and appetites were happily indulged. We walked back under an almost-full moon.
The next morning, we were jolted awake by jet engines. That's one thing I forgot to mention. Besides sharing the creek with the U.S. Navy, boaters also get to see the undersides of airplanes taking off or landing at Norfolk International Airport, which is just the other side of the base, its main runway aimed right at the creek. At other times, though, it's amazing how quiet and ostensibly remote the creek can be.
Here's the part we liked best about our visit here. The entire shoreline of the southern Bay, from Little Creek to Willoughby Bay, is public beach—about six miles of it. And East Beach, the new community beside the creek, has taken pains to permit public access, with each of its streets ending at Bay-front parks. We walked to the beach and plunged in for a cool, invigorating swim.
The entire Ocean View strip had once been a major tourist destination, with a wonderful old amusement park and grand hotels. But after the 1940s it began a long slide downhill, until it became a haven for drugs, prostitutes and criminals. This was especially true for the easternmost edge, a festering slum that is now inhabited by the 100-acre planned community of East Beach.
"You couldn't get a taxi to drive in here or have a pizza delivered," said Dewey "Rock" Bell, general manager of East Beach Company, when we stopped by to talk to him about the area's transformation. It had such a bad reputation, Bell continued, that if the Shore Patrol found sailors in Ocean View, they would immediately escort them out of the area. Di Ricks, the founder of the Little Creek Regatta, who lives nearby, told me later, "You'd hear 'Boom! Boom! Boom!' at night, and it wasn't fireworks!"
Late in the 1980s, Norfolk asked the Urban Land Institute to study the area to see what could be done. The verdict was, essentially, "It's so bad, you can't fix it." The city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority responded by buying all the properties, leveling just about everything, and, with development partner East Beach Company, planned the new community. The first of an eventual 700 homes sold in 2003, and new homes continued to sell as they came onto the market, even during the tough summer of 2008. Clearly, something different was happening here.
Barb and I decided we could see why East Beach is such a success. As you enter the community from Pretty Lake or Pleasant Avenue—even the names hint at what you'll see—right away, you get it. Houses with a kind of lazy traditional Tidewater feel fall back from wide public green space, with generous upper and lower decks. With ceiling fans, of course. The most striking thing, though, is that there are mature live oaks and pinesin front. What the developers did was rearrange the street grid so that old trees that once stood in the back of houses were now in the front. All the green space is public, a kind of linear park that seems to invite neighborliness.
"When you go outside, you suddenly have half a dozen people on your porch drinking wine," Henry Heck told me as we stopped by his house ("turn-of-the-century coastal") during a stroll through the neighborhood. He and his wife Mercedes Casanova (they call their house "Casa Heck") recently moved to East Beach from North Carolina. "It's the friendliest place we've ever been to," she said.
As if to illustrate the point, a neighbor dropped by at that moment to give them an oil painting of a crab she had done for them. "This is East Beach," Casanova said, shaking her head.
One of the most intriguing things about East Beach is that, although the houses are brand new, they appear to have grown up over decades. Of the 200 or so single-family houses built so far, no two are identical. True, there are only four basic designs, but the buyers chose all of the architectural details: windows, doors, columns, shutters, porches, railings, soffits—just about everything. So, even though it's a new community, it looks as though it evolved over time.
The other major innovation was designing the streets so that each with a south-north orientation ends at the Bay. There's a deliberate "view corridor" that gives homeowners who don't have Bay-front houses a glimpse of the water. The streets all end in small parks, in one case a formal croquet court, just shy of the dunes. This orientation toward the Bay seems to welcome everyone, residents and nonresidents alike.
Currently, there's a fairly wide mix of housing in the upper price ranges, but next year construction begins on a new section, which will include moderate-income housing. Rock Bell, the developer, told me he hopes that city employees and shopkeepers will be able to live there. These more densely zoned houses, condos and apartments will cluster around a village center, with what the planners say will be a major supermarket and lots of smaller shops. It's safe to say that a lot of shopping will be done on foot—or in one of the golf carts we kept seeing zipping around the place.
The East Beach phenomenon is driving changes to Little Creek as well, as we discovered when we returned the following Saturday to attend a birthday party. Cobb's Marina, the second-oldest one on the creek, was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and, being the friendly, helpful place it's always been, hundreds of people were there to help. We drank wine and beer, chowed down, chatted with sailing friends, danced along with a pretty decent country-western band, and howled at a dinghy race in which all three boats, propelled by flip-flops, hockey sticks and such, bumped into each other and swamped.
Walking happily amidst the crowd was John Cobb, who, with his two sisters, owns and runs the marina and boatyard. He was holding the hand of his grandson Noah, who would be, he said beaming, one of the future owners. The Cobbs have taken the family legacy for granted ever since their grandfather, Warren Cobb, bought a former fish camp on the south side of the creek and, in 1958, along with his son, Warren Jr., started the marina. A newspaper clipping, displayed on a bulletin board, reported that the senior Cobb had built some of the first piers for the Amphibious Base.
Cobb's Marina, along with its across-the-creek neighbor, Cutty Sark, have the two remaining boatyards on the creek, and share the reputation of being among the best in the region.
Peggy, the oldest of the Cobb siblings, runs the boatyard; John, the second oldest, is in charge of repair and maintenance; Nancy, the youngest, is general manager. The marina has been in their lives from the beginning. "I can remember climbing up the hillside when I was six years old and looking at the swirling, muddy water as they were dredging the creek," Peggy told me. Originally, the business included a fish market, a fuel pump and a bait and tackle shop. "I grew up pumping gas and dipping minnows."
John's early memories are of the marina, too. "I worked side by side with my dad all my young life, and it was something I always valued highly," he said. "It's in my blood; I've never considered anything else."
Now several of this generation's children are directly involved, and will surely take over the business. The lifelong tradition extends to Cobb's employees, as well, including one who has been with them for 30 years.
Meanwhile, out in the yard, the work continued as usual. Ed Welliver, who teaches photography at a local high school, scratched at blisters on the bottom of his 50-foot ketch. "Cobb's is the best yard I've ever hauled out in," he said, taking a break. "The people here are really, really friendly, always accessible. Anything you need them to do, they're here to do it." Welliver, with ponytail, earring and Jesus tattoo on his shoulder, is about as salty as anyone you'll find in a boatyard. Sailing's been a passion since, at age 16, he chatted with cruisers at the Great Bridge locks and decided that was the life for him. "I fell in love with being a snowbird," he said. Three more years of teaching before retirement and he and his wife will sell their house and join the migration. "This is a dream come true."
But times are a-changin' in Little Creek. Three of its marinas, Bay Point, Little Creek and Taylor's Landing, have been acquired by the Vinings Marine Group, a fast-growing investment company. (John Cobb said the family has turned down frequent offers to sell.) Here's the temptation: The recently booming local housing market has sent waterfront land values sky high. The newest of the marinas, East Beach Marina—next to, but not part of, the new community across the street—has closed its boatyard and begun advertising luxury condos on the site. Bay Point Marina already shares its real estate with houses that are nestled against the creek.
Boaters are particularly drawn to the East Beach community because of its juxtaposition to Little Creek, which lies at the southern end of its streets. Residents like Heck and Casanova are literally steps away from deep water. When I met them, they had just returned from a 17-day cruise on the Chesapeake, with stops at Fishing Bay, Solomons, Annapolis, Baltimore, the Wye River, Crisfield and half a dozen other places. Along the way, they joined up and rafted up with friends from Fleet 30, a Hampton Roads sailing club. Their fondest memory of the trip was singing the Star Spangled Banner as they passed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge. They couldn't be happier with their life in the reincarnated Ocean View area. "It's just beyond what one could have wanted or wished for," Casanova said.
CRUISER'S DIGEST: LITTLE CREEK
The approach to Little Creek, just west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, couldn't be simpler. Two rock jetties, the eastern one jutting out slightly farther form the entrance. Just inside, there's a control tower for the amphibious base. The channel is deep and wide, with at least 20 feet of clearance. One note on the NOAA navigation chart urges extreme caution when entering because of frequent unannounced Navy dive operations. Navy vessels generally hug the eastern side of the entrance, pleasure boats the western.
As you turn to starboard, you enter Fisherman's Cove where there are seven marinas, including two large dry storage facilities. They are, on the right, in order of appearance, Bay Point (1) (757-362-8432;www.littlecreekmarina.com), Little Creek (2) (757-362-3600;www.littlecreekmarina.com), Cutty Sark (3) (757-362-2942), East Beach (4) (757-362-5000;www.eastbeachmarina.com) and Pelican's Nest (5) (757-362-2541;www.pelicansnest.net). Immediately on the left is a continuation of Amphibious Base operations, followed by Cobb's (6) (757-588-5401) and Taylor's Landing (7) (757-587-8000;www.taylorslanding.com). Little Creek and Taylor's Landing have fuel.
Four of the marinas have restaurants, Paradocks Grill at Bay Point; Cutty Sark at Cutty Sark; Blue Crab at East Beach; and Surf Rider at Taylor's Landing. I also dined at Captain Groovy's, a popular place on Shore Drive named for a tugboat captain, the late father of one of the owners. The fried oysters were worth another visit.