Reasons to Be Excited for the Bright Future of the NEON District

Three Reasons to Be Excited for the Bright Future of the NEON District

This October brings with it the seventh NEON Festival, marking seven years of murals, performances, new local businesses, and creative people being creative in the neighborhood that will go down as the first arts district in Hampton Roads. 

More than half a decade is nothing in the story of a neighborhood with a future as bright as the NEON. Here are five reasons why the best might well be yet to come. 

The NEON Will Have Its Own Version of a Park 

Those familiar with the NEON District know the lot: at the corner of Olney and Wilson sits a lot that is largely vacant except for a lovely bench swing commissioned by Norfolk’s Public Art Commission. Known colloquially as the Cofer Lot, it won’t sit undeveloped for long. 

“The Cofer lot is zoned as an Open Space and Preservation District,” noted Norfolk City Councilperson Courtney Doyle, who represents the NEON. “I hope we continue to use this open space to host all sorts of public gatherings such as community events and festivals.”

The Open Space distinction is important. It essentially means that this lot will be some kind of park; the content of which is still TBD. But it’s fun to dream.

Will it include a sculpture garden? A climbing wall? A basketball court? A bandshell? Skate-able elements? Whatever it becomes, it will be more fun than a largely-empty lot, and that’s exciting. 

Expansion of the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio 

The Chrysler Museum’s Glass Studio is already a jewel of the NEON. It’s a place where the entire community can learn the art of glass blowing, and experience some of the most innovative performance art on the East Coast. If all goes according to plan, the Glass Studio will hit the next level in the coming years. 

Work Program Architects, who designed the 18,000 square foot expansion, describes it as adding, “a theater-style performance hot shop, retail, gallery, classrooms, research lab, catering kitchen, and event space,” they said. “It will be a bold extension of the Museum and its educational programs.”

With a ceremonial groundbreaking in May 2022, these visions for expansion are certainly well on their way. The Glass Studio was already the hub of an international glass art conference and is now poised to become one of the leading glass institutions in the world.

“We’re exploring the feasibility of making some very positive improvements to the space that will help us bring even more amazing glass experiences to Norfolk,” said Robin Rogers, Glass Studio Manager and Program Director. “When we have completed that process, we’ll be able to assess our next steps to bring those goals to reality.”

There Are Numerous Undeveloped and Transitioning Lots (+ Walls!) in the Neighborhood 

The former Greyhound Bus Station occupies one of the biggest footprints in all of downtown Norfolk. Experts predict that the new owners of the property, who are not yet determined,are likely to build a mixed use, mixed income development that features even more residential units, businesses, and parking options coming to the neighborhood. 

The possibilities are limitless for what could occur on that prime property that sits on the border between the NEON and the rest of downtown. “I’d like to see (what goes there) accommodate creative industry and arts,” said the Downtown Norfolk Council’s Mary Miller, who noted the specific need for artist-friendly living and work spaces in the NEON.

There are a host of other properties in the NEON that are either vacant lots, for sale, or primed to be redeveloped for modern uses that fit with the character of the arts district. 

“We hope to have neighbors who support and complement the NEON’s mission and foster a creative community,” said Erik Neil, Chrysler Museum of Art’s Director and CEO. “I’d love to see more dining options, because restaurants can entice people into the neighborhood to make a day of it and explore.” 

Norfolk City Councilperson Andria McClellan, who also represents the neighborhood, is hoping for functionality and fun to fill some of the spots. “I often hear about the need for an art supply store, which would seem to be apropos for an arts district,” she said. “Also, noting that retail is pretty challenging, a business that provides an ‘experience’ of some sort (with an arts bent) would seem to be a good draw.”

Along with new businesses and developments, expect a steady stream of new murals, street art, and sculptures. Each year before the annual NEON Festival, there’s a flurry of art-making and mural-painting. The rush to create before a public deadline is always a motivating factor.

As our community grows, so do all of us, and vice versa. It’s a virtuous cycle of creativity, positivity, and togetherness, alive and well in the NEON.  “Norfolk is a creative city open to new ideas,” said the DNC’s Miller. “We need to continue to go down that path.”