VIRGINIA BEACH -- It's been nearly 25 years since Virginia Beach began its metamorphosis from a beach resort and farming area into a fast-growing residential and commercial community covering more than 250 square miles.
But what is missing in Virginia's most populous city is a traditional downtown, a centralized core for financial, business, and cultural activities.
Now, business leaders and real-estate developers have joined forces to provide the city with a central business district, complete with a skyline and the other aesthetic and cultural amenities found in many downtown business districts.
Established in February 1987, the private, nonprofit Central Business District Association of Virginia Beach plans to hire a consultant to create a master plan for the area's development.
About 120 acres of land are available for development in the 500-acre area zoned central business district, at the intersection of two heavily traveled thoroughfares, Virginia Beach and Independence boulevards, said Charles Hartig, CBDA's executive director.
"Unlike a downtown Norfolk or a downtown Richmond, for example, we have a unique opportunity here," said Hartig. "We don't have to use a wrecking ball here. We have an opportunity here to literally create from scratch our own city center, complete with the different amenities that make a city center dynamic and viable."
The reason Virginia Beach doesn't have a traditional downtown can be traced to its origins. The city was formed in 1963 when the old town of Virginia Beach and Princess Anne County merged, creating a city of 259 square miles and 111,000 people.
At the time, the city was largely dependent on resort business and agriculture. Its government-courthouse center remains in the agricultural southern end of the city, far removed from the fast-growing commercial and business areas.
Following the merger, residential and commercial growth mushroomed. By October 1986, Virginia Beach's population reached 365,000, and the city was rated the second fastest-growing city in the country.
CBDA Chairman Gerald Divaris strongly believes the city has reached a maturity that simply demands construction of a high-rise downtown.
"If you will look at most cities, the downtown business center provides the heart throb for the city, a source of inspiration for the city," said Divaris, president of Divaris Real Estate Inc. "We don't have that single identification point where people can say, 'Let's go to town'. ... We'd like to have a place that is our city center."
The latest project planned for the district is a 14-story, $25 million high-rise, Two Columbus Center, developed by Columbus Center Associates. The city's largest office building will anchor the growing district, providing both office and retail space.
Ground-breaking is scheduled for late 1987, and construction is expected to take about 15 months.
The CBDA and the city say that problems with traffic congestion in the area must be resolved before the central business district can be successful. Some projects already are under way.
About $120 million in road improvements are earmarked for the main arteries leading in and out of the district, and about $65 million is slated for arterial road system in the CBD area over the next five years, the CBDA said.
There also have been discussions about highway overpasses, light rail service between Virginia Beach Norfolk, and pedestrian walk-overs, officials said.
"From my viewpoint, once the areas of traffic congestion are resolved and some of the other infrastructures are in place, then I think it's a good start toward having the CBD a viable situation," said James De Bellis, city Economic Development Director.
"I feel there is a need for high-rise office space," De Bellis said. "I think the Columbus Center is the area that's going to produce the high-rise buildings."
While there has been talk about the city possibly establishing satellite governmental offices in the district, no definite plans have been worked out, city officials sai