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Norfolk officials broke ground on the next phase of the St. Paul’s Redevelopment project Wednesday, as two nearby apartment buildings prepare to welcome the first Tidewater Gardens residents back to the redeveloping neighborhood.

The 140-unit mixed use building at the center of Wednesday’s ceremony will be known as Unity Place. It will include ground-floor retail and a public plaza.

The building will be located between Church Street and St. Paul’s Boulevard, in an area formerly occupied by a McDonald’s restaurant.

“What this is designed to do is to bring together families of every color, every race, every opportunity, every income level to work together and enjoy the beauty of a new community,” said Don Mussaccio, the board chairman of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The city started the long road to redevelopment in January 2017, voting to tear down the hundreds of 60-year-old public housing apartments in Tidewater Gardens and start over.

In the years since, tens of millions of federal dollars have flowed into a project that is expected to take a decade and cost more than $1 billion.

The first phase of the redevelopment is nearing completion across the street from where officials ceremonially turned the dirt for Unity Place.

Origin Circle will include 120 apartments and neighboring Reunion will have 78 apartments just for seniors. The city started on those in 2022 since it didn’t have to wait to demolish anything. They’re both set to be finished and filled by the end of the year.

Unity Place marks the next leg of the redevelopment, which will include building in the footprint of the old public housing community.

All three of those complexes will be mixed-income, meaning people paying market rates will live side-by-side with those getting government assistance.

That’s meant to help address the concentration of poverty, one of the big issues Norfolk cited as a reason to tear down the languishing public housing.

Many of those moving back in are expected to be former Tidewater Gardens residents. They guaranteed their right to return as a result of a lawsuit settled with the city and housing authority in 2021.

Officials had said residents would be able to return but didn’t commit that promise to paper until months after a lawsuit was filed arguing the redevelopment plan violated federal fair housing laws.

A Virginian-Pilot investigation found that the bulk of those moving out of the St. Paul’s area ended up in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods, following patterns of racial segregation officially dismantled decades ago that still shape Norfolk today.

JP Paige was elected to Norfolk’s city council last year and is one of the co-chairs of the city’s St. Paul’s Advisory Committee.

He said Wednesday he’s confident in how the redevelopment is progressing and lauds the city’s focus on the public housing residents who were displaced.

“I see the city in terms of people. Buildings are necessary because we have to have somewhere to go,” Paige said.

Several more apartment buildings, commercial spaces and a park that doubles as flood mitigation infrastructure are all planned for the now-open land just east of downtown.