NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — In the 1960s, Bishop D. Lawrence Williams of the Church of God in Christ had a dream. In the town that staged Massive Resistance, rather than integrate schools and the birthplace of the racist poll tax, Williams dreamed of a high-rise apartment building to house the City of Norfolk’s elderly residents who were in financial need.
It was a bold plan that was met with pushback, but his dream came true when the 150-unit, 11-story, COGIC High-Rise building opened in March of 1974, not far from the historically Black Norfolk State College, now Norfolk State University, and the historically-Black Booker T. Washington High School.
Pastor Toney McNair, now vice president of the COGIC High-Rise Board, has a gleam in his eyes when he flashes back to that day when the first proud residents entered their deluxe apartments in the sky.
“That was a most exciting time after knowing what Bishop D. Lawrance Williams had to do to get to that point. We were surprised but blessed to see that day,” said McNair.
Lemuel Williams was also on the front lawn on that historic day and he has been there ever since as the building’s sole manager for 47 years.
“This is the first senior citizen high-rise in the whole state of Virginia and we were operated by African Americans,” said Williams with pride.
Over the years, portions of the 150-unit building have been upgraded to include a modern hair salon, a computer center, and professional offices. In two weeks, crews will begin an $11.7-million top-to-bottom renovation. It will include a new roof, new windows, a new facade, plumbing, new heating and air conditioning systems, and new kitchens.
The city and state are pitching in for the funding.
“We had to use tax credits from the state of Virginia. They allotted tax credits for low-income housing so then the housing authority issued us bonds for financing,” said Williams.
Because of the pandemic, extra precautions will be taken to protect residents once construction crews arrive. Anyone entering the building must stop at a temperature-check station for screening and construction workers must use designated entrances and exits.
“Temperatures will be checked, one designated elevator will be used … We have an exit in the back, so we have that all in place. Every morning, temperatures will be checked, just as we do now,” said Williams.
Starting at the top, the building will be renovated two floors at a time with residents moved temporarily to hotel-style apartments while improvements are made to their units.
Currently, the building has an 18- to 24-month waitlist for new tenants. Veteran manager Williams says the demand only underscores the need for Norfolk officials to pave the way for the construction of more affordable rental units for senior citizens.
The renovation is expected to be completed by New Year’s Eve 2021.