NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Demolition crews are halfway through tearing down the first set of public housing buildings at Norfolk’s Tidewater Gardens.

The four buildings that stood on the north side of Charlotte Street closest to where it intersects with Fenchurch Street will be reduced to rubble by the end of the week, according to city officials.

It’s the first major change to the landscape of the aging public housing complex in nearly 70 years and it’s only just the beginning.

Work has been underway since January 2018 when Norfolk City Council voted to have the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) move ahead with plans to eventually level the Tidewater Gardens, Young Terrace and Calvert Square downtown public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income communities.

The goal is to increase the quality of life for the 1,700 families that currently call the aging St. Paul’s community home and leave behind the neighborhoods’ poverty-stricken past.

Fewer and fewer standing units in Tidewater Gardens — the oldest of the communities — are now occupied, as the excavators’ crunch can be heard loud and clear. Several weeks ago, NRHA said more than 50% of residents have left.

“It’s pretty shocking. It’s been here so long,” said Sandra Fuller who has a front-row seat to the excavators’ work.

Fuller’s daughter lives in Tidewater Gardens, but her unit isn’t scheduled to be demolished until phase two.

“It’s hard for her to find a place ’cause she has four children, but she’s working on it,” Fuller said. “The city is working with her.”

In a virtual roundtable discussion on Tuesday about the Tidewater Gardens/St. Pauls District redevelopment project the project team — which includes staff from the city, NRHA, as well as outside contractors and developers — touted the work of “People First.”

People First is the city’s $3.5-million-a-year program that aims to not only help residents through the transition to new housing, but give them tools to live more prosperous lives.

Urban Strategies, Inc. — a nonprofit organization — reports that since they started working with Tidewater Gardens residents, they have been able to help bring the employment rate of residents in the community from 47% in 2019 to 73% currently.

When it comes to relocation of the 349 families that have already left, 32% moved to neighborhoods where less than 40% of residents fall below the poverty line and less than 62% are considered minorities.

“280 have moved within the City of Norfolk,” Donna Mills, NRHA’s chief housing officer, said. “So about 80% of those are still in the City of Norfolk.”

That was a main concern of those opposed to the project.

“I think this team approaches that work every day that our job is to earn the business of our residents,” said Susan Perry, director of the City Manager’s Office of St. Paul’s Transformation. “Their desire to want to come back and having about a 55% return rate, which is generally higher than many other redevelopment [projects] around the country, is a good sign of that.”

Demolition of the Tidewater Gardens public housing complex began in December is expected to continue for the rest of the year with a total of 16 buildings coming down by fall.

Construction on replacement units is expected to start in the coming months around the Norfolk Transportation center.

The whole project is supported by a $30-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development