HAMPTON — The derelict buildings, playing children and crime associated with the property's seedy visitors are long gone from the former Harbor Square site downtown.
But as the city plans to redevelop the 17.7-acre tract — and contractors spread topsoil and grass seed across the property as an interim measure — several archaeologists who've explored the nation's oldest continuous English-speaking town are wondering what secrets may be hidden beneath the surface.
"I think there's fair potential of finding something from the 17th century. I think there's a high likelihood of finding some trace of the Grand Contraband Camp," says
"Any property on King Street has to be considered a high probability area — since we know it's been occupied since at least 1691. And given the high percentage of the black population in Hampton — and the roots of so many people there in the Civil War — the area where the contraband camp extended has a lot of local importance."
The city, though, has kept its focus strictly above ground as it plans to build a courthouse, Franklin Street extension and likely more.
"To the best of my knowledge, no one has approached us about the possibility of archaeological work on that site or suggested that it could have Contraband artifacts," City Manager Mary Bunting wrote in a response to questions.
Archaeologists point to the history unearthed nearby to prove their point.
Just across Pembroke Avenue under what is now the
Thousands of runaway slaves erected a city of tents and cabins along the tract's Lincoln Street boundary during the Civil War, creating a pioneering community of schools and churches that later historians have celebrated as "Freedom's First Generation."
But instead of considering whether such potentially important sites should be studied and perhaps explored, the city's Redevelopment and Housing Authority is covering the site with topsoil to conceal the concrete slabs left from the apartment buildings.
The city purchased the 368-unit apartment complex between West Pembroke Avenue and Lincoln Street in late 2011 from Olde Towne Associates LLC. In 2011, city inspectors reportedly found mold, flaking asbestos, lead paint and structural problems in Harbor Square.
The tenants were relocated and the authority paid Nansemond River Contracting $1.4 million to demolish the buildings.
The city plans to build a Circuit Court building near North King Street, to replace the aging court house just a block away. That project is expected to cover about a third of the property leaving close to 10 acres available for whatever the city chooses.
Bunting said the city is finalizing the design and construction documents for the courthouse and will solicit bids for the project this summer.
The city set aside close to $1 million last year to redesign the new Circuit Court building. A set of initial plans were created with the building on a plot closer to City Hall. That will bring the total cost for design and construction documents to more than $3 million.
This is the first time the property has laid bare since the 1960s, when the apartments were built.
Plans for Harbor Square
Authority Director Ronald Jackson said no firm plans have been made for the site, beyond the court house.
"It's all up in the air right now," Jackson said. "There are some mixed-use possibilities but we want to engage the public to determine what might happen there."
Hampton First, a community group directed by
Harvey has said the group will unveil specific plans for downtown this summer.
Jackson said he has received calls from potential developers, although he has told those suitors that the city is still vetting its possibilities.
The contractor has spread about 2,600 square feet of topsoil on the property to level the property and to cover the concrete slabs left on the property, Jackson said.
Cost of digging considered
The historical potential of whatever artifacts may survive beneath the surface has started to pique conversations among numerous historians and archaeologists, too.
And though considerable knowledge of the 18th century town has emerged from the digs, its pioneering 17thcentury roots as a hub of early Virginia trade and its nationally important Civil War contraband settlement, in particular, remain missing pieces of a 400-year-long puzzle.
"In terms of money, it might not be all that expensive compared to excavating the sites closer to the waterfront, where there was a lot of fill and development," said
"Those were complex sites, and this one could be comparatively simple. What we're talking about here could be as easy as just scraping away the surface."
On Friday, a waist-high fence separated a contractor spreading topsoil from the nearby sidewalk. That barrier will be removed once seed is spread and grass begins to grow.
Jackson said the authority isn't openly welcoming the public onto the property once the initial site work is complete, although the city has little recourse to keep people out.
Even with the courthouse construction area behind a barrier, that leaves more than 10 acres of grass and shade trees in downtown.
ABOUT HARBOR SQUARE
A 17.7-acre property between Armistead Avenue and King Street that was the site of a 368-unit complex of garden-style apartments until last year.
The apartments housed many residents who received