NORFOLK, Va. — After years of sitting idle on the edge of downtown Norfolk, the USS Wisconsin will finally have a new mission: house the city’s hippest young professionals.
Sonny Robins, a local real estate developer known for specializing in apartment projects, has struck a deal with the city of Norfolk and the U.S. Navy to turn the aging World War II battleship into 150 luxury apartments.
As space for new construction dwindles within the confines of downtown Norfolk, Robins said the Wisconsin was an obvious next choice for his company, Hercules Development. “It’s sitting there waiting, low tide, high tide, practically asking to be made into apartments,” Robins stated of the Iowa-class warship.
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For Robins and many of the region’s other major developers, costs remain prohibitive to build or renovate in other parts of the city. According to Robins adjacent neighborhoods, the entire city of Portsmouth, as well as most of Hampton and Newport News, basically anything that isn’t a World War II era battleship, were all non-starters for any type of redevelopment whatsoever.
“Thankfully, we struck a great deal with the city council,” Robins added. “We made them an initial proposal of a pair of ODU season tickets, and they said ‘sure.’”
Commissioned to fight in World War II, the Wisconsin patrolled the world’s oceans from 1948-1988, participating in numerous international conflicts including the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm, before being decommissioned to its retirement in the Virginian coastal city in 1991.
From the top of the command center, which will be converted into a kombucha bar offering sweeping views of downtown, Robins revealed his intentions for the unprecedented project to the local press: “This is not the houseboat your uncle lives in at the marina. Think Titanic, but only the high class floors and without the sinking part.”
A $300 million renovation will render much of the ship, inside and out, unrecognizable to its World War II and baby boomer sailors. Preliminary plans call for a cat cafe below deck and a social area in the former mess hall that will occasionally host local bands. In addition, city council has approved grants that will fund constructing a floating parking deck next to the ship.
In a rebranding effort, the complex will be named Whiskey 757.
However, as a nod to the ship’s rich history, some things will remain unchanged. “This is Norfolk, we’re going to keep some of the rust, some of the grit,” Robins stated. “The guns are staying right where they are. You’ll be able to live in an original private’s room, as it was, but with Wi-Fi of course.”
A metal bunk in a seven-by-seven foot cabin will run $5,500 per month.
Robins hopes that the water surrounding the ship will deter crime. Reinforced steel walls as well as now ceremonial anti-aircraft guns and cannons should make potential renters feel safe, secure, and at home.
The Navy agrees that the ship will better serve the nation as expensive housing affordable to only a tiny portion of the population than as an educational resource open to the public. “Additional ship-to-apartment conversions may be in order,” said Secretary of the Navy James Woodard, who sees these trendy rentals as a potentially game changing source of revenue. “We honestly almost forgot it was still there,” said Woodard of the 887-foot-long ship, “and were unclear about what went on aboard. Tours for kids or something.”
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