With apartments gone, historians wonder what is below Harbor Square

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 Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Hank Lutton, who's supervised two digs along Queen Street and Settlers Land Road over the past decade.

"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 Hampton Roads Transit bus station, scientists from the College of William and Mary's Center for Archaeological Research unearthed the sprawling footprint of a landmark mid-1600s urban trading plantation in 1996.

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.

Courthouse plans

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."