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No new posts are being added to this blog. For planning news and updates, check out The BIG Picture Huntsville (also on Facebook). For transportation info, check out the Huntsville Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Look Back: 2009 (and the rest of the decade)

What a difference a decade makes. Here's some major trends that happened in Huntsville this decade:
  • A Resurgence of Downtown- At the beginning of the decade, "Electric Avenue" was being discussed. For newer Huntsvillians and those who need a refresher, Electric Avenue was a plan by Jim Hudson and his newly-formed CityScapes development company to convert the parking garage facing Big Spring Park into an entertainment district and an adjoining 14-story condo tower. The concept died because of the post-9/11 recession, but it would lead to a wave of development downtown, including the controversial Big Spring Summit office tower, which now sits where it would have been built. CityScapes went on to develop the Washington Square group of restaurants and renovate the 8-story Terry Hutchens building on Clinton into condos. Other projects built downtown this decade included the Embassy Suites hotel, its adjoining "riverwalk", and the 301 East condo mid-rise.
  • A Resurgence in Urban Neighborhoods- Lowe Mill got FlyMo and lost the homeless shelter, while Lincoln Village came out of obscurity thanks to church and volunteer groups fixing up houses in the neighborhood.
  • A Shift in Retail- In 2000, Jones Valley was still mostly a farm, and on University west of Enterprise there were a couple of auto dealerships and little else. Parkway Place was under construction, as Parkway City, its predecessor, was counting down its last days. Bridge Street was just a dream on the Research Park master plan. And Madison Square was still the "good" mall.
And now, for 2009....

At the beginning of the year, I made a list of predictions. Reflecting over this list a year later, I feel it gives a good recap of this year in development:

The "Water" mega-developments, Sweetwater and WaterStone- both of these projects are unrealistically large as proposed, especially in this economy. Expect them to be downsized.

Downsized!? Even better... little has progressed with either project. Car-dependent mega developments haven't fared well in this recession. These projects will have to be retooled if they want to be successful.

Madison developments- Colonial Promenade (the Wal-Mart on 72 West) will definitely break ground early this year; Academy Sports could be announced as its secondary anchor. Madison Lakes and The Peaks are more iffy on their timelines, with both scheduled for "mid-2009."

Failed on this one. Colonial Promenade hasn't broken ground yet; neither has The Peaks or Madison Lakes (the latter has moved to next year). No idea on where Academy Sports is; they should have at least two stores in Huntsville by now (a Decatur location opened this year).

More on 72 West- Watercress will probably break ground on its apartment portion early this year, with the retail portion (a Kroger or other grocery-anchored shopping center) coming later. And will Providence residents get their urban-ish grocery store at long last-- will it be Whole Foods, EarthFare, or something different? And, more importantly, where's Mellow Mushroom!?

Watercress did break ground on a 364-unit apartment complex in the spring, and Kroger was confirmed  earlier this month as the anchor of the retail portion. Providence got both a Mellow Mushroom and an urban market (KaLou's) this year. Earth Fare is locating on 72 West, but at the old Circuit City across from Madison Square.

Research Park- More office developments, go figure. Phase II of Bridge Street, with a Sports Authority as an anchor, will at least partially open. Just to the south next to Redstone Arsenal, a hotel/office/retail project by mall developer Jim Wilson and Associates has a good chance of getting off the ground this year.

Bridge Street's Phase II opened in the summer. Redstone Technology Park (the Jim Wilson and Associates project) is on hold for at least three years

Downtown/Center City-The height limits that have choked projects in the CBD will be eased/lifted, opening the door for several developments to get off the ground. If that happens, the plans for Constellation and Councill Court will become clearer, and some high-rises will be announced. A major VBC expansion/renovation project will begin in the spring. Also, expect more gentrification projects in the Lincoln, Merrimack, Lowe, and Five Points neighborhoods.

The height limit restrictions were lifted by the Planning Commission in May over most of the CBD, replaced by "buffer zones" around the historic districts. Constellation has moved forward, albeit slowly. The Councill Court revitalization has become part of a bigger, more controversial story-- the removal of most public housing from the central city, opening up land for infill development. The Lincoln Mill project was brought back from the dead.

East Huntsville- What happened to Harris Hill- is it dead? No. It's not. A major tenant announcement could come early in the year just to keep nosy people like myself occupied, with construction starting in the fall at the earliest. And a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at Shields and 72 will be "officially" announced.

Not much has progressed on Harris Hill in the past year. The proposed Walmart is now dead.

Metro-wide: A resurgence of Kroger. Dunkin Donuts returns to Huntsville after a decade-long absence. At least six new hotels.

As I mentioned earlier, Kroger is planning its first new Huntsville store in at least 10 years. Still waiting on that Dunkin' Donuts, as no one has bought the franchise rights to the region. A handful of hotels opened this year, with another nearing completion.

Tomorrow: The second annual "Look Forward" for 2010!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The search for a walkable neighborhood

Many of you have probably discovered Walkscore, a website where you can put in any address in the country and it will tell you a score based on its walkability to businesses, parks, and schools, with 0 being the most car-dependent and 100 being a "walker's paradise." (And just because your favorite neighborhood has sidewalks doesn't mean it has a high score.) Huntsville doesn't fare well on this site, with a citywide average of 38; if Huntsville were one of the nation's 40 largest cities, we would be the 39th most walkable, behind Nashville and in front of bottom-ranked Jacksonville. Other cities in the area don't fare much better; Decatur is the best in the region with a 40 average, Athens and Madison came in at 37 and 28 respectively.

I decided out of curiosity to take the "walkscores" a step further. I divided Huntsville up into 14 sections/neighborhoods of various sizes and put them against 16 other communities in the region, everywhere from Mooresville (population 65) to Decatur (population 56,000). I selected up to twelve addresses in each neighborhood at random and took the average. The result: unscientific lists of the ten most and least walkable communities in the region.

 A signalized crosswalk at Big Spring Park, Downtown. This location has a walkscore of 82.

Most Walkable
  1. Downtown Huntsville-- No surprises here; most of the CBD and Historic District are very walkable. However, the most walkable address I found in the region was in #2. Most walkable: Lincoln Street. Least walkable: Searcy Homes, which still had a fairly high score of 69; coming redevelopment will probably raise this. Average score: 74.7
  2. Fayetteville-- a fine Courthouse Square and downtown make this Southern Tennessee city the place to beat. Most walkable: the large historic district, which is where I found the only "walker's paradise" (score of 95) in the region. Least walkable: its suburban fringes, which will only grow as Huntsville continues its march northward across the state line. Average score: 72.6
  3. North Downtown-- surprisingly, this largely industrial area (which includes up-and-coming Lincoln Mill) beat out established urban neighborhoods such as Five Points and Merrimack (#11). Most walkable: Lincoln Mill. Least walkable: the University/Parkway interchange, the convergence of Huntsville's two "Berlin Walls" (as said by a local bicyclist). Average score: 71
  4. West Downtown/Lowe Mill
  5. Terry Heights
  6. Athens
  7. Ardmore
  8. Arab
  9. Medical District/Blossomwood
  10. Five Points
Least Walkable

   10.  New Hope
     9.  Southeast Huntsville
     8.  Meridianville
     7.  Monrovia
     6.  Northeast Madison County
     5.  Harvest
     4.  Hazel Green
     3.  Mooresville-- this cool 6-block historic town would seem like the perfect walkable community. But being sandwiched between 565, the Tennessee River, and farmland, there really isn't much to walk to. Average score: 9
     2.  Zierdt Road/Triana-- this sprawlicious area eked out of the bottom spot because I decided to include the town of Triana in the average. Most walkable: Triana. Least walkable: Beadle Lane. Average score: 8.5

     1.  The Coves (Hampton, Big)-- Hampton Cove is the only place where I found a walkscore of 0-- actually, half of the addresses I used had the lowest score possible. Most walkable: the closest you live to 431 and Sutton, the better (but not by much). Least walkable: Everywhere else. Average score: 5.6

I know these rankings and "walkscores" are somewhat flawed. I noticed that especially when addresses closer to major commercial corridors such as the Parkway and University got better scores. But it goes to show that if these major roads were made more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, the surrounding neighborhoods would be much more walkable in reality.

You're also probably wondering how places like Ardmore and Athens got such high scores. These towns have compact, relatively lively downtowns that are surrounded by "pre-car" neighborhoods, where the streets are laid out in a grid. Businesses such as grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries, schools, etc. are much less spread out in these towns than they are in Huntsville, making them more accessible by foot and bike.

Just in case you're wondering, Providence got an average score of 35, putting it right in the middle of the rankings.

Walkscore: http://www.walkscore.com/

Friday, December 18, 2009

Chattanooga's Climate Action Plan: A Model for Huntsville?

It seems to me sometimes that Huntsville wants to become a "Chattanooga with jobs." They've figured out how to put life back into their downtown and surrounding urban neighborhoods, while Huntsville has... well, let's just say we've got a little ways to go. So I wasn't surprised when Huntsville's Green 13 team said they were looking up to our younger (but more mature) sibling city as a model for an upcoming plan to make Huntsville a more sustainable city.

Chattanooga's Green Committee released their Climate Action Plan about a year ago. While it's a little early to gauge how well the plan worked, we can use it to see what's in store for Huntsville.

The Chattanooga plan provides ideas and "potential actions" in subjects from alternative energy to smart growth to educating the public about the environment. For each idea, there is an estimate for its contribution to greenhouse gas reduction and its cost/savings. Ideas from other cities like Nashville (increasing density for LEED projects), Portland (curbside recycling), and Austin (stricter building codes) are showcased as well. There is an emphasis on improving Chattanooga's air quality (a big issue in a city that 40 years ago had the nation's worst air quality) and reducing its carbon footprint.

After the ideas section, results from the public input meetings are shown. Topics were ranked by popularity-- the top three were recycling, transportation, and green building. Many of the ideas are similar to the ones brought up at the Huntsville meeting-- some are common sense, some are a little weird, but I thought this was interesting: the top ideas revolved around initiating a weekly curbside recycling program, something Huntsville has done for years. In transportation, better accessibility for pedestrians/bikers and regional transit were hot topics. But there was one idea that would never be discussed in Alabama: a "20-year moratorium on all road expansion." This probably isn't a good idea, but I think the point is that we need to diversify our transportation network (short-sighted politicians: are you listening?).

Huntsville's own plan should be online sometime in January or February.

Chattanooga Climate Action Plan:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Green 13" Town Hall Forum

I attended the Green 13 town hall forum today. The G13, created by Mayor Tommy Battle earlier this year, has the goal of creating a plan to make Huntsville a sustainable city. The forum was set up to get ideas from the public on what should be in this plan, which is expected to be finalized in February. The plan will be modeled after (surprise!) Chattanooga's plan, which I will research and discuss soon. One of the concerns about the plan was the small coverage area, and there were calls for more input from neighboring counties and suburbs. "This needs to be a regional effort," said Don Nalley, president-elect of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and one of the chair advisers of the G13 team. 

Some great ideas were brought up in many subjects, such as agriculture (localized food production) and energy (solar roofs). I'll leave the discussion of those ideas to those who know more about them than I do. But here's a few ideas I know a little bit about that caught my attention:

Complete Streets/SmartCode-- this was brought up several times, mainly by members of Huntsville's biking community. For those who don't know what either of these mean, SmartCode is a planning code standard used and modified by many municipal and regional planning departments. It was introduced in 2003 by Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company (pioneers of the New Urbanist concept) to help communities develop plans for more pedestrian/bike-friendly, dense, and environmentally-friendly neighborhoods. In other words, more Providences than Lake Forests. Check out the list of cities that have adopted SmartCode in their plans-- note that many of them are coastal towns in Mississippi and Louisiana that were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Complete Streets is basically the transportation portion of SmartCode, designing roads to accommodate bikers, pedestrians, and transit riders along with cars.

Complete Streets

Creating Google Transit maps for the Shuttle-- Several attendees expressed concern about the lack of reliable information about our almost non-existent transit system. While I think we should start our transit "network" over on a clean slate with a solid regional plan, one idea was brought up to relay information to the public. If you look at just about any major city on Google Maps, you can find information on bus and rail systems in the area, including timetables, proximity to the closest stops, and even directions using transit. Why not Huntsville?

I found a website the other day, City-Go-Round, a search engine for transit apps, which provides transit information to sites like Walkscore and calls out transit organizations that don't release information to the public or websites such as theirs. Guess who's on that list?

Increasing density/brownfield development-- the density part was something Mayor Battle talked about. Huntsville, as you probably know, is not a very dense city, sprawling over 200 square miles. In order for future plans such as mass transit and walkable neighborhoods to be used at their full potential, the density issue must be addressed. One idea was to encourage "brownfield" projects, or developments that re-use abandoned industrial/commercial sites; one such example is Atlantic Station in Atlanta, which was built on the site of an old steel mill.

If you were unable to go to the meeting and would like to contact the G13 with your ideas, their email address is green@hsvcity.com.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Patriot Parkway": An Expensive Mistake

I know I've said this before, but it still amazes me that in this city, which was just ranked one of the smartest cities in the world, the majority of us think that the only solution to fix our transportation network is to "build more roads," without any regard to cheaper alternatives such as better land-use planning, congestion management, and the "T-word" (transit). Does this mean that I'm against building any more roads? No, but I am against unnecessary roads that will only augment our growing congestion and pollution problems, such as the much praised Southern Bypass, also known as the "Patriot Parkway."

The "Patriot Parkway" is the embodiment of the Founding Fathers' vision: an 8-lane masterpiece of concrete, asphalt, and steel, plowing through neighborhoods and swamps, that will more than likely be run by a foreign toll road company, such as Australia's Macquarie. And the estimated cost for this American dream? $550 million. That doesn't take into account inflation and increased construction costs that will occur in the 10+ years before the road is built, and the fact that the average 8-lane urban highway now costs anywhere between $40 and $150 million per mile (the $550M estimate assumes $42.3M/mile).

Increasing costs aside, here's what $550 million could do to fix our current road network:
1. Widen Winchester (to Tennessee);
2. Widen 53 (to Tennessee);
3. Widen Zierdt Road (to Triana); and
4. Finish the Parkway (from Tennessee River to Tennessee).

If the money were invested in transit, the same amount could build:
1. A commuter rail line from downtown to Decatur's Beltline (28 miles, a $235 million value)*
2. A 7-mile light rail line, or the distance from downtown to Mountain Gap Road (a $280M value)*
3. A regional bus system, including several express bus routes to connect the rail lines to the Arsenal/MSFC ($300K/diesel or CNG bus; $500K for hybrid).

Either through more roads or transit (or, even better, a mixture of both), these projects would effectively kill any need to build a bypass, and would keep civil engineers and planners busy for many years to come.

So Huntsville, do you want to spend your taxpayer money on a brand-spanking new highway that will only increase congestion and pollution in a city that is within a couple of months of reaching non-attainment? We've got to be smarter than this.

*Estimation made by taking the average of five recent commuter rail projects' costs per mile: New Mexico's RailRunner ($4.3M), Salt Lake City's FrontRunner ($8.37M), Nashville's Music City Star ($1.3M), San Diego's Coaster ($2.21M), and Seattle's Sounder ($26.1M). The LRT estimate is an estimate using two current LRT projects' costs per mile: Norfolk's TheTide ($42M) and Salt Lake City's UTA Mid-Jordan Line ($38M).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kroger coming to "Watercress Green"

Kroger is now confirmed as the anchor for the "grocery-anchored shopping center" portion of "Watercress Green." (Don't ask why they added "Green" to the name. Maybe they're trying to sound environmentally-friendly; maybe it's because its being built on an old golf course.) As many of you know, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based grocery chain was rumored to build a store on the site for a couple of years, and the speculation was put further after a blurry Kroger logo appeared on the city's development map. About 25,000 square feet of small-shop retail space will be built adjacent to the grocery store, according to site plans. Other lots have been allotted for future office and restaurant space, even a possible hotel. A 324-unit apartment complex is currently under construction behind the proposed shopping center.

This will be the eighth Kroger in the region, but their first new store in a decade. Kroger likes to build several stores at once in a region. Could this be a resurgence of the chain in the Huntsville area? Kroger has done well nationally during the recession, but in this area has lost market share to Publix and Walmart. We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Confirmed: Earth Fare to open Huntsville store

Seems like the rumors were right. Earth Fare, the North Carolina-based organic grocery chain I first told you about over a year ago, will be opening a Huntsville store in the former Circuit City shopping center across from Madison Square. An opening date will be announced later.

Earth Fare has 17 stores in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee, including a Chattanooga store that opens next Wednesday. The Huntsville store, along with a coming Auburn store, are the first entries into Alabama for the chain.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lincoln Mill: New Theater Coming

The Dye House Theater is expected to open next month as part of the Lincoln Mill renovation in Northeast Huntsville. The 246-seat multipurpose theater will actually be in the former dye house next to the main mill (hence the name; see image below). Along with the theater, the building will also include the Straight to Ale microbrewery (opening early next year), 15,000 square feet of event space, a restaurant (with a greenhouse to grow produce), and a museum highlighting the mill's rich history.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Updated Transportation Plan Coming

The Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), updated every five years, literally maps out the transportation needs of the Huntsville Urbanized Area (most of Madison and East Limestone Counties) for the next 25 years. A draft (.pdf file) can be found on the city's website. Hundreds of projects are listed, from pedestrian crossings to eight-lane freeways.

The 13-mile Southern Bypass is still in the plan, despite being rejected earlier this year by the Army because of post-9/11 security issues. The estimated cost of the highway is approximately $550 million, or about $42 million per mile. The irony of the bypass is that it is predicted to increase traffic congestion in many cases, as shown by these maps in the LRTP:

With Southern Bypass:
Without Southern Bypass:
These maps use the V/C (traffic Volume/road Capacity) Ratio to predict future congestion points.

Out of the 109 road projects explicitly listed in the LRTP, only a handful would be beneficial to the region as a whole; the other hundred or so could be avoided with cheaper options, mainly stricter land-use planning, but also expanded transit and ITS (explained below). Here's eight of the more beneficial projects:
  1. Winchester Road- widen to 4 lanes to the Tennessee state line. This would provide a safe main route for an area that doesn't currently have one. Estimated Cost: $33 million.
  2. 72 East- upgrade to expressway standards to Brock Road (Madison County High School). This would minimize the entrances to a highway where people already drive at freeway speeds, plus provide a complete east-west route through Huntsville. Estimated Cost: >$85 million.
  3. Memorial Parkway- an uninterrupted expressway from Hazel Green to the Tennessee River. This would provide a complete north-south route through the city. Estimated Cost: >$400 million.
  4. Improvements to either Wall-Triana Highway or Zierdt Road. This project would provide a main route for SW Madison County. If either of these roads were extended a little further to include a (tolled?) bridge over the Tennessee River, it could also be used as a cheaper alternative to Southern Bypass. Estimated Cost: ~$20 million for either, excluding bridge.
  5. Widen/extend I-565 between Wall-Triana and Decatur. Anyone who has driven this during rush hour knows why this needs to be done. Estimated Cost: $34 million to widen to 65.
  6. 72 West- restrict entrances, widen to 6 lanes to Athens. Estimated Cost: $30 million to Mooresville Road.
  7. AL 53- widen to 4 lanes to Ardmore. Provides a main route for NW Madison County and points north. Estimated Cost: $100 million
  8. AL 255- extend expressway to North Parkway, eventually to Winchester and 72, with interchanges at AL53, Pulaski, Mt. Lebanon, and the Parkway. This could eventually provide an alternate route to I-565/72 East in case of construction, weather, or traffic. Estimated Cost: $85 million for 4-lane service roads.
But enough about roads. Here's what the plan says about other forms of transportation:


The LRTP assumes that the Shuttle will remain a Huntsville-only entity, providing no regional bus service. It calls for new bus routes to the Airport, Arsenal/MSFC, and Blossomwood, along with extended service hours and shorter turnarounds (time between buses), plus more paratransit service for the aging population. And that's about it.

So according to this plan, in 2035, Huntsville's metro will be approaching a million people, but there'll only be 16 bus routes that might run on nights and weekends and not outside the city limits. Where is the imagination that thought of the 109 "necessary" road projects, where money was obviously not an obstacle in planning them? Surely we could do the same in transit planning.

There is a glimmer of hope for a more comprehensive transit plan, as the LRTP states that a "Huntsville Public Transportation Study" will be performed "sometime in the future." Problem is, there's no way of telling when this will happen (as this was also stated in the 2005 LRTP) or if it will be a regional effort.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS)

Say you're creeping along on 565 and you're thinking to yourself, "Wouldn't it be great to know why I'm going 25 on the Interstate?" Sure, you could unplug your iPod and turn on the radio, but who wants to believe a guy named "Captain" or "Commander" broadcasting from the "Hardee's Traffic Center" in Birmingham? In most cities, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) allow motorists to get more accurate traffic info from several sources.

What is ITS? It's a complex network of traffic cameras, dynamic message signs (DMS), speed meters, etc., that are connected to a central Traffic Management Center (TMC). From there, the people who monitor the system can notify emergency workers and drivers of accidents, construction, and weather hazards through DMS, websites, radio, and the "511" travel information hotline (available in many states, but not Alabama).

ITS networks have been constructed in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa. So, what about Huntsville? Back in 2005, the city of Huntsville sponsored a comprehensive study of possible ITS components and their usefulness. It called for the installation of up to 60 cameras, 11 DMS signs, and a traffic website-- all before 2008. Furthermore, it discussed launching a 511 system for the region before 2015, plus coordination/tracking systems for public transit and a way to remotely shut down the 565 "urban overpass" in case of emergency or weather. The cost for the entire plan was estimated to be between $40 and $65 million, or the cost of building about a mile of the Southern Bypass.

In 2006, Huntsville launched its new traffic website with a camera installed at the intersection of Governors and Monroe; others were installed at University and Jordan, and most recently at Moores Mill and 72. But it seems that for most of the time, the cameras are down for "maintenance." Plus, having only three cameras city-wide doesn't provide you (or other interested parties, such as emergency workers) with reliable traffic information.

The LRTP calls for the ITS plan to be fully implemented, pending funding of course.

Greenways/Pedestrian Access

Greenways are a bright spot in Huntsville's otherwise dismal and vacant selection of alternative transportation options. Huntsville currently has six greenways partially completed, with three more under construction: the Indian Creek Greenway on the west side near Providence, and two portions of what is to become the Flint River Greenway in Hampton Cove. Madison is about to begin construction on the Bradford Creek Greenway. "Share the Road" signs have been posted throughout the city in the past year as part of an ongoing campaign to educate the public about bike safety.

About 120 miles of bike routes, greenways, and trails are proposed in a 2006 plan. The LRTP supports this plan, along with an expansion of designated bike routes throughout the county and the inclusion of wide shoulders/bike lanes in new road construction. (Why can't we be this ambitious on transit planning?)

The LRTP also puts a great emphasis on pedestrian walkability. About 100 small projects, from building crosswalks to narrowing streets, are listed.

Passenger Rail

The LRTP summarizes the current nationwide High-Speed Rail Network promoted by the Obama administration earlier this year. No passenger rail has been proposed for Huntsville, and though service has been discussed in the past to Nashville and Birmingham, it has all been clearly theoretical. The closest seriously-proposed lines are a New Orleans-Birmingham-Atlanta line, discussed further in the LRTP, and a Maglev route between the Chattanooga and Atlanta airports.

In conclusion, this transportation plan continues to be politically-motivated, and will only create more unsustainable sprawl (what our political leaders call "growth"). That's why I think the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the government entity that approves the plan, should be separated from the city of Huntsville, with its own full-time planning staff dedicated to regional, comprehensive land-use and transportation planning.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Northeast: Wal-Mart a No, Harris Hill a Maybe?

A couple of updates on projects on the Northeast side:

The Northeast Huntsville Wal-Mart, which would have been built at the intersection of Shields and US 72, is no longer planned, and the land is back up for sale. To the delight of some, dismay to others, it could be years before Wal-Mart builds a store on the Northeast side.

Harris Hill, which continues to be the most-emailed-about project, still seems to be a go. Not much has happened since part of the land for the massive development was cleared about a year ago. The project appears to still include retail, office space, and a hotel. Construction could begin as early as next summer. Don't yell at me if it doesn't, though.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Madison wants a real downtown

If you've never been to the Madison Street Festival, chances are you've never been to downtown Madison, much less even knew there was one. Downtown Madison consists of a handful of single-story row of shops and restaurants along Main and Church Streets, plus a small historic district of homes bordered by Sullivan and Church Streets and Mill Road.

Now, some Madison residents are looking into plans to expand and enhance their downtown. The Times notes that the "new downtown" boundaries would include the area surrounded by Sullivan, Browns Ferry, Hughes, and Madison Blvd. This area includes Madison's City Hall, post office, stadium, and one school (Madison Elementary-- see map below for locations).

However, this new downtown zone also has many suburban features, including a Wal-Mart, an industrial park, and a strip of motels and fast-food joints along Madison Blvd next to the interstate. It will be interesting to see how Madison, a city that has had a laissez-faire attitude towards development and sprawl for many years (and paid the price with overcrowded schools and roads), does with this introductory experiment in urban development.

Current downtown
Proposed downtown expansion (click to expand)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Regions to donate historic bank

Big Spring Partners is doing something for a change. They will be the recipients of the historic Regions Bank branch on Courthouse Square overlooking Big Spring Park. The bank was built in 1835 and is Alabama's oldest continually-operating bank (see picture). Big Spring Partners will move their offices there from the Holiday Inn (another BSP acquisition), and the city plans to move the Community Development department from their current Holmes Avenue offices.

The bank branch will close on January 29th, and the building will be given to Big Spring Partners sometime in February.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ideas for Downtown

Big Spring Partners, the non-profit "downtown development" company that has done little of any significance in the six years since it was founded, has been discussing more ideas for improving downtown after taking a trip to Chattanooga over the summer. Some are old ideas, some are new. Here are a few of them, with some comments on whether or not they'll work:
  • Move Sci-Quest downtown. Yes. I discussed this (along with a new Museum District) in an April post.
  • A "world-class planetarium." Partial No. Instead of making it separate, put on top of the new Sci-Quest.
  • A new ballpark. Yes. Once again, already been discussed here.
  • A riverwalk park. Yes. It's long been a dream of Huntsville to replicate San Antonio's successful Riverwalk. What we've got is an overgrown creek with little around it, ripe for development if done right.
  • A downtown marketplace. Yes. I like Greg Hathorn's idea of making parts of Courthouse Square a pedestrian market.
  • A Country/Western music venue. No. Yeeeeee Haw! If you want to bring people under 50 with teeth downtown, keeping the honky-tonk out would be a good thing.
Here are some more ideas, probably more practical than the ones mentioned above:
  • More condos/apartments. Believe it or not, not all of us want to live in some cookie-cutter brick home in Monrovia. However, there are few other choices to choose from. There are currently less than 50 privately-owned condos in downtown. That's sad. Downtown can't have more successful retail, entertainment, and restaurants without a permanent (24-hour) population. But let's not forget that these condos must be affordable. The $450,000 condos that currently dominate downtown are too expensive, especially for a city with relatively low home prices. Condos that run between $150-200k would be a better fit for the young, vibrant population that prefers urban living.
  • More downtown retail; more specifically, a grocery store. Specialty shops, boutiques, even a bookstore would also be great additions. But a word of caution: trying to put these into some kind of downtown shopping mall will only end in failure.
  • A downtown cinema. This has worked well in places like Chattanooga and Lincoln, NE. Plus it would fill a major void in this part of the city.
  • A downtown circulator bus. How about a free weekday circulator, much like the weekend evening service. However, this would serve more of the daytime crowd. Cities like Birmingham and Savannah have such circulators.
  • Smarter street designs, such as better signage, pedestrian access, and landscaping. Downtown needs better directional signage for tourists and residents to direct them to museums, hotels, restaurants, etc. Pedestrian access and landscaping need to be improved, especially west and north of the Central Business District.
  • More music/art festivals throughout the year. Big Spring Jam and Panoply are obvious successes; why not capitalize on those? Smaller music festivals have proven successful, such as the one on Clinton Street with Sister Hazel back in July. More mid-sized music venues (like WorkPlay in Birmingham or a House of Blues) would help too.
Got any ideas? I'd love to hear them. And maybe the members of Big Spring Partners who read this blog will see them too.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Closer Look at Constellation

The cover story of the September issue of Southeast Real Estate Business talks about the recent shift to mixed-use developments. One of the highlighted projects is Constellation, the $150 million redevelopment of the old Marketsquare Mall site in downtown led by local developer Scott McLain. The article gives us the most detailed description of Constellation yet. A summary:
  • 314 hotel rooms, split evenly between a Springhill Suites and a Residence Inn. The Springhill Suites will be the first component of the project to begin construction, which should be very, very soon.
  • 63,320 square feet of retail space, 21,000 of which is being set aside for a "green grocery." The rest will be shops and restaurants (not including the three restaurant parcels facing the Parkway). Something like an Urban Outfitters could work well in a project like this.
  • 187,000 square feet of office space. Wow, that's a lot more than the three-story office building proposed across the street could possibly hold. Maybe the rest of the office space is in a high-rise. We can only hope.
  • 97 residential units. This is smaller than the 160 units proposed in May 2008, but in line with the 80-100 units proposed with the 2007 announcement of the project. It also seems that the developers still haven't decided on whether or not to build condos or apartments.
Let's hope that some new renderings and a website are coming soon. Some tenant announcements would be nice, but that might be asking too much.

More info:
Southeast Real Estate Business article: "Mixed Use Bonanza"
Past articles on Constellation

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Housing Authority shifts to Lowe Mill

Two proposed redevelopments of downtown public housing projects were put on hold by the Huntsville Housing Authority due to a missed federal grant deadline, according to the Times. However, the HHA has shifted its focus to a project in Lowe Mill called Brookside. They have until November 17th to apply for a redevelopment grant. HHA has signed on Big Spring Partners and Aslan, a development company out of Louisville, to help with the grant application. For those unfamiliar with the area, here's an aerial image of Brookside (outlined in white) and the surrounding area:

The missed grant deadlines did not delay the controversial Councill Court redevelopment, which is currently underway.

Lincoln Mill Project back from the dead

Back in December 2007, a $20 million plan was revealed by Dr. James Byrne to renovate the Lincoln Mill in Northeast Huntsville into shops, restaurants, and up to 60 loft condominiums. The plan seemed like it had died until construction activity was seen at the site in July (though my fellow Northeast-siders who drive on 565 and fans of the blog on Facebook knew that already). Now, two tenants are preparing to move into the building- a small private school and a microbrewery, according to the Times. The third (top) floor, where the lofts were originally planned, is being considered by an environmental firm. And the conceptual "independent movie theater" still seems to be an ultimate goal to the developer. The residential component has been severely downsized, however; only a quarter of the of lofts originally planned are still on the drawing board.

Either way, this project will be a great shot in the arm for a neighborhood with a lot of promise. Lincoln Mill has the potential to become just as popular as Five Points in the next couple of years. A couple of shops, restaurants, and a grocery store (how about an urban Publix?) would probably do the trick.

More info:
Times article: Mill Makeover
Past blog posts on the project, including a rendering
Aerial photos of the site- Sellers Photo
Straight to Ale (the microbrewery); and their Facebook page

Friday, September 25, 2009

Madison Square

"The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns; well so long, farewell, goodbye."- Modest Mouse, "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine"

I'm bored. Very little of any significance is happening right now, so let's talk about something random. Today, we'll discuss Madison Square, Huntsville's next "dead mall."

Ask yourself: When was the last time you went to Madison Square? I can bet that for many of you, it's been a while; probably longer than your last trip to Parkway Place or Bridge Street.
Madison Square Mall was opened in 1984, with 5 anchors: JC Penney, Sears, Parisian, Caster Knott (now Dillard's), and Pizitz (became McRae's, now Belk). It has room for up to 120 stores. Madison Square has been renovated twice-- once in 1994 and again in 2006. At the time of its opening, it was built in what seemed like the edge of nowhere; Huntsville stopped at Sparkman, as seen in this 1982 map (Look-- a Woolco!):

Despite store mergers, liquidations, and stores surrounding Madison Square closing and/or moving farther out into the sprawl of western Madison County, it fared relatively well for its first 20 years, mainly because it had no competition. Madison Square's opening began the slow and painful decline of the three older (smaller) malls near downtown that shared that title through the 70s: The Mall, Parkway City Mall, and Heart of Huntsville Mall (now Constellation); all of which had become "dead malls" by 2000.

But those dead malls came back to haunt Madison Square. In 1999, the Fountain replaced The Mall, and while the power center, with anchors like Home Depot and Costco, had little effect on Madison Square, the opening of Parkway Place (formerly Parkway City) in 2002 did, which, ironically enough, is partially owned by the same developers/owners of Madison Square (CBL of Chattanooga), who had scrapped plans to build a 1.2 million sq. ft. enclosed mall (scroll down) in South Huntsville in the late 90s to redevelop Parkway City. After that, Madison Square was referred to as the "old mall" (as in, "Hey, want to go to the mall?" "Which one? The new mall or the old mall?"). But despite the label, Madison Square held on to most of its name-brand tenants until 2007-2008, when it was hit twice: Bridge Street opened a couple of miles to the south, and the recession began soon after, with stores like KB Toys, Friedman's Jewelers and Steve and Barry's closing as part of their respective company liquidations.

Now, to be fair, despite the odds being against it, Madison Square is still holding on. Four out of its five anchor spots are still occupied, and it still has over 80 stores (not including the food court or kiosks). Definitely not a dead mall. But some of the recent tenants-- a blacklight mini-golf course, a now-defunct auto dealership, even a sex shop-- are signs that the end is near for Madison Square.

In the next few years, it's going to get harder for Madison Square to hold its ground. Bridge Street and Parkway Place have plans for future anchor tenants. While we can safely speculate that Macy's (not a Madison Square anchor) is at the top of at least Bridge Street's list, it isn't out of the question that one of the current Madison Square anchors (especially JCPenney) could be siphoned away with the promise of a new store elsewhere. And then there's the threat of uber-sprawl developments such as WaterStone in Madison.

There are several ways a dead mall can be "resurrected." In Nashville, a mall called Bellevue Center quickly died after losing two of its three anchors, and all that remains today is a Sears. The mall is now planned to be partially converted to a Kohl's on one level and a branch of the Nashville Public Library on the other (though it's on hold due to legal reasons). On the other side of the city, there are plans to convert part of Hickory Hollow, a mall very much like Madison Square (age, size, ownership), into a satellite campus for a community college. Converting Madison Square into a power center or an educational facility could work, but let's be creative, shall we?

From "super-regional" to "super-mixed-use"

Here's my idea for that day in the near future when Madison Square kicks the bucket. Let's look at what it's got: it's in a very visible location, at the intersection of University and AL255, an area with ~100,000 vehicles passing through every day. A high-visibility location such as Madison Square deserves a high-visibility redevelopment. So how about this: assuming the current anchors remain (they separately own the parcels of land their stores sit on), build a 40-ish-store open-air center in the parking lot and move the current tenants there along with some new ones. Then close the old mall and convert it to an open-air center, with another 40 retail spaces remaining on the ground floor and office space on the upper level.

The sea of parking at Madison Square could be put to better use by creating a high-density, pedestrian-friendly environment (like Atlanta's Atlantic Station and Austin's The Domain) surrounding the new open-air center. One idea is to build several mid- and high-rise (5-15 floors) office buildings, and add a few hotels, new anchors, and condos/apartments down the road. Parking would be consolidated into several multi-story parking garages. I left off most of that on the layout above (note the large chunks of remaining parking lot) because the number of possible layouts is infinite; I'll leave that to your imagination.

Note that this is merely my idea; it is NOT an official plan by CBL (the developers/owners of Madison Square). So don't get on to me if this doesn't happen, because, it won't.

Madison Square still has a few years left in it; worst-case scenario, I give it until 2014, its 30th anniversary. And a smaller revitalization (such as demolishing only a portion of the mall and converting it to an open-air center) might add a decade or so to its lifespan. Admittedly, my idea is quite radical. But that's what Huntsville needs-- new, fresh, unique ideas-- to get itself away from having the feel of an overgrown suburb.

Educate yourself: If you wondering what the heck I was talking about when I mentioned "dead malls," here's a couple of my favorite blogs on the subject. They include some interesting articles on some Huntsville malls, including The Mall and Madison Square:
deadmalls DOT com

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Drake State planning downtown campus

Recently, Drake State Technical College, in an aggressive attempt to compete with its much larger and more well-known sibling Calhoun, has discussed plans to expand out of its Meridian Street campus and into more visible locations throughout the city. A few months ago, they proposed using the recently closed Stone Middle School on Governors. Now, Drake State has plans to use the Times Building, the 12-story building built in the 1930s at the corner of Holmes and Greene that has been slowly renovated into office space.

Center-city college campuses are a great way to bring mass amounts of people into the core and revitalize the areas surrounding them. Birmingham has UAB, Chattanooga has UTC, and Atlanta has Georgia Tech. The difference between these schools and Drake State is that they have large on-campus populations, whereas Drake is strictly a commuter campus. Having Drake downtown would only bring students during the day and, while significantly increase the daytime population of the CBD, probably wouldn't do much for the full-time population, the number that will bring the retail and entertainment options critical for a successful downtown. To fix that, I think the city should push for more affordable apartments and condos downtown, ones that students from UAH and A&M can afford. Make downtown even more attractive for college students by enhancing transit to the universities. And after enough students (and everyone else) move to downtown, the retail and entertainment will follow.

But back to Drake State. I prefer the Stone Middle School idea; the building already has classrooms and won't need too much renovation, there is room for expansion along Clinton, parking would be less of a hassle, and the area is ripe for revitalization. The Times building doesn't have classrooms, the only way to expand is to lease more space, parking would probably rely on a proposed 5-level public parking garage across the street, and the surrounding neighborhood is much more desirable (which would probably increase lease rates in the future). But if Drake State can manage to do it, I say, go for it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Public projects moving forward

There might not be a lot of activity with commercial development right now, but the government is a buildin'! Four major public projects are beginning construction in the next couple of months:

VBC Concert Hall (Mark Smith Concert Hall): A $5 million expansion/renovation/makeover which will include new seats, a new sound system, a renovated lobby, and a new exterior. Construction Start: October. Completion: Summer 2010.

VBC Arena (Propst Arena): A $15 million renovation, including new bathrooms, concession areas (with a new cafe/bar with outdoor seating), and skyboxes. Construction start and completion are similar to the Concert Hall renovations.

Huntsville Museum of Art: A scaled-down expansion of the decade-old museum. The $7 million expansion includes new gallery space, an auditorium, and new entrances on the park and Williams Street sides of the museum. Bid date: September 24th. Construction start: November. Completion: 2011.

Lee High School: A new high school for Northeast Huntsville. The new school will be across the railroad tracks from the current one; if you've driven down Meridian lately, you've probably noticed the land has already been cleared. Bid date: October 15. Construction start: November. Completion: Opening by the 2011-2012 school year, maybe sooner.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Passenger Rail Coming to Huntsville?

There was an interesting article in Sunday's Montgomery Advertiser. It seems there is some interest in bringing intercity passenger rail service back to several Alabama cities. Since Katrina, Amtrak has run only one route, the Crescent, through the state, stopping at stations in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Anniston on the way between New Orleans and New York. Amtrak has shown interest in bringing back service between Mobile and Birmingham, a route that ran as the Gulf Breeze between 1989 and 1995. It would be part of a plan to increase Amtrak service in the Southeast region, which the rail company believes is "underserved."

According to the Advertiser, a state passenger rail plan is being developed using stimulus funds by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). In most states, the state DOT performs this study, but ALDOT legally can't do it, as seen with a proposed regional feasibility study of a high-speed rail line between Atlanta and New Orleans. Thank your state Constitution of 1901 for that bit of ignorance.

So, what would this mean for Huntsville? According to Huntsville's long-term transportation plan, there have been preliminary studies on introducing a Huntsville-Birmingham passenger rail service. But they were done back when Amtrak wasn't doing too great financially, and wasn't looking to expand service. Maybe now they would be more eager to start such a route. A north-south passenger rail service through the state could also be extended to Nashville, another city that currently lacks Amtrak service.

And here's another idea-- you know that "Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta highway" pipe dream that's never going to get built? How about looking into an electrified high-speed freight/passenger rail line between the three cities? It would be cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and faster than a highway. Think about it: right now, it takes about 4 hours to (legally) get from Huntsville to Atlanta via highway. A direct highway would get you there in about 2 1/2, if you don't get stuck in traffic. A high-speed rail line, even with a low average speed of 85 mph, could make the trip in less than 2 hours-- and no traffic.

Finally, a little bit of trivia: the last time there was regular passenger rail service to Huntsville was in 1968. However, an Amtrak service called the Floridian stopped in Decatur until 1979.

More info:
Southern High Speed Rail Commission
Federal Railroad Administration: Passenger Rail

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transit planning, revisited

The Times on Sunday ran a story about the state of public transportation in the city. By 2011, federal operating assistance for the Shuttle will disappear, making the city the only source for funding, thanks to a state constitutional amendment that prohibits transit funding and a state Department of Transportation that publicly supports that law. The article incorrectly stated that the average commute time for Madison County is 18 minutes; according to the Census Bureau, in 2007, the average commute time for Madison County was 20.5 minutes, for the Huntsville-Decatur region, 24.25 minutes. By comparison, New York County, NY-- Manhattan-- has a average commuter time of 30.5 minutes. An editorial by John Peck had some interesting statistics. Nearly half (45%) of transit embarkments are in Northwest Huntsville; 30% in Southwest. Only 40% of riders are commuters, according to a city survey.

And last night, developer Doug Gooch did his pitch to the Madison City Council for their support on his light rail plan. For those who need to refresh their memory, here's my blog post about it from a few months ago.

People, I cannot stress this enough. The lack of reliable, convenient public transit is a city problem that needs a regional solution, and I don't mean just Madison County. It also won't be solved behind closed doors by some developer or a group of "civic leaders." And as long as transit is run only by the city of Huntsville, it will remain the "empty bus to nowhere." For transit to be truly successful here, there will need to be a planned regional system in place, and it will need to involve everybody, from mayors/councilmen/commissioners from every sizable town and county in the area, to the average rush hour commuter, to even college students and teenagers. Any less than that, and it will fail.

But first, like I've said before, we need a comprehensive regional transit plan. A regional transit plan would give the region specific alternatives to expanding roads and explore all the options and their costs. Some cities include this "Transportation Alternatives Study" in their long-range transportation plan (LRTP). Huntsville's 2030 LRTP has a section for public transit, but it fails to provide specific plans or options-- it basically says the area might need more in the future. We're due for an updated LRTP in the next year or so. Need some ideas?
  • Birmingham, for all its faults, has a neat transit plan. The Regional Transit Improvement Strategy was completed five years ago. It includes alternatives and costs for transit improvements for major corridors in the Birmingham region.
  • Chattanooga is currently developing an alternatives study, which will be included in their 2035 LRTP. This page gives a good summary of what a region the size of Huntsville's should be looking into for future plans, including: bike/pedestrian accessibility, local and express bus service, even an eventual rail transit system.
  • Atlanta has a very comprehensive transportation plan, part of a larger regional plan called "Envision6"-- the 6 is for the projected 6 million residents of the metro area. While we're not envisioning 6 anytime soon (more like 1), it's cool to look at all of the options available. And they looked at just about everything.
All of the cities I listed above have strong regional planning councils who coordinate transportation and land-use planning, among other government functions, in their respective areas. Huntsville and Decatur should seriously look into getting one of these.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Looking Elsewhere...

Well, it's been a slow couple of weeks in Huntsville's urban development (it's always like this this time of year), so I thought we might look at what other cities in the region are doing:

Nashville's Gulch district is having trouble filling 800 condos built in the district in the past few years, according to The Tennessean. Despite TIF District improvements and its proximity to downtown, Music Row, and the West End (Nashville's Medical District), nothing could stop the recession; only 165 condos have sold in the three largest high-rise projects. However, it has had some success in bringing restaurants, clubs, and retail. Some familiar names, like Cantina Laredo and Urban Outfitters, have opened up shop there in the past year.

Those looking for more Sweetwater-type mega-developments might be interested in May Town Center, a project struggling to get approval from Nashville's planning board, partly because of access issues to the project, which will be surrounded on three sides by the Cumberland River. Another reason for the opposition is that it will be located in Bells Bend, a mostly agricultural area that is one of the last major open spaces left in Davidson County.

Chattanooga has 1-up-ped us again. A Monaco-style 12-screen movie theater is under construction downtown to replace the Bijou, a theater built during the first revitalization about 20 years ago. RiverCity Company, a non-profit organization responsible for much of Chattanooga's rebirth (Huntsville has tried to imitate its success with an organization called Big Spring Partners. Never heard of them? Exactly.) is developing the project along with Carmike Cinemas.

Birmingham is looking at building a downtown ballpark (sound familiar?) for the Barons, who currently play at Regions Park in Hoover. A development company is looking at the site near Railroad Park for the new stadium.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Constellation leasing signs up

As some of you have probably noticed, there are "now leasing" signs up along the Parkway service road for the Constellation outparcels, which will probably be occupied by restaurants. Today, a new sign went up along Clinton across from the project for a 3-story "Class A" office building that has been in the plans since the development was first publicly announced over 2 years ago. A rendering of the building is on the sign, so if you're in that part of downtown, go check it out-- it looks pretty cool. Otherwise, click on the image to get a better look at the rendering.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Time for a new Joe?

The Huntsville Stars, the AA minor-league baseball team that has been here since 1985, might be moving to another city in a couple of years because of low attendance, according to the assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, of which the Stars are an affiliate of. Of course, this might just be a hollow threat. But let's say it's not.

The Stars have played in the Joe W. Davis Stadium (known to many locals as "the Joe") since they moved here in the mid-80s from Nashville. According to Wikipedia, it was considered the "crown jewel" of the league when it opened. But today, it's the oldest stadium in the league, and it doesn't include amenities that most modern ballparks have. Plus, its gray, metal and concrete architecture is less than stellar, possibly a result of it being hastily built.

Despite several renovations (the last being in 2007), not much seems to be helping attendance, which is last in the 10-team league. Many cities in this situation have built brand new stadiums to boost attendance and keep the team from going somewhere else. So, is it time for a new Joe?

One possibility is to build the new stadium next to the current Joe. While it would be cheaper to do that (considering the city already owns the land) the current stadium seems out of place, tucked away off the Parkway in a mostly industrial part of town, with little opportunity for spinoff development. If Huntsville really wants to bring some visibility to the team, they'll need to build somewhere else. Might I suggest... downtown?

Coca-Cola Ballpark

Several cities have built new downtown baseball stadiums in the last decade-- Memphis (Autozone Park), Montgomery (Riverwalk Stadium), and Chattanooga (AT&T Field), to name a few. Most of these have been successful in bringing people to the games and to the area surrounding the stadium. The ballparks in Montgomery and Chattanooga are a part of their successful riverfront revitalization projects. Memphis's ballpark anchors (along with the FedEx Forum, home of the NBA Grizzlies) an entertainment district.

So, say we had the $30 million or so to build a new downtown stadium. Where would it be built? One suggestion is the Coca-Cola bottling facility at the corner of Monroe and Clinton (hence the Coca-Cola Ballpark), outlined in white in the aerial image below. It would be an ideal place for a stadium, across the street from the VBC where the other professional minor-league teams in Huntsville play. It's within walking distance to Big Spring Park, the Constellation project, parking, and several open lots that are potential hotel/office/residential development sites. (Image courtesy Sellers Photo)

The city could also partner with developers to create a mixed-use project anchored by the stadium. Following the trend of new ballparks, the new stadium would probably have fewer seats than the Joe does-- about 6-7,000 compared to the current Joe's 10,200. The fewer seats would be closer to the field, allowing for a more "intimate" ballpark experience-- something that's popular in modern baseball stadium design.

Sure, there are probably cheaper places to build a new ballpark in the area. But would building a stadium in the middle of a cotton field in Limestone County be as awesome as a downtown stadium? No, because you are not Kevin Costner, and this is not Field of Dreams. If you build it [there], they will not come.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The "new" UAH master plan

Like politics, when a university gets a new administration, priorities change-- new ideas are introduced, and old ones are thrown out. This has certainly been the case for UAH since Dr. David ("Dave") Williams took the job as president of the university two years ago. Many of the changes he and his administration have implemented have been quite unpopular with students and faculty, especially since they have been kept "out of the loop" for the most part on these changes. But it looks like the new administration might be doing something right. Finally.

The new UAH master plan, which will replace the current one created in 2004, has an underlying goal: to make UAH a "traditional" campus. One of the major (and most interesting) focus points of the new plan is a "campus town center" along Holmes Avenue. Ideas for the new town center include live music/performance venues, art galleries, restaurants, a bookstore, grocery store, movie theater, and student apartments. A full list of ideas can be seen here. The town center, if successful, will give students, faculty, and visitors something that Huntsville currently lacks-- the "college town feel" of places like Auburn and Tuscaloosa. Plus, the greater accessibility to services and entertainment will make the surrounding neighborhoods more appealing to those who want to live in the city-- many of whom would be 20-something recent college graduates, a demographic Huntsville desperately needs, but lacks partly due to the scarceness of attractive urban living options.

Pedestrians and bikes
I probably don't need to remind you that Huntsville is not a bike- or pedestrian-friendly city. The area surrounding UAH is somewhat better, but not by much. One area of concern is trying to cross Holmes to get to the other side of campus. The university is trying to change that with a new pedestrian mall (under construction; the big red block in the middle of the picture above) that will go right through the middle of campus and cross Holmes in front of the Salmon Library. One thing I don't get about this plan is the random configuration of paths in the northern part of campus, especially the oval in the top left (between Roberts and Spragins halls).

Also, the creation of a campus transit system (Charger Transit?) is mentioned repeatedly in the plan, but will probably happen in the long-term. Hopefully by that time, there will be a reliable, efficient regional transit system to make it truly effective.

A denser campus

One of the consequences of UAH being a commuter campus is that the building are so spread out, you have to drive quite a bit. Try getting from Morton Hall to Tech Hall in 15 minutes on foot; you'd be stretching it on a bike. The plan calls for more buildings in the campus core, while creating a "greenbelt" of open spaces surrounding campus. And Tech Hall, isolated from the rest of campus (located at the bottom right of the above maps) will be no more, and the departments currently housed there will move elsewhere, probably in one of the proposed academic buildings that will surround the Shelby Center. One major note on the building plan is the sheer number of dormitories planned-- I counted at least 12, not including the one currently under construction. Also, notice that Southeast Housing (the oldest dorms/apartments on campus) is absent from the master plan. I wouldn't be surprised if they were torn down in the near future, especially after the new dorms are completed across the street in 2011.

The final draft of the master plan is due this fall.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shuttle Bus gets federal grant

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has given a $2.4 million grant to Huntsville's Department of Parking and Public Transit for several transit projects, which include the replacement of aging vehicles (three buses, two trolleys, and three Handi-Ride vans), plus 350 bus stop signs and 50 bus shelters. Most of these projects were on the city's wishlist for the stimulus package.

The 350 bus stop signs the city's going to buy with this grant makes me wonder if they're planning a major re-imaging of the Shuttle Bus, which currently to most Huntsvillians is the "empty bus to nowhere." Too bad a fresh coat of paint won't change that.

Holmes/Greene Garage back on table

A new parking garage at the corner of Holmes and Greene downtown is back from the dead. According to the Times, The City Council tonight will authorize an application for a $1.2 million federal transportation grant to pay for the 5-story, 450 space garage, which will be built on top of an existing public surface lot. The new design for the garage is slightly different compared to the design released at a public meeting early last year-- it is now 5 stories instead of the original 6 to comply with the impending height limit buffer zones.

What makes this garage interesting is the planned residential and retail components. The city has partnered with developer Randy Schrimsher to build a 5-story apartment building next to the garage along Lincoln. The original plans called for 52 units, but the number will probably be less this time around. There will also be ground-floor retail space in the garage-- 10,000 sq. ft will be available for lease. The city has been in talks with several shops and restaurants, even a small grocery store with the earlier plans (the amount of space hasn't changed with the new design, so this is still possible).

For more info:
February 2008 article about this project, including an old rendering

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bridge Street to get another office tower... and a tennis complex

The Bridge Street developers reaffirmed what was already announced back in January-- a second office tower (identical to the first one) will be built in the northeast corner of the project. Construction will start early next year on the 6-story building, according to the Times.

Now, this is where it gets weird. The developers also announced plans to build the "Bridge Street Tennis Centre," a complex of 6 lighted "championship-style" tennis courts, on the northwest corner. Also, a putting green will be built at the Westin. Anybody else asking, "Why?"

Sounds like Bridge Street's having trouble filling up the rest of their 100-acre space, especially if they're resorting to build tennis courts and putting greens. Maybe I'm being a little too extreme here, but why not have some more medium-priced lunch places/coffee shops for the Research Park/UAH crowd? Anyone who has driven University around lunchtime knows those kinds of places do great business around there. (Several of you have talked about a Panera Bread opening, but I have yet to find anything to confirm that.) Also, where are those Phase II anchor stores that were promised a month after opening--in 2007? Sports Authority is the only one that has been announced, and will open later this summer.

Update: Paul Orfalea, co-founder of O&S Holdings, talked about a couple of projects on the "wish list" for Bridge Street:
  1. A department store, which is "in negotiations." We can safely assume this is Macy's, unless, of course, the developers cheap out and take one of the Madison Square anchors (Sears, JC Penney, Belk, or Dillard's), quickening that mall's impending demise.
  2. A "5-star hotel." This would probably be a tough sell for a city like Huntsville. I mean, could you imagine a Ritz-Carlton here? However, if they do pull it off, it will probably be a Starwood (Westin/Sheraton) or Marriott-brand hotel.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Todd Towers to be razed, redeveloped

An interesting little blurb in the Times this morning-- the Huntsville Housing Authority plans to continue the redevelopment of its properties using federal stimulus grant money. At the top of the list is the demolition of Todd Towers, the 6-story 100-unit senior housing complex at the corner of Monroe and Green Streets. Two buildings will be built in its place-- one, a 5-story, 90 unit senior housing complex, and the other, a 40-unit loft apartment building. The latter is being developed in a partnership with Thornton Properties-- it should be noted that they are also the developers of the 301 East Holmes high-end condo project, which would be adjacent to the loft apartments. The buildings are being designed by Bill Peters Architects of Huntsville.

The HHA is also applying for a grant to raze the remainder of the Searcy Homes projects along Holmes and Monroe and replace them with a mixed-use residential/retail development. This project is being designed by Joe Fuqua (I assume of Fuqua and Partners Architects).

Other HHA projects applying for grant money include the reconstruction of Sparkman Homes on Holmes (don't see how rebuilding the apartments is going to help the neighborhood) and the previously-announced Gateway Place senior housing in Councill Courts.

For more info:
HHA press release

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cheddar's, Zaxby's planned for University

The land being cleared in front of the University Place shopping center (where Phil Sandoval's and Nothing but Noodles is) is for a Cheddar's restaurant. A Zaxby's is also planned for another outparcel across University from McDonald's. This will be the ninth Zaxby's in the area, but the first Cheddar's (looks similar to a Ruby Tuesday) in Alabama.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Huntsville West

So Huntsville West, the shopping center at University and Sparkman, is getting some new tenants that I've never heard of. It wasn't long ago that the center had stores like Office Depot and Goody's. Despite several attempts to revitalize the center-- the Times has a good history of the center in the article linked above-- stores just can't seem to stick around there (with the exception of the thrift store and Hibbett's). Sometimes it was because the company went out of business (anyone remember Compo?), but most of the time the stores moved to new shopping centers-- Office Depot moved farther west next to Best Buy, and Goody's moved next to SuperTarget, where it remained until the company's demise earlier this year. These newer centers make it hard for Huntsville West to compete in its current form. So, if true revitalization is to be done, some radical and unique measures (at least for Huntsville) will have to be taken.

Time to meet the bulldozer...

If Huntsville West really wants to compete with the newer centers along University, it's going to have to be something new. It has the advantages of being at a relatively major intersection and in between two universities, but it has the disadvantages of being a waste of land (look at all that asphalt!) and being too old to attract better tenants. So bulldoze the center, and in its place, put in a "college town center" type development, or a Constellation for inner West Huntsville. Coming off University on the "Main Street," put in tenants that fit into the needs/wants of the demographics of the area-- a legit grocery store, college bookstore, some bars and restaurants (sit-down/quick service/fast-food), and a live music venue or two would be a good start. Elsewhere, build some 4-5 story loft-style apartment buildings. If parking's a problem, put in a parking garage. The city will probably need to improve pedestrian/bike access along Sparkman between the center and the universities-- this should be done anyway regardless.

Like I said, radical and unique. But there's not too much you can do with a 35-year-old shopping center that's within a mile of newer, more visible centers with vacant space. And bringing in retail that no one's ever heard of won't keep it alive for long.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lincoln Mill Project: Making a Comeback?

Yet another project seems to be coming back from the dead. A plan to renovate the Lincoln Mill in Northeast Huntsville into retail space and lofts could be back on the board, with construction starting in early 2010.

For more info: Check out past articles on this project.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Planning Commission Approves Buffer Zones

The proposed downtown historic district buffer zones passed a major milestone tonight, with the city planning commission passing the ordinance amendments unanimously (with councilwoman Sandra Moon abstaining). The only government hurdle that's left is approval by the city council, which should happen in a month or two.

A text description along with a map of the planned amendments' final draft can be found on the city Planning Department website.

Mellow Mushroom is Open!

Undoubtedly the most anticipated restaurant this year (and last year) had a soft opening this week in the Village of Providence. The "grand opening" for Mellow Mushroom will be June 1st. It seems like a long time since the story broke here that the Atlanta-based restaurant chain was opening a franchise location in Huntsville. It was originally expected to open in August of last year, but was delayed several times. Seeing how many people were already there today at lunch, there is quite a demand; I think I'll wait a couple of weeks before I stop by and get a Mighty Meaty.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Private Development Deal for Councill Courts

The Huntsville Housing Authority this week voted to sell 1.3 acres at the corner of Gallatin and St. Clair to T1 Development, according to the Huntsville Times. The development company plans to build a 4-story mixed use building on the site called Resonant Pointe (why they called it this, I don't know). Plans call for ground-floor retail and restaurant space, second-floor offices, and "small, affordable" condos on the top floors.

Here's an aerial image of the area (courtesy of Sellers Photo) that shows the development's location in reference to Huntsville Hospital, Downtown, and Gateway Place (the senior housing complex being built by the housing authority).

Let's hope this is the first of many similar projects for this neighborhood-- there's still 15 acres of the housing project yet to be sold along with surrounding parcels of land (such as the old high school) that need to be redeveloped.