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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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Huntsville's Bypass Network, and Other Roads That Won't Be Built

This is the first in a couple of posts about transportation in the Huntsville area.

I went back and forth on whether or not to write a post on this; I didn't want to talk about stuff everyone already knows about. Well, like it or not, here it is...

As you probably know by now, the $500 million Southern Bypass portion through Redstone Arsenal has been blocked by the US Army due to future security issues. So, what now? First, a little background...

The Huntsville bypass "network", seen in this edited Chamber of Commerce map, will be an odd series of roads wrapping around the city, carrying such unique names as Northern Bypass, Southern Bypass, and Eastern Bypass (the western bypass is better known as Research Park Blvd.). The total length, if it still included the now-defunct Southern Bypass portion through Redstone Arsenal, would be about 55 miles when completed. Some of it, about 12 miles, is already at least 4 lanes with at-grade intersections.

A timeline:
  • 1965: The road we now know as Research Park Boulevard/AL 255 (or if you've lived here for a while, Rideout Road) began construction, over the next 20 years becomes freeway-standard from I-565 (then AL 20) to University Drive/US 72. Total length: ~3 miles.
  • 1995: The second phase of 255, from University to AL 53, opens. Total length: ~6 miles.
  • 2005: The third phase opens from AL53 to Pulaski Pike. This portion is called Martin Luther King Blvd. Total length: ~9 miles.
  • 2012-ish: The road is now 4-laned to Memorial Parkway, and freeway-standard to AL 53.
  • Sometime before 2030: The Northern Bypass will be completed to US 72 East, near Gurley, connecting to the Eastern Bypass currently around Hampton Cove. Hopefully some portion of the Southern Bypass will be built, at least the part from Parkway to New Hope/US 431. Total length: ~45 miles.
Now, of course, take the future stuff with a grain of salt. These roads have been on maps since the early 80s, as seen on these maps:

This first photo is from a 1982 (pre-565) map of Huntsville. Note that the route goes through several Northwest Huntsville neighborhoods. This obviously met a lot of opposition; and I wouldn't blame the residents one bit on this one.

The proposed route at this time continued east, and would have plowed through the Moores Mill/Winchester intersection, several neighborhoods on Shields Road, and hit 72 around Ryland Pike.

The next map (from 1991-ish, post-565) is obviously more aligned with the current plans to parallel Bob Wade Lane to the Parkway. By this time, the eastern portion was changed to parallel Homer Nance Road. Growth in the area forced the MPO to amend the 2030 Transportation Plan and put it closer to Maysville and Gurley.

Back to the Southern Bypass: If you can't build a Southern Bypass through Redstone Arsenal, the only feasible option is to go farther south, into Morgan County. If you live in South Huntsville, you may already use AL 36 as an alternate route to get onto 65 South towards Birmingham. Why not make it a 4-lane divided highway from I-65 to US 231? Interchanges could be built at AL 67, US 231, and a new 4-lane road that will connect to a 5-lane Zierdt Road (or Wall-Triana Hwy) in Triana, using a new bridge over the Tennessee River. This could solve a couple of current and future infrastructure issues-- East Morgan County needs a major east-west highway, and an alternate truck route to the Port of Huntsville may be needed as traffic continues to grow on I-565. It will be much less expensive than the original Southern Bypass, as none of this would be a full-blown freeway, and the right-of-way needed is mostly rural farmland. The only obstacles with this option would be getting federal approval to go through a portion of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and it would be put at the bottom of ALDOT's barrel, putting the project back at square one and decades behind.

And while we're talking about things that will never get built, let's talk about the Memphis-to-Atlanta Highway. This thing's been on the drawing boards for forever. I don't think it's necessary, at least not in its current form:

1. The Mississippi portion is unneccessary, period; it is too rural and too close to I-22, which is already built in that area and serves the same purpose.
2. There is also no need for an all-new interstate between Decatur and Florence. Alternate 72 from Muscle Shoals to Decatur can be upgraded to be fairly limited-access, with interchanges only at the largest intersections, at a much cheaper price.
3. Is it really necessary to build the highway so far north of Decatur (see ALDOT stimulus map below), and have it parallel 565 through rural Limestone County? Why not build it as close to the river as the NWR allows, and connect it with an expanded 31/20 interchange?

The only part of the currently-planned highway that might be necessary is the portion from South Parkway onward to Georgia and I-75. This would almost cut in half the time it takes to get from Huntsville to Atlanta. But there are two things to consider: Is there enough of a demand for travel between the two cities? And will the high cost of building the road be offset by this demand and the subsequent economic development?

One of the points made in the Tennessee Valley Regional Growth Coordination Plan is that many people coming to the area for BRAC are coming from regions where passenger rail is more frequent, and the lack of it in this region might be seen as a "disadvantage." Atlanta is being looked at as a hub for high-speed rail in the Southeast, with several lines planned to places like Chattanooga and Birmingham. Could an Atlanta-to-Huntsville high-speed rail line be looked at as a cheaper (and faster) alternative to building a freeway?

Next in this short series: Alternate transportation, including what the region can do with its miniscule public transit system.

Martin/Zierdt development land back on market

Remember Madison Commons, the grocery-anchored shopping center proposed at the Northwest corner of Martin and Zierdt? Well, it isn't going to happen, at least not right now. The 21-acre site for the shopping center and outparcels is now for sale for an asking price of $5 million; a corner lot where a CVS was planned is also for sale. In all, 67 acres are being sold; much of it was recently rezoned multi-family residential.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lowe Mill Revitalization Continues

At the Huntsville City Council meeting last night announced an agreement with GreenCiti, LLC for the ongoing Lowe Mill neighborhood revitalization project. Last year, the city announced a public-private agreement to build/renovate homes in the area-- this was suspected at the time to be the main reason why the Downtown Rescue Mission was forced out of the neighborhood. Either way, it's a step in the right direction-- the homes will go for $100,000-150,000, giving people who want to live in a relatively safe/vibrant neighborhood near downtown another option other than more expensive places like Five Points.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SpringHill Suites/Constellation beginning construction... maybe?

Developer Scott McLain told the Times that construction will begin next month on the 153-room SpringHill Suites hotel downtown, the first of two hotels that will anchor the Constellation mixed-use entertainment project at Clinton and the Parkway. The contractor is Bove Construction of Jacksonville, FL. The hotel is expected to open in mid-2010; however, since the groundbreaking in 2007, construction has been delayed several times with little progress. And during that time, the design has changed-- note that a year ago, the SpringHill Suites was going to have 130 rooms and 6 floors. (The new design might be slightly taller.)

That being said, there's a lot riding on Constellation. It might finally answer the question: Can Huntsville support a vibrant downtown? For the sake of this city's future, I hope that answer is yes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Move Sci-Quest Downtown! A New "Museum District"

In the past couple of weeks, the Times has talked about the possibility of the State Board of Education evicting regional science museum Sci-Quest out of its leased space in the back of the Calhoun Community College to make way for an expansion of the school, instead of using unoccupied space in the building. While this might sound stupid (and would delay the Calhoun project further), it does bring back the idea that Sci-Quest should move downtown to a more visible location. A couple of years ago, several properties in the center city, including the old Hale Brothers Furniture building on Washington, were mentioned as possibilities, and then-congressman Bud Cramer even appropriated federal funding for the relocation. And then it died.

This recession's got me bored. So the (possible) renewed interest in the idea got me thinking... How about a Museum District downtown? I like Atlanta's example, where the major museums/attractions-- Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta Children's Museum, along with the Georgia Dome, CNN, Philips Arena, and a couple of hotels-- are clustered around Centennial Park (cool website, another thing Huntsville should look into). Putting it into a Huntsville perspective, that could be Sci-Quest along with the Museum of Art, Early Works, Constitution Village, and the VBC within a few blocks of Big Spring Park.

I've been looking for an excuse to use this updated vertical aerial image, courtesy of Marty Sellers/Sellers Photo:

A couple of possibilities exist in this area for a new Sci-Quest, but my favorite is the city parking garage across from city hall. There are plans to tear it down and rebuild it. A portion of the new garage--say, the south end across from EarlyWorks-- could be built for Sci-Quest, along with some space near the square for retail and restaurants. The pros of this location: City-owned land (cheap lease, similar to $1/year the museum has at Calhoun), unlimited height limit, good visibility from Courthouse Square and Big Spring Park. Cons: It's a parking garage, little expansion opportunity. Another place that has similar pros and cons is the old Fire Station #1, part of the municipal complex on Church. The other red square on the map is a Regions bank branch that I think is a total waste of land, but not a good place for Sci-Quest; sorry about that.

But, of course, these aren't the only options. There are quite a few good places in the north and west parts of downtown, especially near the Depot and the VBC, where Sci-Quest would do well downtown without being clustered with the other museums.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Updated rendering for the "new" VBC

This is an updated combined rendering (click for enlarged image) for the renovated arena-- to be renamed Propst Arena-- and concert hall-- renamed for Mark Smith, late founder of Adtran--, the two major components of the Von Braun Center renovation project. Work is expected to begin this summer, and take a little over a year to complete. The architect is Matheny Goldmon Architects of Huntsville.

For more info:
October blog post about arena renovations
September post about concert hall renovations
Times article

Monday, April 13, 2009

Height Limits re-revisited

Since the city and the Times have (yet again) failed to produce a map of the proposed downtown buffer zones, I thought I would spend a few minutes on Google Maps and make one myself, using the city's text descriptions of the zone boundaries (scroll down a couple of pages). Those who have read the blog for a while (or those who click here) will notice some changes between this map and the one I made in February. Sorry about the dots. So, what do all these colors mean?
Buffer Zone A- Building heights restricted to 2-3 floors (25-35 ft.). This will include any area that abuts a residential zone. Any C3 zone that is E of Madison (South) and Greene (North) Streets will be part of this zone, unless otherwise noted.
Buffer Zone B- Building heights restricted to 4 floors (60 ft.). This area includes South and East Side Squares and the EarlyWorks museum.
Buffer Zone C (yellow)- Building heights restricted to 5 floors (75 ft. ). This area includes 301 East, a proposed condo/apartment development and a proposed parking garage.
Buffer Zone D- Building heights restricted to 6 floors (90 ft.) This area includes North Side Square and the block that includes the First United Methodist Church.
Other- In most cases, this area will have an unlimited height limit. Some areas that abut residential zones, however, will be part of Buffer Zone A.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April briefs: Progress and Delay

A couple of brief updates on some area projects:
  • No other project has prompted more emails to me than Harris Hill. In recent weeks, several tracts of land around the farm have been bought by developer Cole Walker's company, and heavy equipment has been seen on the site. Also, a rezoning request was submitted to the planning commission in March for the area between the new Harris Hill Blvd., Moores Mill, and 72 East, which shows that there has been a change of plans from the original layout shown to the public about a year ago.
  • On the other side of town, the Watercress project at 72 West and Jeff is going through city approvals and agreements.
  • Over in Decatur/Limestone County, the Bass Pro is still planned, but groundbreaking will be "more than likely" 2010, according to the Decatur Daily. This was the original opening date announced last year.
  • And, need I tell you more about the city's Courthouse Square improvements project? Seems like the Times and Mayor Battle have got it covered. But I will say this: while some might think the $2.8M to replace the sidewalks might be a lot to save some old ladies in high heels from tripping, there seems to be a whole lot of people these days that are a bit "trigger-happy" when it comes to lawsuits... so if it saves the city from getting involved in drawn-out legal battles that could potentially cost taxpayers millions more than this will, then I'm fine with it. A better-looking, pedestrian-friendly square and the ability to have more outdoor dining are good perks too.