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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, 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.