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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.