Comments are welcome (positive or negative), but any self-advertisements or irrelevant posts will be deleted.

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 16, 2010

Kroger opens 72/Jeff Store, Plans Three More

At last week's ribbon cutting for the new Kroger store at US 72 West and Jeff Road, Kroger said that their future expansion plans for Huntsville included three new stores in the expanded format, which is up to 100,000 square feet and contains a Starbucks, cheese shop and sushi bar.

If I were scouting sites for Kroger, this is where I would put the new stores (just my opinion, nothing official):

Martin and Zierdt-- Some of you will remember that this location was going to get a "grocery-anchored shopping center" a couple of years ago, but plans fell apart and the site is back up for sale. Despite the slowdown of growth in this area, it remains a viable site for a grocery store, and with Publix about three miles away (a little too close), Kroger is the best choice for the area.

Hampton Cove-- This area has both Walmart and Publix, but the nearest Kroger is 20 minutes away on South Parkway. An ideal location would be at 431 and Caldwell, closer to residents in the Dug Hill area but still in close proximity to the rest of the Hampton Cove area.

72 West and County Line Road-- Publix opened a mile south of this intersection a couple of years ago. With Walmart and Target planning stores near here in the next couple of years, it would seem logical that Kroger would jump in the mix as well. A store at this intersection would be more convenient for residents of East Limestone and Capshaw than the rival stores, which are/will be further south and east.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ideas for South Parkway

I think we can all agree that South Parkway looks a little rough. The largest shopping center along the corridor sits two-thirds empty, and while the rest are mostly occupied, their tenants/landlords don't do well in upkeep. But why does it have to be this way? The corridor has big-box retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's, Kroger, Sam's Club, and Walmart, and the population is stable, highly-educated and fairly wealthy. A multitude of events could have brought the corridor to its current state, from long, drawn out construction projects that hinder access to the nation's economy (Goody's and Hollywood Video closed all of their stores nationwide in the past two years).

One way we can get things going in the right direction would be to start with a major revitalization of South Huntsville Square, which at 32 acres and 360,000 sq. ft. is the largest shopping center on the corridor. And I'm not talking just another "plant some shrubs in the parking lot" type of project. This one would take several years and ultimately make the center into a walkable "town center" type development.

 Reminder: These layouts are not official plans; I have created them to give everyone an idea of what could happen here. 

Short-Term Alternate A would leave the existing center, and its retail-only makeup, mostly intact. A serious investment would be made in making storefronts more attractive to prospective retailers. It would combine the former Big Lots, Auto Zone, and smaller shops in between to create a larger (up to 50,000 sq. ft.) anchor. The covered walkway in the middle of the north center would be opened, creating a pedestrian plaza with small shop space along it allowing room for landscaping, benches, and even outdoor dining. A group of vacant, overgrown lots to the north of the center between Staples and a residential neighborhood, which would otherwise be impossible to develop commercially without a zoning change, could be used for a park that would connect the center with the neighborhood and create an attractive buffer between the two. 

Short-Term Alternate B is similar to Alternate A, but some of the existing center-- such as the former Big Lots-- would be converted into ~30,000 square feet of flexible office space. This would be ideal if the retail market goes sour, or (being the optimist here) there is a high demand for office space due to BRAC (this center is less than four miles from Redstone Arsenal Gate 1).

The Long-Term Improvements are pipe dreams that would build on the short-term improvements and finally make the center walkable and more mixed-use. The development would revolve around a traffic circle built in front of the pedestrian plaza, and more small shops and restaurants would be built around it. Each of the new buildings would be no more than three stories to comply with current zoning regulations, with ground-floor retail and upper-floor offices. At least one of the new buildings could house a new anchor tenant, such as a major department store.

What do you think needs to be done on South Parkway? What kind of retail do you think would work there? Comment below, or use Facebook, Twitter, or email to share your thoughts. And if you're disappointed that I didn't highlight your part of town, be patient. I'll be there soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

ALDI (Finally) Comes to Madison County

ALDI, the no-frills German grocer that for years has avoided Madison County while building stores in Chattanooga, Birmingham, and even Decatur, will be building its first store here early next year on US 72 West in Madison, next to Outback Steakhouse. Some of you may recall that this is very close to where ALDI had planned to open a store a few years ago, but for whatever reason never did.

For those who wish that ALDI built a store closer to their own neighborhood, don't worry. A retailer like ALDI could easily open at least three stores here in the next few years.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A special announcement

Hello, readers!
I thought I would let you guys know what I've been up to lately.

A while back, I met with Mayor Battle. Impressed with the blog, he offered me a part-time consulting position with the city, working on projects pertaining to economic development (see FAQ's). As some observant readers have already noticed (including Reactionary over at flashpoint), the city council this month approved a contract for me to work part-time as a "retail specialist." I started this week, and will continue to work for the city for the next year.

Potential FAQ's

What is a "retail specialist"? Since different parts of the city have different needs, I'll be doing a "hodge-podge" of projects, from mapping out vacant and underused retail properties throughout the city, to locating potential grocery store sites/chains for under served urban areas (like the NW and SW sides).

What will become of the blog? Since part of my job is to come up with ideas to improve areas of the city, you may see more "Ideas" posts for general neighborhoods and corridors. My hope is that I will be able to get valuable input from you, the reader, on as many ideas as possible.

The blog's focus will remain on the region as a whole. I will continue to occasionally write about transportation issues, and now with Madison announcing a new Target soon and a "growth plan" in the works, I'll have plenty of material to write about there too.

Thanks for reading, and here's to another year!


Monday, November 1, 2010

The Small Stuff: October 2010

As always, get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.

  • After nearly a decade of a joint partnership between Chattanooga-based CBL and Birmingham-based Colonial Properties Trust, Parkway Place is now fully owned by CBL
  • Huntsville recieved a $620,000 federal grant for transit improvements. The money will go towards improving bus shelters and maintenance facilities. 
  • 301 East Holmes finally has a tenant-- a salon-- for at least part of their ground-floor retail space, which has sat vacant since the downtown condo project's opening in 2006. 
  • Decatur is planning to remove a downtown surface parking lot and replace it with a "pocket park."
  • Pope John Paul II Catholic High School opened its new campus on Old Madison Pike.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ideas for University Drive/72 West

Last week, I talked about the possibility of a new "power center" on 72 West in Madison, anchored by Target and Academy Sports. Whether this happens or not, 72 is already a congested corridor, and any new development will exacerbate the problem. It seems like the simplest solution would be to spend $40 million-- a low estimate-- to six-lane 72 all the way to Athens, right? But if you've read the blog for a while, you'll know that I think the solution to traffic congestion isn't that cut-and-dry.

But if you're just joining us, here's my problem with just widening roads: when a road is built or widened, often costing tens of millions of dollars (as in 72's case), developers see the increased capacity and begin building homes. Nothing wrong with that if done intelligently, but they don't stop building, and a couple of years later, the road is congested yet again. (Don't believe me? Look at Chapman Mountain.) It's back to square one, and more taxpayer money is spent on widening the road yet again. Here are some alternate solutions that, when implemented in tandem with widening the highway, might make it worth the big bucks.

1) Better Land Use Planning

One problem with 72 West is the variation in zoning practices along the corridor, from Madison's "strict" zoning to unincorporated Madison County's complete lack of zoning.

A relatively simple but extreme solution would be to impose a building moratorium along the corridor. But from an economic development standpoint, that probably isn't such a good idea, plus it would more than likely move the sprawl elsewhere rather than stop it. A more sensible solution would be to draw up a uniform land-use plan for the corridor that crosses city/county boundaries. Restrict new "greenfield" development (e.g. new single-family homes on existing farmland) while identifying dense, mixed-use and "grayfield" redevelopment opportunities (parking lots, underutilized shopping centers) along the 72 commercial strip.

Whatever is done, every government entity with a stake in the corridor would have to support it. For example, it would still fail if Madison County approved it, but Limestone County didn't. If we had some sort of regional planning authority in place, this would be a whole lot easier to do.

2) Access Management

Why does every business need to have an entrance off this highway? And when that's not enough, there's crossovers every 1000 feet, filled with drivers trying to U-turn and turn left, creating a hazard for those just passing through.

Here's an idea: how about building a one-way service lane on the each side of 72, allowing access to businesses that won't interfere with through traffic, and eliminating all left turns except at traffic lights. Eliminating all crossovers as well should leave just enough space to create an undivided 6-lane highway, or keep the remaining 4 lanes of auto traffic and add either a landscaped median or a dedicated transit lane.

3) Public Transit

As with the rest of Huntsville, high-frequency transit along University is non-existent. A few Shuttle routes go as far out as the SuperTarget shopping center, but are infrequent and inconvenient for most commuters. The ideal transit option along this corridor would need to be something flexible enough to serve both commuters and shoppers. I believe in this case that would be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT allows the frequency of light rail for about a fifth of the cost along with the flexibility of a bus. Passengers board and exit at a station, much like a rail line. But there's a catch: even with a dedicated lane, BRT is still at the mercy of the traffic light, though they can be synchronized to give priority to the bus. Here's how a hypothetical BRT corridor along University would look (click to enlarge):

A transit center/park-n-ride would be built near the new Madison Hospital/Balch Road, where riders from areas farther out could either park or transfer from a local bus route. From there, they could take one of two routes: a Research Park express route that would run primarily during rush hours, or an all day route that would run to downtown, with stops at most major intersections and shopping centers. Buses would run every 10-15 minutes and would be equipped with Wi-Fi and bike racks.

With the new transit corridor, parking won't be as necessary, allowing for redevelopment of many of the large parking lots that line the highway.

There would also need to be serious pedestrian improvements along the corridor, from the addition of sidewalks along the highway (and connecting them to businesses) to crosswalks at every signalized intersection. Greenways can be built near 72 to allow for bike commuting, especially to Research Park.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Shoppes of Madison

Some of you might have noticed some signs on 72 West between Wall Triana and the new Madison Hospital advertising "The Crossings Shoppes of Madison." It is being developed by Nashville-based GBT Realty, who also developed the Crossings of Decatur on the Beltline, anchored by Target, Petsmart, and Old Navy. So, what can we expect from this development?

  • Target. This is almost certain, considering GBT's track record of developing Target-anchored centers. You might be thinking that this is too close to the SuperTarget further east on University-- it may be too close for another Super, but not for a regular store. Note that Walmart is also opening a store about a mile or so to the west of this development in 2012, despite having a location across from SuperTarget. 
  • Academy Sports. I'm going to throw this one out there. They're due for an entry into the market, with probably two stores-- one here and another somewhere on the south side. But what leads me to this specific location is that a store was originally planned for the Walmart center, but disappeared from the plans a while back. Maybe they saw some greener grass here?
  • Not much else. Since the area is quite saturated in retail, and the small size of the lot (around 25 acres), I wouldn't expect a whole lot of small shop space with this development, and will probably be laid out as a power center, which puts an emphasis on the anchors; in this case those would be Target and Academy (one example of a power center is The Fountain/Costco at University and the Parkway). There will be some outparcel space along 72, with some restaurants and smaller shops. 
UPDATE (10/29): Sales flyer from GBT Realty confirms 278,000 sq. ft. shopping center (The Shoppes of Madison) anchored by a 134,000 sq. ft Target and an Academy Sports. It gets even more interesting-- GBT is also developing a smaller center at the corner of Balch and 72 on the other side of the new Madison Hospital, which includes a new hotel and medical office space.

Friday, October 1, 2010

September 2010 in Review

Get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.
  • September 5: 1892 East, which calls itself a "New American Restaurant and Tavern," is opening in the old Sazio's spot in Five Points. This was originally rumored to be where Trappeze Pub of Athens, GA would open a Huntsville location.
  • September 7: Ron Sparks unveils his road plan in Huntsville, armed with a list of projects he deems "extremely important," like the Northern Bypass, and pushing back other, "less important" projects like 53 and Winchester. To be fair, Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Bentley's plan isn't any better, as he plans to move forward with unnecessary new interstates such as the infamous "Western Alabama Expressway" through his hometown of Tuscaloosa and a new "East Alabama Corridor." (At least he doesn't mention reviving the Southern Bypass, which Sparks does.) Neither candidate has mentioned trying to obtain federal high-speed rail funding, or amend the state constitution to allow for state funding of public transit.
  • September 13: Local grocery chain Star Market will open its fourth area store in November in the former Southern Family Markets store at Weatherly and Bailey Cove.
  • September 14: Best Buy Mobile, the electronics store's cell phone chain, will open a store in Parkway Place later this year between Express and Victoria's Secret. This is an actual store, not just a vending machine or kiosk.
  • September 15: The construction you see at the old Bruno's on North Parkway is for a haunted attraction, which will open next week.
  • September 15: Huntsville International Airport "pleads" the region to use low-fare carrier AirTran or "lose it," citing low load factors for its non-stop flights to Baltimore and Orlando. Having flown on AirTran to BWI several times since their arrival here, the flights weren't filled to the brim, but the majority (60-70%) of the seats were taken. Out of curiosity, I compared seating charts for upcoming flights to Orlando from Huntsville, Knoxville, and Lexington (the latter two also launched AirTran service within the last year), and they were similarly booked; some of the Huntsville flights were even sold out for Fall Break next week. So I didn't think we were losing AirTran service anytime soon, until...
  • September 27: Southwest is buying AirTran.This could be great news or terrible news for Huntsville International, depending on how you look at it. The merger could give HSV more low-fare flights to "legacy" cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston. However, Southwest, despite having a large market share here already, could take it all away with their BS "too close to Nashville and Birmingham" excuse that has kept them from here thus far (they wouldn't serve four Los Angeles airports if this were actually the case). If Southwest/AirTran does pull out of HSV when the sale is completed, the airport will go back to being the most expensive in the country, as there will be few low-fare carriers left, much less one crazy enough to land at an airport where low-fare carriers go to die. In the meantime, we should pitch HSV as an easily-accessible, stress-free, and expandable airport (something we have over BHM, BNA, and future ATL reliever Chattanooga). How about an ad campaign-- "Want low fares without the drive? Fly AirTran now, get Southwest later." We've been handed a great opportunity to take our airport to the next level. Don't screw this up, Huntsville. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Park Place, Cleveland Avenue Going 'Uptown'

In a rare instance of public participation in planning projects in our region, the people behind the Park Place redevelopment in North Downtown Uptown held three meetings ("charrettes" in planner-speak) this month to discuss plans for a streetscape improvement project on Cleveland Avenue. The project will involve relocating Cleveland to the south from Meridian to the skate/dog park to make way for a wide ("meandering") sidewalk, landscaping, and displays of public art. It is expected to begin early next month and be completed before the end of the year.

Some of the ideas brought forward at the meetings included small fountains, murals, and sculpture gardens. The benches that will be placed along the sidewalk will be made from stone salvaged from a pre-Civil War stone wall that was taken out during the Meridian Street widening project. A "convenience store" for bicyclists and skateboarders (who frequent the skate park nearby) is part of the plans as well. Several of the ideas introduced by the public and the developers were shot down due to city zoning regulations. Hopefully the introduction of SmartCode in the near future will relax some of these rules.

This project is rather small in scale, and the biggest problem I see with it is continuity towards surrounding neighborhoods (Downtown, Five Points, Lincoln Mill). That will involve the tedious job of getting each business owner in the area involved, but it's key to the success of this project, along with the infill development of surrounding lots for added vibrancy.

There are separate plans to make the vacant lot across from Park Place into a surface parking lot. It seems kind of ironic that a car-oriented project will be located next to one of the most interesting pedestrian improvement projects this city has seen in a long time. While parking is a necessary evil even in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, it should always be hidden, and use up as little space as possible. The part of the lot closest to the street should be developed, possibly extending the Park Place concept, and if that's not possible right now, leave it as open space, keeping the door open for future opportunities.

This vacant lot, sandwiched between three parks, could be put to much better use than just a surface parking lot.

Developers and planners should take note at the level of public participation in this project. It's sad that these meetings/charrettes don't happen more often here. They should not be something to be afraid of-- there are plenty of great people with great ideas in this city. The problem is getting the word out-- if I can't find out about your meeting, you're not doing enough.

For more info about Park Place, and the streetscape project, visit their website: http://parkplaceplaza.com/

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

August 2010 on Facebook and Twitter

Get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.

August 5: Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts, a nationwide chain with stores in Hoover, Nashville, and Montgomery, is opening its first Huntsville store at the old Linens-N-Things space on University. Construction is scheduled to begin this fall.

August 8: From the Decatur Daily-- a rendering of a proposed visual arts center in downtown Decatur. Athens State University and Calhoun Community College are moving their arts departments to the facility, which is scheduled to break ground in December.

August 10: A Birmingham Business Journal article comparing the progress with high-speed rail plans in Alabama and Georgia. And once again, Alabama is falling behind due to an outdated "roads-only" transportation policy and perpetual stalling by state politicians. Or, as Jim put it on Facebook, "We're too busy waging the war on Bingo!"

August 15: The Mobile Press-Register prints a series of articles on Smart Growth, and how many towns and cities, including Rosemary Beach, Florida, have used it with great success. Mobile, like most cities, has a zoning code that largely prohibits pedestrian-friendly development.

August 23: Redstone Gateway, the $1 Billion office/retail development that's being considered "the next Research Park," officially broke ground. The project is expected to take a decade or more to complete.

August 24: A public meeting was held to introduce the new routing of the Northern Bypass through the Northeastern part of Madison County. The alternatives (see map below) are radically different from what has been planned in recent years-- closer to the early 1980s plan that would have had the bypass cut through the Moores Mill/Winchester intersection. The newest Long-Range Transportation Plan had it intersecting 72 East near Gurley. Wherever the bypass goes, don't expect it to be built for another 15 years, if ever.

August 26: Decatur Mall was auctioned off, going to a New York investment fund with the highest bid of $8.5 million. While I've never been inside the mall, I've heard from readers and friends that the mall isn't in the best shape, and several redevelopment efforts have failed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mellow Mushroom coming to Jones Valley

Love Mellow Mushroom, but live on the South side and don't want to drive all the way out to Providence? Sometime next year, you won't have to.

Mellow Mushroom is opening its second Huntsville restaurant on Cecil Ashburn, at the base of Huntsville Mountain. "Longtime" readers of the blog may notice that this is on the same site as the proposed St. James Place retail/office development that died early last year. The rest of the site isn't being developed, for now.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

'Downtown Development Goals' Announced

This morning (Tuesday), the city of Huntsville along with the non-profit development corporation Big Spring Partners, the UAH Jazz Ensemble and "Tallulah Bankhead," held a media event to announce their goals for raising awareness and developing the city center. This comes a year after 200 leaders and developers made an "ideas trip" to Chattanooga.

While no specific projects were announced at this event, some rather vague goals were laid out:
  • Create a long-term plan for downtown. I thought that was what the Downtown Master Plan, last updated in 2006, was for. However, I would like to see more public involvement the next time it's updated.
  • Compile a list of restaurants, retail, companies, etc. that would work downtown, and bring them there. Not a bad idea, though I would take it a step further-- identify undeveloped and underutilized lots (surface parking, non-historic buildings) and see how each one can be redeveloped to fit with the broader scope of downtown.
  • Build a consensus among the community on downtown growth. See "long-term plan."
  • Create a long-term funding strategy for improvements. What has made Chattanooga's downtown so great? A community that supported it not only with their feet, but with their money. Many of the improvements to their downtown have been funded through private sources. Huntsville is beginning to see this with the work of Jim Hudson and the late Mark Smith (through his wife, Linda).
  • Get people downtown! It's pretty self-explanatory, but it's rather hard to do in reality. It's the old "chicken or the egg" question-- what should come first: the residents or the businesses?
All of this would be great, but we have a whole lot of catching up to do; we're at least twenty years behind most cities in terms of downtown redevelopment.

Also of note-- several representatives from Sci-Quest were in attendance. While their intent on moving the science museum downtown is no secret, this could mean that the move could occur sooner than later.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Offices at Madison Square? They're coming.

UPDATE (8/10): The development will be called "Enterprise Center at Madison Square."Also, the former Steve and Barry's will be converted into office space as well, along with some smaller first-floor space near Buffalo Wild Wings (see updated map below). In all, nearly 138,000 square feet of retail space will be converted, or about 15% of the mall.

Have you ever wanted to work in a shopping mall--work that wouldn't involve the cookie cart or Foot Locker? Your chance may be coming, if Madison Square's developers (Chattanooga-based CBL) have their way. They're expected to announce as early as this week that the old Pizitz/McRae's/Belk anchor-- approximately 100,000 sq. ft.-- will be (at least partially) converted into office space. The store has been vacant since Belk moved to the Parisian space in 2007. Some readers may note that the anchor space is still owned by the Pizitz family of Birmingham-- it will be interesting to see what kind of involvement they have in this redevelopment.
Yellow-- the old McRae's/Belk space that will be completely converted. Orange-- the second level will be converted, whereas the first level will be a retail/office mix.

It's definitely not the complete overhaul I've proposed for the 25-year-old mall that's nearing the end of its useful life. But at least it's a start.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July 2010 on Facebook and Twitter

Get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds. 

July 5: Nashville plans to launch a bike-share program similar to what is now in place (and wildly popular) in cities like Denver, Washington, and Montreal. Paris launched the first bike-sharing system (called Velib) in 2007; it allows users to rent bikes from one station and return them to any station in the city. While it would be great to have a similar system in place here in Huntsville, it would require a significant investment in bike infrastructure (bike lanes, greenways) in order to be successful (and safe).

July 12: Downtown Madison is getting a slight expansion. A 20,000 square foot building is proposed, with retail space on the ground floor and office space on the upper floor.

July 19: Momma Goldberg's Deli, an Auburn tradition, is opening its first Huntsville restaurant in the Village on Whitesburg (Fresh Market center). An opening is expected in late August or early September, just in time for football season.

July 26: The $2.6 million Space Center-Botanical Garden tramway is now open, running three times a day, two days a week. The funding was provided by congressional earmarks from Senator Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa). I asked the Facebook followers of the blog what they would have done with the money if they were the senator. Some of the responses included a Research Park circulator bus and more greenways.

July 29: Newk's Express Cafe is opening its second Huntsville restaurant on Whitesburg in the Piedmont Point shopping center (Publix).

July 30:  Jon Busdecker, entertainment writer for the Times, is leaving for Orlando, but not before giving his ideas for improving downtown to cater to the younger crowd. Before anything happens, we need masses of people downtown, patronizing the existing businesses and activities and demanding that more should be done, like the "Bus." As soon as Pane e Vino has the same wait time as, say, PF Chang's at Bridge Street, the pieces will fall into place quickly. 
Some of my ideas for improving downtown, along with some from others, can be found here

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Another Hotel for Madison Boulevard

Tonight's Madison Planning Commission meeting discussed plans for a 4-story, 93-room Holiday Inn Express to be built on Madison Boulevard just west of the Wall-Triana/Sullivan intersection. The lot is located next to the Regions Bank branch and is currently occupied by a vacant building. The building will remain (and, I assume, be renovated) and the hotel will be built behind it. Construction should begin sometime this fall.

A hotel has been planned for this lot for a while now; originally, it was going to be a Best Western Inn and Suites. This will be the third hotel built along Madison Boulevard in the past two years-- a LaQuinta Inn and Suites and a Country Inn and Suites were built next to each other further west. A fourth-- a Comfort Inn and Suites-- is planned further east along the corridor, across from Walmart.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another hotel for Research Park?

A local developer is planning to build a hotel off of Governors West in Research Park, according to the city's Zoning Board agenda for this month. Expect this hotel to be more business-oriented than your average highway-exit Comfort Inn (aloft maybe?). No word on when construction will begin.

This would only be the second hotel within the boundaries of Research Park-- the other, of course, is the Westin Huntsville at Bridge Street. Speaking of Bridge Street, one of their expansion plans is to build a five-star hotel, sometime in the future.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

'Madison Growth Plan' coming

The Madison City Council on Monday night (July 12th) will discuss hiring Atlanta-based design firm Urban Collage to create a "Madison Growth Plan." This growth plan will use public meetings and workshops (charrettes) to identify "key development areas" within the city, and create a master plan for each of them. Urban Collage has created master plans for Garner, NC (outside of Raleigh) and Prattville, along with several other towns; it lists Chattanooga and Atlanta among their client cities.

What's so significant about this? Madison has realized that it's running out of land. Surrounded on three sides by Huntsville, with the exception of East Limestone, there's nowhere else to go. In order to remain vibrant, Madison's going to have to densify and look into "infill" development-- a concept that a suburb of 40,000 normally doesn't have to worry about.

But don't worry, Madison! Becoming more urban is the next logical step for a city that has only become significant within the past thirty years. It's also an exciting opportunity; for example, maybe now the city will develop an actual downtown. If done right, this will mean more retail and entertainment opportunities for Madison, which will bring more tax revenue, which (theoretically) will go back into improving the city's outdated infrastructure (e.g. the roads that have remained mostly unchanged since the boom began in the '80s).

The growth plan should come up with some cool concepts and ideas on how to wisely develop the last large parcels of land in the city, along with some underused areas (like along Hughes Road near Madison Boulevard). Expect these plans to be walkable and mixed-use. In other words, very un-Madison.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June 2010 on Twitter and Facebook

Get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.

June 3: Charming Charlie, a women's store (similar to Claire's, I think) is opening its first Huntsville store in Parkway Place, next to Williams-Sonoma on the lower level.

June 10: Save-a-Lot, which has building grocery stores like crazy this year in central Alabama, will open a store in Athens in the Peebles shopping center. Save-a-Lot has one Huntsville store at Pulaski and Mastin Lake. But with an expansion plan to have over 100 stores in Alabama (up from about 20) over the next few years, expect one in your area soon.

June 15: The City of Huntsville is conducting visual, written, and online surveys to determine who uses the greenway system. If you use a city greenway* and haven't filled one out yet, you have until July 5th to do so. Check out the city's homepage or click here to see the survey.

*Doesn't include Bradford Creek in Madison.

June 22: The bike parking requirement I talked about last month passed the Planning Commission and is headed for an August vote in the City Council. Also, there was an article in the Times about the push to implement Complete Streets in Huntsville. The problem is, there's no money to retrofit existing roads with bike lanes. Also, there are groups of people who don't want bike lanes on their streets (e.g. Holmes Avenue) because they don't want to "attract" bicyclists to their neighborhood. Oh, those sketchy bicyclists...

Also on June 22: 2009 Population Estimate for Huntsville: 179,653-- an increase of 21,437 from 2000. Will the 2010 Census reflect this growth, or will it be a repeat of the 2000 Census, where the estimates for Huntsville were off by over 20,000? We'll have to wait and see...

June 25: The first of several Birmingham-Atlanta High-Speed Rail studies is set to begin, with funding in place. Of course, with the odd way our state government operates, it was Birmingham's Regional Planning Authority, not ALDOT, that provided funding for the study (along with GDOT and the Atlanta Regional Council). Note that even the state's own passenger rail study is being conducted by the Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). Time to enter the 21st Century, ALDOT; it's not just roads and bridges anymore.

June 29: The Huntsville Shuttle system will be added to Google Transit in the near future, allowing you to route your trips in the area using transit. For 99.9% of us, this won't matter, but it's a good step forward for the system.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Harris Hill Update: Phase One Moving Forward

On the planning agendas this month: plans for a portion of the long-awaited Harris Hill development in Northeast Huntsville. According to the plans, the first phase will include space for a hotel and outparcels for restaurants, "highway retail" (banks, pharmacies, etc.), and office space. It will be located at the foot of Chapman Mountain, in the cleared area bounded by 72 East, Moores Mill, and Harris Hill Blvd. Don't get too excited; this is not the massive shopping center/residential development planned further east, which probably won't be built for some time.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Huntsville Brew Boom

Could this building in Five Points be the site of Huntsville's first modern brewpub? (Probably not; see update below.)
Huntsville is getting three new microbreweries this year, and maybe a few brewpubs in the near future. Below is a guide. Sorry about any errors; I was inspired to write this after enjoying an Olde Towne Hefeweisen.


Straight to Ale
Straight to Ale opened in April at Lincoln Mill. It has since been appearing at local bars and restaurants, including The Nook and The Stem and Stein.
Brews: Monkeynaut IPA, Wernher von Braun Ale
Website: http://www.straighttoale.com/

Blue Pants Brewery
Blue Pants will be a small brewery located off of Slaughter Road. Its owners expect to be selling brews by October, according to their website. 
Brews: Knickerbocker Red
Website: http://www.bluepantsbrew.com/

Yellowhammer Brewery
Not much is known about Yellowhammer, except that they hope to start brewing in the Fall. Their brewery will be located on Clinton, in West Downtown.
Brews: ???
Website: None.
Facebook: None Found.

I have heard about three different brewpub rumors/proposals. The first, and probably the most well known, is the rumor that Athens, Georgia-based Trappeze Pub would open a brewpub at the old Sazio location in Five Points (picture above). However, I have yet to see anything substantial or credible that would support this, and, as you can see in the picture, there is still a "For Sale" sign outside (as of June 11th). Two other brewpubs have been proposed recently-- one at Lincoln Mill, the other in West Huntsville or Madison.

Brewpubs are very hard to open in Alabama; the current laws restrict them to historic buildings in counties that had a brewpub before Prohibition. Grassroots "pro-beer" organization Free the Hops is hoping to change that in a future legislative session. If and when they are successful, expect a glut of new brewpubs throughout the area.

If you have any info you would like to share on new breweries/brewpubs in the area, please let me know and I'll add it on here. Special thanks to David and Todd for their valuable info. 

UPDATE (9/5/10): The building in Five Points pictured above will be home to 1892 East, which on its website calls itself a "New American Restaurant and Tavern" that will use locally-grown food. It will open this Fall.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

May 2010 on Twitter and Facebook

Sorry for the tardiness (this should have been posted last week). Get these updates quicker by following my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.

May 6: Parking Garage D mixed-use project (http://bit.ly/d2jU4Q) supposed to begin work this summer, on hold AGAIN.

May 10: Remember the Earth Fare that I told you about back in November? Its grand opening is Wednesday. http://bit.ly/aepk1v

May 12: Want to bring Dunkin' Donuts back to Huntsville? Franchise seminar at Embassy Suites on 26 May http://bit.ly/cC1NR9

May 13: Huntsville wants to hire a downtown "czar" http://bit.ly/amjacK

May 17: Virginia College moving to old Kroger on Drake: http://bit.ly/bVfnZu

May 21: Powerhouse Gym opening in old Old Navy, next to new Earth Fare: http://bit.ly/2L1Aq6

May 24: HSV proposing required bicycle parking for new lots w/ 20+ auto spaces http://bit.ly/brAQUv

May 26: Bridge Street wants city money to help pay for $50m expansion, including a department store http://bit.ly/ahVt1h

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bridge Street's Newest Expansion Plan: Does It Hold Water?

O&S Holdings has come out with yet another expansion plan for Bridge Street. This one involves possibly filling in the 10-acre "Lake Leaky" to add 75,000 square feet of retail space along with a "high-end" department store. Not to mention an expensive underground parking garage. What is their plan to fund this $50 million expansion during the recession? By using part of the current city sales tax generated from the new department store.

Let's say that the developers decide to fill in the lake for the expansion. How Huntsville of us to think that the solution to a problem is to pave over it. From the words of President Obama, "plug the damn hole!" You'd think with the workforce here, they could find legitimate, competent engineers to build/fix a proper lake.

After fixing the lake, a new expansion location would have to be found. There are plenty of surface lots that could be used, and instead of building an underground garage, why not construct an above-ground deck to compensate for the lost/needed parking. And to pay for it, have people pay a fee for the convenience of parking in the garage. If the department store is as good as the developers say it will be, people will be willing to pay to park.

Last, but not least, is the retail portion of the expansion. A 75,000 sq. ft. addition to the center, along with a 100-150,000 sq. ft. department store, will make Bridge Street the second-largest retail development in the city, surpassing Parkway Place but below Madison Square's 1 million sq. ft. But how will the developers attract new stores to the expansion when there are empty storefronts in the existing center?

Enough ranting. Let's speculate on the the three most probable department store chains, which I've nicknamed The Obvious, The Long Shot, and The Wild Card:

The Obvious: Macy's. This may seem like the most logical choice because of their widespread presence in other cities, but not in Huntsville. However, with their nationwide expansion, their "high-end"-ness has been questioned recently, with many of their non-flagship stores carrying brands seen in more mid-range stores like Kohl's and JCPenney. But they have made the move to lifestyle centers, creating a new concept store for developments such as Bridge Street.

The Long Shot: Nordstrom. The Seattle-based high-end chain almost exclusively locates in metro areas with more than 1.5 million people. Also, a Nashville store will open in September 2011. That said, I don't think we'll see a full-scale Nordstrom in Huntsville for a couple of decades... at least. But there are two possible exceptions: a Nordstrom Rack (outlet store) or a smaller-scale store concept geared towards smaller cities.

The Wild Card: Von Maur. Many of you have probably never heard of this small Midwestern chain; I hadn't until about a year ago, when someone suggested it as a possible Bridge Street anchor (it was the planned anchor for another Bridge Street development in Chicago). I was skeptical at first, but the chain has slowly moved south, opening stores in Kentucky and Missouri. It's high-end, not currently in "the region," and it has stores in Huntsville-sized cities. I say Von Maur's got a good chance.

Friday, May 21, 2010

EarthFare Successful, Greenlife Bought; Whole Foods Next?

It's been over a week since Earth Fare held its grand opening for its Huntsville store on University. Kalou's in Providence, which opened last fall, seems to be doing well. On the southside, Fresh Market opened a few years ago. And we can't forget the locally-owned Garden Cove on Meridian, the oldest of Huntsville's organic food stores, open for some 25 years.

Even with these choices, I am frequently asked about when Whole Foods Market, by far the largest organic grocery chain in the country, will be coming to Huntsville. Their only store in Alabama is in Mountain Brook, south of Birmingham. 

Recently, Chattanooga-based Greenlife, a two-store (Chatty and Asheville) organic grocery chain, was bought by Whole Foods. (Observant readers of the blog might remember that I predicted Greenlife would announce a Huntsville location soon, possibly downtown.) Could this mean that Whole Foods is looking to expand in more mid-size metro areas like Chattanooga, Asheville, and eventually Huntsville? Granted, the former two cities are much more urban in nature, something Whole Foods seems to prefer when locating in smaller cities. While similar in size, when it comes to urban living, Huntsville has a long way to go before being considered on level with cities like Chattanooga and Asheville.

Whole Foods seems to prefer trendy urban neighborhoods (like Chatty's North Shore) or super-wealthy/high-density suburbs (like Cool Springs/Franklin, TN). Huntsville has neither, which could pose a problem in finding a location. Looking at their minimum store placement requirements, it seems there are only two viable candidate areas in Huntsville-- downtown (Constellation?) or Research Park (Bridge Street?). Bridge Street almost got Wild Oats Market (now Whole Foods) back in 2006, but I have a problem with putting a grocery store in an area where few people live, now or ever. At least downtown has a pretty good chance of eventually getting enough full-time residents to attract a grocery store.

The last paragraph could also be applied to Trader Joe's, another popular grocery store; their closest location is in Nashville.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Downtown Atlanta in 90 Minutes? Get on the Train

The above map is my idea for a regional high-speed railway network-- a hub-and-spoke system focused on Atlanta with lines extending out to most major cities within a 300-400 mile radius, and slower "Regional Express" trains on congested routes between smaller cities. All of these lines have been discussed at some point... except one. Can you guess which one?

Last summer, I suggested a possible alternative for the decades-old Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta "superhighway" fantasy-- construct a high-speed rail line along the proposed route. Replacing the proposed Interstate with rail would be cheaper to build, faster than road travel, and more energy-efficient. Not to mention more enticing to 1) Georgia officials weary of another Interstate feeding into an already congested Atlanta road network, and 2) Mississippi officials who have already built an Interstate-grade highway (Future I-22/Corridor X) no more than 50 miles to the south of the proposed superhighway. 

Why Atlanta? The only direct way to Atlanta today from Huntsville is by air. On a normal weekday, Delta and its operating partners have eleven flights between HSV and ATL each way, with total seating capacity between 700 and 750 passengers, enough to fill 2 TGV Sud-Est trains each way. It can be assumed that many times that number take the four-hour drive to Atlanta daily. While a direct Interstate would get you to downtown in about three hours (without traffic), a high-speed rail link running at 125 mph could get you there in half that time.

Non-stop air travel to Atlanta, booked a week in advance, is about $700 round-trip. A high-speed train trip of similar length and time in Germany is about $100 round-trip. It would cost about half that to drive my 28 mpg car to Atlanta and back, but remember, the trip would take twice as long.
The Huntsville rail station would work best in one of two locations-- downtown or the airport. Having the station downtown would put passengers in the middle of the city, similar to many European rail stations. A downtown station would also have plenty of surrounding urban development opportunities. An airport station, however, would be located in the center of the region, eliminating the need for more than one station if adequate mass transit connections are provided, and would provide quick air connections to farther-off destinations. 

How much will it cost, and when will it happen?

The cost of constructing a high-speed rail line varies wildly. A line recently built between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain cost $22 million per mile, or about half the cost of an average Interstate. But the proposed initial segment of the California HSR network will cost $42 billion, or $107 million per mile. Building an Atlanta-Huntsville high speed rail line would require building completely new tracks and would cost significantly more than the Memphis extension, which could use the existing Norfolk Southern line. Then there's possible expenses from outrageous politically-motivated proposals like the "hydrogen-powered Maglev" line planned between Detroit and Lansing, Michigan.

The Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta route warrants more study, of course. But if it's done right, it could become a reality in the next 20-25 years-- about the time the "superhighway" is supposed to be built...

 More info: Popular Mechanics article on high-speed rail

Saturday, May 1, 2010

April 2010: The Month on Twitter and Facebook

Since many of you don't follow my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds, I thought it would be good to catch you guys up with some of the updates I have been posting there. Here's what you missed last month:

April 1: A UAH student's experience on the Shuttle bus: http://bit.ly/cF76nR

April 6: Has Huntsville done enough to become "bike-friendly?" Bicycling Magazine doesn't think so... http://bit.ly/9PQQKf

April 9: UAH campus master plan "unveiled" (pdf): http://bit.ly/aF5lJY Significantly different than the draft plan released last July: http://bit.ly/bwmjUM

April 15: The Stars have signed a lease extension with the city until 2015. Looks like no new Joe for now: http://bit.ly/anVABS

April 20: Drake State move downtown considered "a success" after less than one semester; Stone Middle could be next http://bit.ly/9PXV9j

April 22: On Earth Day, Huntsville looking to buy a hybrid bus http://bit.ly/9nUVFJ Also today-- the construction of up to 50 new bus shelters could begin as early as next month

April 30: TN developer wants to build 200,000 sq ft "upscale" shopping center in Decatur. One problem: he wants Morgan's federal stimulus money to pay for it http://bit.ly/by51Ip

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ideas for West Downtown

With the news this week that Drake State is considering moving forward with its plan to acquire/expand to the former Stone Middle School, I think its an appropriate time to discuss what could make the surrounding neighborhood, West Downtown, a great place to live.

I define West Downtown as the area south of 565, west of the Parkway, north of Governors, and east of Triana. The neighborhood consists of a mix of industrial buildings sprinkled with old "shotgun" houses and a large public housing project. Future development on both ends-- Constellation to the east and the campus of Drake State (along with two of Huntsville's most popular local restaurants-- Blue Plate and Bandito Burrito) to the west, makes this area ripe for redevelopment.

What makes this area stand out from other neighborhoods in the city center is that much of it is vacant or deserted, and little of what's left is of historical value. A whole new neighborhood could be built here without too much controversy.

Below I have created a map showing possible redevelopment sites and their uses. (Note that while many of these sites are for sale/lease, some of them aren't. And besides Drake State, these proposals are no more than ideas.) Residential is shaded in yellow; commercial, blue; recreational, green; and mixed-use, purple. Click on the pushpins for more info about an area.

View West Downtown in a larger map

Some notable features:
The Broglan/West Downtown Linear Park- A park along the Broglan Branch creek, which would be returned to its natural state. A greenway running the length of the park would connect West Downtown to Holmes and Governors.
West Clinton Mixed-Use District- 4-5 story buildings would line West Clinton with shops, bars, and restaurants on the bottom floor and lofts on top.
Butler Terrace/Johnson Towers/Patton public housing redevelopment- If the housing authority's going to fulfill its dream of deconcentrating public housing projects in the center city, it should do it right. First off, don't hire shady developers. Once that's accomplished, the housing projects could be replaced with a mixed-income, mixed-type residential development centered around a small commercial element (such as a neighborhood market/cafe) and surrounded by parks.
The Community Center- On the current site of the Westside Community Center, a recreational hub can be built. It could include a park, library, rec center, neighborhood school, small urban farm, etc.

Some minor fixes:
Streetscape-- A better-landscaped West Clinton would do wonders for the neighborhood. So would "road dieting" (reducing the number of lanes, e.g. from 5 to 3), adding bike lanes and sidewalks where necessary, and allowing on-street parking.
Restoring the "grid"-- the original gridded street layout of the neighborhood was fragmented by industrial development and the housing projects. Extension and alignment of several streets would be ideal for neighborhood connectivity; I've noted some of these (in black) on the map. Alleyways (gray on the map) were created in some areas to allow some off-street parking  and access in places where it would otherwise be tricky.

How will it work?
The parks and streetscape improvements would be the city's responsibility; so would a liberal (small "l") zoning policy (SmartCode might work here). And after the Huntsville Housing Authority sells off the housing projects and they're redeveloped, the remainder of the neighborhood should follow suit with rising demand and property values. Having Drake State in the neighborhood would also increase demand for housing in the area, as it might influence some teachers and students to move within walking distance of the school.

So, with this (almost) empty canvas of a neighborhood, what would you like to see here? Go eat at Blue Plate or Bandito sometime, take a look around, and tell me what you think.

UPDATED 5/11: Here is a concept for the redevelopment of the housing projects in West Downtown, "Broglan Park," created by architect and former Huntsville resident Jim McDougal, who now lives in DC. Click on the images to enlarge:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Myths and Truths of SmartCode/Smart Growth

 SmartCode was inspired by the planning of towns like Rosemary Beach, Florida. (above)

Now that Huntsville is seriously considering adopting SmartCode, let's get some of the facts straight about it:

Myth: SmartCode increases traffic congestion.
Truth: SmartCode uses narrower (but straighter) streets and on-street parking to slow traffic. While you might think this would increase congestion, just about everything you need on a daily basis would be in/near your neighborhood, so why drive to, say, the grocery store when you can walk or bike safely to it? Having neighborhood schools and reliable public transit to employment centers could eliminate the need to drive on a daily basis altogether; however, Huntsville lacks both.

Myth: SmartCode makes housing unaffordable.
Truth: While Providence is priced well out of the range of the average homebuyer, it's because its a unique neighborhood. People pay for the "privilege" to live there. If more subdivision developers got "smart" and implemented SmartCode in their projects, the price of housing in a Providence-like neighborhood would decrease. Also, an ideal Smart Growth neighborhood has a variety of housing options, including single-family detached, townhouses, loft condos, and apartments.

Myth: SmartCode is costly to local governments.
Fact: It's not any more expensive than conventional sprawl, which forces governments to constantly widen roads and build new schools on the city fringes, while infrastructure in the center city remains underused. Rewriting the zoning code will cost upwards of $500,000, based on other cities' attempts.

Myth: SmartCode will force denser development.
Fact: Ok, maybe that is a fact; it will influence denser development than current codes do. But SmartCode also implements transition or buffer zones between residential and commercial districts. So instead of having a mid-rise apartment building or shopping center next to a cluster of single-family homes, townhouses or neighborhood retail could be put in between. Another way SmartCode creates density is by utilizing massive, ill-planned parking lots-- this is called "grayfield" development. I will be talking about downtown grayfield opportunities in a future post.

Myth: "Smart Growth" means more government regulation.
Fact: Believe it or not, current zoning codes are more restrictive and regulatory than SmartCode. Minimum lot widths/setbacks, single-use zoning, and auto-dependent transportation networks have created the suburban sprawl environment we live in today. Smart Growth eliminates these restrictions on development, and enables developers to think outside the box when designing future projects.

I've said this before, but it would be interesting to see if a subdivision developer would use SmartCode on a large-scale project in unincorporated (no zoning) Madison County. But every time I drive up 53 or Winchester, my optimism for such an ambitious endeavor fades. 

Take a look at the SmartCode presentation to the city planning department. (.pdf file)

All of my "facts" come from the Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany, et al. McGraw Hill, 2010.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Oakwood Village to be renovated?

Plans include a "local grocer", according to one sales flyer.

Oakwood Village is a shopping center at the intersection of Oakwood Avenue and Meridian Street that has seen better days. Tenants have been hard to keep since Winn-Dixie, its main anchor, closed about five years ago, being replaced recently by a couple of shady furniture stores. A revitalization of the center would be logical considering its location-- just north of Lincoln Mill.

What is not known yet is whether or not this will be a full-blown redevelopment of the shopping center. The suburban design of Oakwood Village seems out of place in area surrounded by pre-WWII mill houses, so a more urban (mixed-use?) makeover of the center would be welcome. But even just the signing of a "prominent local grocer" to the center (if that's all this "renovation" is) would help the Lincoln Mill neighborhood become a more vibrant, attractive place to live.

This leaves one lingering question-- what "prominent local grocer" would put a store at Oakwood Village? There are three such grocers I would consider "prominent" in the area, with the recent departure of Southern Family Markets: Kroger, Star Market, and Publix. Kroger has a recently-renovated store on Oakwood about a mile west of the shopping center. Star Market also recently renovated and expanded its original Five Points store (also about a mile away), and it would be tragic for them to leave that neighborhood. This leaves Publix, whose closest store is six miles away, in Southeast Huntsville. Publix seems to prefer affluent suburban areas,  but has been known to build urban stores, such as this one in Columbia, SC. Could Publix be planning to do the same in Huntsville? Stay tuned.

Update (4/9/10): I should also mention the possibility that the proposed grocery store could be completely local and independent.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Redstone Gateway: Office Developer Announced

Corporate Office Properties Trust, a Maryland-based office developer that specializes in government-centric office projects, has been revealed as a partner in Jim Wilson and Associates' Redstone Gateway project, according to their website. A news conference will be held tomorrow morning to unveil the partnership and other details about the project.

COPT's role in the project will be to develop up to 4.4 million square feet of office space (over 4.5 times the size of Madison Square), 1.2 million of which will be "secure." The office space will be built in three phases, with three-to-six story buildings (so very Huntsville...) containing 80-165,000 square feet of space each.

Redstone Gateway will be built on Enhanced-Use Lease land on the Southwest corner of the 565/Research Park interchange, just north of Redstone Arsenal Gate 9. The first phase of the 468 acre project will include retail space and a hotel. You can read more about the project in a post I wrote almost two years ago.

Updated: COPT Presentation on Redstone Gateway

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Better Know A Sustainability Plan: Part II

And now, a look at the Transportation aspects of the Huntsville Sustainability Plan, which focused around two major recommendations:

Reduce vehicle emissions. The plan outlines several potential actions to curb automobile pollution:

  • Enact Complete Streets initiatives. This idea runs off the theory that streets are for all modes of transportation-- car, bike, pedestrian, and transit-- and accommodations should be made for each of them. Some common implementations of Complete Streets include bike and bus lanes, crosswalks, and road "dieting" (where lanes are taken away instead of added; this was done on Providence Main Street a few years ago). The only obstacle I see to this that most major roads (University, Jordan, the Parkway) are maintained by the state, so any Complete Streets improvements to those roads would have to be approved by ALDOT, who has only now created a statewide bicycle/pedestrian plan and has never been too keen about alternative transportation.
  • Implementing the CommuteSmart program for carpooling. This has been in place for some time in the rest of Alabama's Big 4 cities, but not in Huntsville. Maybe it's because we already have a RideShare program. Using church parking lots for park-and-rides is a great idea, since they're only fully utilized a couple hours a week.  Madison began doing this a while back, if I recall.
  • Building High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV/carpool) lanes on major highways. HOV lanes are effective only in metro areas with chronic congestion, such as Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Huntsville is definitely not on par with these cities when it comes to gridlock, so carpool lanes are neither feasible nor needed in the foreseeable future.

Develop a regional transportation system. In the short-term, this would involve getting state legislative approval to create a "Light Rail Authority" and creating a feasibility plan for Light Rail Transit (LRT), along with planning and building transit hubs, linked together initially by greenways and bus routes, and eventually LRT.

Idea: "Light Rail Authority" sounds silly and very restrictive; a "Regional Transportation Authority" sounds better and is more inclusive of all options. But why is Huntsville so determined to construct the most expensive mass transit option short of building a full-blown Metro (subway)? The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) evaluates new transit projects based on density, demand, "cost effectiveness," among other factors that can make or break a transit system. I can assure you that an LRT system in Huntsville, with our current size and lack of transit support (especially at state level), will not get FTA approval and funding, at least not for the next 10-15 years. However, there are plenty of other, less expensive options, such as commuter rail, streetcar ("light" light rail) and Bus Rapid Transit, that have been proven to work or are being built in other cities our size, so why not look at all of them? I've talked about this before.

What's missing: High Speed Rail. This has become a major transportation issue in the past year, and recently, $8 Billion in grants were given to states that wanted to upgrade their current Amtrak routes to allow trains to travel up to 110 mph. While a true European/Japanese-style high-speed network is years away, the Huntsville-Decatur region should perform feasibility studies for rail connections to Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Birmingham as a way to alleviate congestion and reduce travel times. Last year, I talked about a Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta high-speed rail line as a substitute for a proposed interstate that would follow the same route.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Better Know A Sustainability Plan: Part I

Huntsville's sustainability plan is now online and available for public viewing, so today I'll begin the first of a two (maybe three) part series, "Better Know A Sustainability Plan." First, we'll look at the "Built Environment" section; I'll discuss the ideas in the report and give some of my own.

We all know that Huntsville is not an "urban" city. In most areas, we are very "suburban," and the urban area's average density is one of the lowest in the nation. Living on a cul-de-sac 45 minutes from the city isn't very sustainable. But we all can't live in tiny condos in super-urban areas either. We must find a "happy medium" that increases density while preserving and enhancing the quality of life that we enjoy in this region.

The sustainability plan puts forward several recommendations for solving this "density dilemma." Here are some of them: 

Preserve and set aside green space. The cities of Huntsville and Madison, in cooperation of the Land Trust, have done a fairly good job preserving greenspace through land preserves, parks, and greenways. The plan discusses creating buffer zones between urban development and greenspace, and setting aside open space within urban development.

Idea: Let's start preserving greenspace by making part or all of the 1500 acres Huntsville plans to buy in Limestone County into parkland and recreational facilities, instead of developing it into another Research Park, which will only enhance sprawl in an area that doesn't need it.  

Better mixed-use zoning using Smart Growth principles. The plan calls for more walkable live/work/play neighborhoods, which reduce car dependency (such as the need for parking) by placing parks, schools, and everyday commercial (grocery stores, banks, etc.) inside the neighborhood. This, in turn, reduces the cost for more infrastructure, especially roads. Along with walkable suburbs, the plan discusses identifying lots in the city center and surrounding neighborhoods that can be used for "infill" development (surface parking lots, abandoned buildings). The plan also talks about implementing/requiring Smart Growth, a somewhat controversial planning code that encourages walkable neighborhoods with denser housing based on the location of the neighborhood (urban, suburban, rural), among other things. I wrote about it in a post in December, and you can read more about it in The Smart Growth Manual, co-written by renowned planner Andres Duany.

Idea: I would like to see the planning departments in the region to introduce Smart Growth first as an "incentivized alternative"; for example, giving priority approval for large commercial and residential developments that implement relevant Smart Growth practices. Eventually, when most developers and citizens realize that Smart Growth isn't some "far-left social engineering" ploy, it can be adopted as the standard.

It should be noted that Seaside, Florida, designed in part by Duany and the poster child of the New Urbanist/Smart Growth movement, was developed in an area that was originally without zoning regulations. Goes to show if developers got smart, they could take advantage of unincorporated Madison County's lack of zoning and use it for something good, instead of being a good place to put Dollar Generals, fireworks stores, and strip clubs.

Green Building Practices. The sustainability plan recommends giving incentives to developments that are LEED-certified or have some kind of environmentally-friendly feature (green roofs, porous paving in parking lots, etc.).

Minimize impact of parking lots. The plan emphasizes "shared parking" between businesses and accommodating transit and bicyclists.

Idea:  Parking is a necessary evil of any commercial development. But why does it always have to be in front of stores, which discourages walking? Why can't parking be behind a shopping center (with the exception of handicapped spaces)? In the central city, we should continue to expand throughout the General Business C-3 District, the zoning used for the central business district, which has no parking requirements. When the need arises for parking garages in an area, design it to "blend in" to the surrounding district along with street level retail and restaurants, like Parking Garage D, which will begin construction later this year.

Wednesday: Transportation, including "Complete Streets," public transit, and why HOV lanes aren't a good idea for Huntsville.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

2035 Plan Tabled... By Madison!?

An interesting blurb in yesterday's Times... the 2035 Long-Range Transportation Plan was tabled by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, or more specifically, Mayor Paul Finley of Madison. The mayor said that the MPO needed to schedule a work session and "look at all the layers" of the plan. Finley also said that he needed to "sell" the plan to Madison residents and officials.

Could part of Mayor Finley's concerns be that the centerpiece of the plan, the $550 million "Patriot Parkway", is projected to further augment congestion in his already traffic-choked suburb? Or that the 2035 plan is very Huntsville-centric, with little regard to the needs of the region as a whole? We can only speculate. Kudos to Mayor Finley for asking questions and not blindly accepting the plan, like politicians normally would.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Resurrecting the Huntsville Streetcar

With the news this past week that Huntsville is going forward with a $2.6 million tramway to nowhere that will probably serve only a few tourists a day and have no impact on the average citizen's commute, I thought I would indulge you with a little Huntsville transit history. Did you know that, for about 20 years, Huntsville had a mass transit system? And people actually used it?

  Early 1900s streetcar in downtown Huntsville. Source: Wikimedia/Huntsville-Madison County Public Library

From 1901 to 1931, Huntsville had two streetcars that connected Dallas Mill, Five Points, Downtown, and Merrimack. But sadly, like most streetcar systems in the US that existed in the early 20th Century, it folded because of the Great Depression (and the push led by "what's good for America" General Motors to acquire and replace streetcar lines with their buses, but that happened after Huntsville's line was gone).

Today, dozens of cities have built or are building streetcar lines once again. Some, like Little Rock and Memphis, have built New Orleans-style "heritage streetcar" lines that use refurbished streetcars from the early 20th Century. Other cities, like Portland, have constructed "modern streetcar" lines that are sleeker, more comfortable, and somewhat faster than the streetcars of old. Let's think for a minute about how, or if, the Huntsville Streetcar can be reborn in a city that's now 15 times the size it was when the line last operated. Here's my idea:

Full Map (click to enlarge)


Five Points (station placement example)

Fast Facts:
Length: 5.9 miles
Time: 25-30 minutes end-to-end
Frequency: every 10-20 minutes, seven days a week, from 6AM (8AM Saturdays and Sundays)-10PM (12AM Fridays and Saturdays)

Streetcars would run mostly in the inside lane of both directions of traffic. Since much of the route is on five-lane roads, two lanes would be used for streetcars, two lanes would remain exclusive to vehicular traffic, with bike lanes or widened sidewalks on each side and landscaped medians between platforms. Station platforms, 100 feet in length and spaced approximately 1/3 mile apart, would be put in between the tracks, accessible by pedestrian crosswalks at signalized intersections, and would have amenities like well-designed shelters that blend with the surrounding neighborhood, message boards showing the time until the next streetcar, and ticket vending machines.

Several of the stations would have park-and-ride lots. This would serve a double purpose of permitting denser, mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) in the immediate vicinity of the stations and freeing up surface parking in the CBD to be put to better use.

Note that the line would end at Gate 8 (Goss Road) at Redstone Arsenal. From there, riders could walk through the gate and enter the base, possibly transferring to a circulator bus. Streetcar line extensions could eventually be built along Church Street to the main bus terminal, Madison Street/Whitesburg and Governors to the Medical District/Lowe Mill, and Meridian Street to Lincoln Mill.


Streetcars are dangerous. Only if you're dumb enough to run into one. 99.9% of the time, streetcars stay in their lane, aren't subject to road rage, and go no faster than the speed limit. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if car drivers were the same way (myself included).

Streetcars are costly. Not as expensive as your favorite highway, but yes, they are more expensive and less flexible than buses. Streetcars have lower maintenance costs and have a longer lifespan than their gas-powered counterparts, and they emit zero emissions. Streetcars bring more investment to surrounding neighborhoods, raising property values and the overall look, starting with the streets. Also of note: The Infrastructurist has 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses.

Huntsville is not dense enough to support any kind of rail transit. It's the "chicken or the egg" question of transit planning: What comes first: the transit or the density? If you build the transit infrastructure first, people might not ride it in large numbers, but TOD opportunities abound. But if you wait for an area to become "dense enough" for transit, you run the risk of the project becoming prohibitively expensive, such as in acquiring rights-of-way.

Why not put a streetcar line in Research Park? Nobody works downtown. A streetcar line in Research Park would be a tough sell considering that its streets aren't linear, and the opportunities for non-office transit oriented development would be few. The lack of a real residential component within Research Park (and commercial outside of Bridge Street) would make the streetcar effective only during daytime working hours. Why build a streetcar system if it's only effective for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week? Research Park needs better transit, but probably in the form of high-frequency circulator buses that run to University Drive and Bridge Street. Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have the right street pattern and the 24-hour population to support a streetcar line. And did you know that the Downtown/Medical District workforce tops 30,000, as much as both Research Parks combined? The residential population surrounding the line was at 25,000 in 2000, the latest data available for specific neighborhoods.

A Cheaper Alternative?

If the $30-50 million per mile cost of a streetcar line is too much to risk, let's first give Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) a try. It would run on the same capacity and infrastructure (minus the rails), but would be about half the cost. However, studies of redevelopment/TOD potential along BRT lines have been mostly inconclusive, as it is a relatively new technology in the United States. Eugene, Oregon, a city similar in size to Huntsville, built a 4-mile, $24 million BRT line three years ago. Another Huntsville-like city, Fort Collins, Colorado, is constructing an $80 million, 5 mile BRT route starting this year, which is eerily familiar to the idea I'm proposing. For more info, check out Fort Collins' Economic Analysis Report on the BRT route.

Should we build it, and if so, when will it happen?

The Huntsville urban streetcar/BRT line should be a long-range goal of a greater regional transit system, to get to "hard-to-reach" neighborhoods that might not be well-served by other modes of mass transit offered (except for fixed-route regular buses). Because of this, smooth connections should be made to any future bus and rail routes.