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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.