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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:


Anonymous said...

Getting rid of the projects must be a first step. No one will take a chance on that area until they're gone.

Appealing to a younger, hipper demographic is key. Bike paths connecting to downtown would be a great alternative transportation method. Also, restaurants, coffee shops, and a grocery store are a necessity for anyone that is going to live there.

Maybe the city planners in Huntsville can put something together.

Steve Driskell said...

I think establishing a TIF district and removing the zoning (land use based regulation) and replacing it with SmartCode (form based) would do wonders for the area. A TIF district would be outstandingly successful in this area considering its proximity to downtown, and how it's wedged between these major thoroughfares.

I agree, the projects have got to go first, but after that, you've got to place in some sort of incentive that isn't gonna break the bank, and I think a TIF is the best option. Property values next to downtown areas tend to be very dynamic and the potential for a rapid increase in property value in this area would be very high and hard to resist for developers.

James said...

@Steve: A TIF district would be a great way to fund public improvements to the neighborhood (parks, streetscapes, etc.) I'm sure the city would be willing to create one once there is enough demand for redeveloping the neighborhood, which should be soon (next 5 years or so).

[something witty] said...

I have to agree with the other comments, the projects have to go first before anyone will be interested in this area. However, we should realize that this will cause some people to scream 'gentrification!!!' To which the response should be 'yes.' Also, I think that any development of this area should be done in concert with the development of the Merrimack mill village, and include bike paths that go to UAH. I am glad you posted this because every time my wife and I go to get the taco bus, we think how awesome this area of Huntsville could be.

N Reviews said...

I tend to agree with the above about Merrimack mill village. If you build it, they will come. Build interest by all means.