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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

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  • 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.