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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.

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.