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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.

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