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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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Look Ahead: 2012

Happy New Year! My infamous annual predictions and expectations in urban planning and retail development have returned for 2012. Here you go: 

A new era in planning Huntsville. The City of Huntsville has a major decision to make in 2012-- who will be the city's new Urban Planner? The person chosen for the job will decide the city's direction when it comes to SmartCode, transportation planning (e.g. Complete Streets), the creation of a Comprehensive Plan, etc. Of course, the mayoral election in August will play a factor in this as well.

The end of food deserts. With retailers like Walmart, Save-A-Lot, and Walgreens expanding their presences and fresh-food options in "food deserts" (low-income areas without easy access to fresh groceries), don't be surprised if these chains add stores in areas like Southwest and Northwest Huntsville. The largest food deserts in the city of Huntsville in a few years will ironically be higher-income areas like Martin/Zierdt, where the low population density doesn't support a full-line grocery store.

Growth on the Central Parkway corridor. The 72 West corridor, with a new Walmart and Target under construction, may have been the hot retail area this year, but next year, much of the activity will shift closer to the city center. With the highest population density and median incomes in the region, the area I like to call "Central Parkway"-- between Downtown and Airport Road-- has a good chance to attract several major retailers in the next year and beyond. It's no secret that Walmart wants to build a larger store in the area to replace its existing Drake Avenue location. The John Hunt Park Master Plan calls for two tracts along the Parkway-- one at Airport Road, the other being Joe Davis Stadium-- to be sold for redevelopment, but this depends on the outcome of a public referendum to be held in the future.

Continued Downtown development. The Belk-Hudson Lofts will open this summer, more than doubling the number of residential units in the CBD. If everything works out, the Councill Court redevelopment anchored by a grocery (possibly Publix), a hotel, and a mid-rise office building along with 300-plus apartments, will get off the ground this year.

New Restaurants. As previously announced, Chipotle, Dunkin' Donuts, Panda Express, Texas Roadhouse, and Jimmy John's will all debut in Huntsville in 2012. Panera Bread is opening two new locations-- one in Madison, one at Bridge Street. And I predict that the frozen yogurt "bubble" will continue, but it will begin to subside by the end of the year due to market saturation.

South Parkway gets some love. Aldi has publicly expressed plans for a new store in South Huntsville whose location hasn't been decided yet, but I could definitely see it in Haysland Square. In addition, you could also see some "small stuff" in the area-- new pharmacies, restaurants, etc.

Patience on 72 East. While I could see "small stuff" popping up on 72 East at any time, big-box development isn't happening in 2012. Several factors have worked against that area. First off, Harris Hill, the development that was to set off retail expansion in this underserved corridor, was announced in 2007. For three years after that, new major retail development in this country did not exist-- financing was impossible to obtain for such projects. While the financial picture is a bit better now, the two most likely anchors, Target and Walmart, probably have their own reservations on building there at this moment. Target prefers areas with a 5-mile population of around 100,000-- the 72 East corridor has approximately 85,000 people within a 5-mile radius, according to the 2010 Census, compared to around 98,000 for the 72 West corridor, where a store is currently under construction. Walmart, which has shifted its focus to urban areas (see "The End of Food Deserts"), is planning very few new Supercenters in the US right now*, having saturated the suburban/rural market. With that said, I do see retail expansion coming to that area, but probably not for another 3-4 years, not bad for a major retail development if you consider that the earliest date it could have started was 2011.

*Walmart's 72 West store, currently under construction, was proposed about five years ago, and the land was bought before the recession hit, but construction was accelerated by the Madison Target. The potential replacement store for the Drake location is the one exception to the policy-- replacing regular stores with Supercenters. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chipotle Coming to Huntsville

Several of you have asked if the construction going on between Cheddar's and Zaxby's on University Drive is for a new Chipotle Mexican Grill. While that is not the case-- what you're seeing is another new entry into the market, Panda Express-- Chipotle will be opening their first Huntsville restaurant in that same corridor.

Site plans for the Earth Fare (former Circuit City/Linens n' Things) shopping center across from Madison Square show a 2,400 sq. ft. Chipotle restaurant going in on the eastern side of the retail strip.

Chipotle's opening should please a lot of Huntsvillians, as it came in second in new restaurants on the original Ideas Map, just behind The Cheesecake Factory.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Transit Plan Update

The Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) of Huntsville's Shuttle public transit system is moving along, and a draft map of the proposed changes to the system is now available. The final plan will be presented to the City Council in January. Some highlights of the plan include:

  • Timed transfers between routes. The consultants performing the COA found that 44% of riders using the system transfer between routes, but the timing of the routes terminating at the Downtown Transit Center made for inconvenient and long transfer wait times of up to an hour. The new routes will meet downtown on the hour to allow for efficient transfers. 
  • Increasing frequency on some routes, while decreasing frequency on others. Two routes, University Drive and Southwest Huntsville, will get thirty-minute headways, while the center city Red and Blue Core loops will be pushed back to hourly service.
  • Elimination of routes. The Research Park and Tourist routes will be eliminated and absorbed into other existing routes. The Airport Road and Southeast Huntsville routes will be combined into one large loop, allowing for a one-seat ride from the south side to downtown, eliminating the current required transfer at Parkway Place.
  • Extension of operation hours. Five routes will have their hours of operation extended up to one hour from the current 6am-6pm run time. 
For those like myself looking for a more gutsy overhaul of the transit system, remember that this COA assumed a revenue-neutral option-- the 2012 transit budget is $4.1 million. It would have been great however to see what the transit system could look like if the annual budget were increased by $1 million, or even $5 million; if fares were increased, or if Madison and Redstone Arsenal contributed to the system in exchange for routes in their areas.

James' COA

Here's some ideas that are completely feasible in the near-term and would increase ridership among "choice riders," who have other means of transportation but choose to take the bus. 

  • Restore and enhance Research Park service. Completely eliminating service to Research Park would ignore the 50,000+ workers that are currently employed there. Start small with a frequent Lunch Shuttle between offices and the restaurants on University and Bridge Street, with service running every 15 minutes between 10am and 3pm. When funding is available, construct a Research Park transit hub and encourage companies to use shuttle vans (similar to the airport shuttles hotels use) to ferry their commuting workers between the hub and their workplace. 
  • Introduce routes to the Airport, Madison, and the Arsenal. The taxi and rental car companies won't like it, but it's time for a bus route to the Airport. I would propose an express bus between Downtown and the Airport with a long-term parking lot at Research Park. With 63% of Madison's workers commuting to Huntsville* and infrastructure that can't handle a lot more traffic, Madison could use a few bus routes to the Research Park transit hub. And with the help of Redstone Arsenal, two peak-hour express routes-- one from Research Park, another from South Huntsville-- could give commuters an alternative to sitting in traffic at the gates**. When on the Arsenal, passengers could transfer to intra-base circulators or (even better) building-specific shuttle vans. 
  • Make Courthouse Square the new Downtown transit hub. I challenge you to walk from the Transit Center on Church Street into the downtown core-- it is difficult, if not impossible. Maybe this will change when Church Street is widened in a few years and sidewalks are added, but even then, the city's transit hub is far from most significant attractions that would be useful for Shuttle riders, such as City Hall and the Courthouse, requiring a transfer for most. The infrastructure is already there-- eliminate some of the "free" parallel parking that causes confusion and delay around the Square and use that space for bus pull-offs, and shelters already exist nearby.
  • New Transit Website. I cannot stress this enough-- much like a business, without a visible web presence, no one will know you exist. Currently, the website, http://huntsvilleal.gov/PublicTran/public_trans.php, is three pages deep from the city's home page, and finding most information is another two pages deeper. Start with a new domain name, like hsvshuttle.com. Make bus schedules and system maps easily accessible. And make real-time news and information available to the media and the public by creating Twitter and Facebook pages, and make sure they are constantly updated. 
  • Small stuff. Wi-Fi on city buses, especially express routes. LED bus route displays on buses. Visible bus stop signs. More aesthetically-pleasing bus shelters.  
*Source: US Census Bureau
**I know someone is going to cite "security" as the reason why Redstone Arsenal does not currently have bus service, but most military bases near urban areas have transit service. Some examples: Camp Pendleton (Oceanside, CA), Fort Benning (Columbus, GA), and Fort Belvoir (DC metro).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I-565: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this month, Interstate 565 was opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by city and state officials. Planning for the highway began in the 1960s and when completed, the cost of the entire 21-mile highway was around $500 million ($790 million in today's dollars). At around $38M per mile, the highway was a bargain by today's standards; if the same cost-per-mile estimates for the Southern Bypass ($65M) or Birmingham's Northern Beltline ($90M) were applied to 565, the cost may have been well into the billions.

Much of the interstate has served its purpose, carrying 100,000+ cars daily in some spots. It has cut cross-city trip times significantly (ask anyone who has lived in Northeast Huntsville for more than 20 years), and has been credited for making Madison the medium-sized suburban city it is today.  There is one portion, however, that has created headaches for engineers, drivers and planners alike-- the 2.4 mile "urban overpass." Only a few years after it was opened, cracks were found in many of the bridge girders. Whenever snow or ice threatens, the bridge is always the first to close, shutting down the city's major east-west arterial. And unknown to many drivers who use the overpass daily, the bridge has left a scar of underused land right in the middle of the city.

The I-565 Urban Overpass (outlined in light blue) occupies about 140 acres in the heart of the city. (Google Earth)

The overpass is underused volume-wise, especially the stretch between Memorial Parkway and Oakwood Avenue which averages about 45,000 vehicles per day-- less than many segments of University Drive. Also, the interstate's planners didn't think about the finite life span of an overpass-- most last up to fifty years, sometimes less, meaning that sometime in the next thirty years the cost of maintaining the overpass will become too great and we will have to talk about replacing it.

Overpasses as far as the eye can see, over Church St. (Photo credit: James Vandiver)

The officials at the 1991 opening ceremony praised the economic development opportunities that 565 would bring to the area, but when the time comes, replacing part of the highway with a surface or below-grade boulevard could bring substantial development as well. A boulevard would have a substantially smaller footprint than the current overpass structures, opening up valuable land near downtown for greenspace and development. It would also create a less hostile environment for bicyclists and pedestrians, and eliminate the physical divide between North and South Huntsville. Another added perk of eliminating the overpass is a redesign of the Parkway/565 interchange, which is badly needed even today.

Elevated freeway removal has been a growing trend in American cities-- even Birmingham is considering it in their long-term plans with I-20/59 downtown. You may have heard of Boston's "Big Dig" project, though that may not be the best example due to politics, shoddy engineering and massive cost overruns. Here are a couple of less infamous examples:

San Francisco: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged several elevated freeways in the Bay Area, including the Embarcadero Freeway. The highway was replaced in the 1990s with an at-grade boulevard, a light rail line, and park space along the once-inaccessible waterfront. Here's a link to a video discussing the Embarcadero transformation and the recent removal of another San Francisco highway (the Central Freeway).

Milwaukee: In 2002, the Park East Freeway was demolished, opening up 24 acres of their downtown for redevelopment. Projects include residential (apartments and condos), an Aloft hotel, and the new world headquarters for Manpower. http://city.milwaukee.gov/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment.htm

In a quick search, I found that Syracuse, New Haven, and New Orleans are considering highway removal as well. The Urban Land Institute has a list of current and proposed highway removal projects in the US.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hotel Boom on the Westside

There are at least seven new hotels are proposed or under construction in West Huntsville and Madison that have a good chance of being completed in the next year.  Check out the map for locations; a more detailed list of the hotels is below.

1. Holiday Inn Express and Suites- Watercress
Developer: Owings Properties d.b.a. Watercress Hotel Associates, LLC
This hotel is planned to be built behind the new Kroger at 72 and Jeff Road.

2. Holiday Inn Express and Suites- Madison
Developer: Omega Hotel Group
This 4-story, 96-room hotel is currently under construction at Madison Boulevard and Wall-Triana Highway. It is expected to open in March.

3. Madison Hospital
Developer: GBT Realty (entire development)
A 5-story, 110-room hotel is in the plans for a development just to the west of the new hospital along Balch Road in Huntsville city limits. I would expect this hotel to be limited-service, similar to a Hampton Inn or a Fairfield Inn.

4. SpringHill Suites- Providence
Developer: Providence Hotel Partners, LLC
The new urbanist development is getting a second hotel now that the first, a Homewood Suites by Hilton, has been wildly successful. At first glance, I assumed that another Hilton-brand hotel would be built here, but it turns out that a SpringHill Suites by Marriott will be the new format.

5. Home2 Suites/Hampton Inn and Suites- Research Park
Developer: LBA Hospitality
Dothan hotel developer LBA Hospitality is building a hotel on Governors West, just south of Bridge Street. LBA has built several Home2 Suites locations, a new Hilton extended-stay brand, including the first one in Fayetteville, NC earlier this year. It is possible that this hotel will be a Home2 as well. The hotel will be co-branded as a Home2 Suites and a Hampton Inn and Suites, the first of its kind in the United States.

6-7. Redstone Gateway 
Developer: Jim Wilson and Associates (entire development)
At this mega-development at 565 and Research Park Boulevard, two hotels with a combined ~300 rooms are in the master plan. These two hotels will probably be more full-service and business-oriented than the others on the list, similar to a Doubletree or a Hilton.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

'Cycle Tracks' Coming to Huntsville?

While most of the focus at Huntsville City Hall last Wednesday night was on the budget hearings, I sat in on a Bicycle Advisory Safety Committee (BASC) meeting being held across the plaza. There, representatives of the Planning Department were presenting a bicycle infrastructure concept known as a "cycle track."

Cycle tracks are facilities completely separate from the travel lanes and, unlike your usual 4-foot bike lane is buffered from auto traffic by markers, raised curbs, or in some cases on-street parking. Cycle tracks are a fairly new concept for the United States despite being used in bike-friendly cities elsewhere like Montreal and Copenhagen for decades. New York City has built several of these cycle tracks in recent years with some success. In one especially controversial case in Brooklyn, a one-way street lost a travel lane to a cycle track. Speeding has decreased along the corridor while traffic volume and travel times have remained roughly the same (Source: NYC DOT).

Huntsville plans to place two 6-foot one-way protected cycle tracks on a proposed connector road between Governors Drive (at Harvard) and Lowe Avenue. This would link to Big Spring Park and allow for connections throughout downtown. It would also go through the proposed Councill Court redevelopment. Another route that has been discussed is Holmes Avenue, which would link Downtown and Five Points to Research Park and UAH.

What do you think about this proposal? Where would you like to see cycle tracks in the future? Check out some pictures of model cycle tracks in the links above and below.

Further Reading
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has created an easy-to-read Urban Bikeway Design Guide with a section about cycle tracks: http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/cycle-tracks/

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wanted: A College Downtown

The above-ground entrance to Drake State's downtown classrooms.  (Photo credit: James Vandiver)
On September 8th, the state Board of Education will vote on a plan presented by Calhoun Community College to purchase 51 acres in Research Park in order to move at least part of its Huntsville campus from its current confines on Wynn Drive to two new buildings with "ample parking." As I was reading this, I thought to myself: "They should move downtown!"* And here's why.

I challenge you to find me a successful downtown without a significant college presence nearby. Chattanooga has UTC. Nashville has Vanderbilt. Savannah has SCAD. Colleges can be major anchors to a city's downtown, bringing a large workforce and a young, urban-friendly 24-hour population that are needed to attract retail and restaurants to the core.

Some of you may recall that Drake State moved some of its classes downtown to the basement of the Times Building. While that was a valiant effort, it hasn't packed the bars and restaurants in the city center as originally hoped, and the adjacent parking lot is only half-full most days. If a college were to make a significant impact downtown, it will have to be highly visible in terms of location and the number of students.

The most logical college to move downtown would be Calhoun, considering they have been looking for a permanent home for nearly twenty years. Their Huntsville campus is located in a former manufacturing facility shared with Sci-Quest, and with over 7,000 students has outgrown that space. The rest of the colleges here (UAH, A&M, Oakwood, and Drake) have established campuses and could not feasibly move a significant amount of their facilities, though I would welcome an expansion of Drake State's downtown presence.**

Moving Calhoun and/or Drake State would bring significant numbers of students and faculty downtown during the day, but because neither school has students who live on campus, it wouldn't help solve one of the issues with our current downtown-- the lack of a residential population that sticks around after 5. One solution to this is to develop student apartments that would cater to students of the three four-year colleges, with frequent transit service between city center and their main campuses, among other amenities catered towards college students (a library/study hall, entertainment room, convenience store).

A map of potential college campus sites in and around downtown. (Map: Google; Illustration by James Vandiver)
Where would a high-visibility college campus be located downtown? The old Stone Middle (and its surroundings in West Downtown) is the first to come to mind. It's an academic building in a neighborhood that is ripe for redevelopment, and a college would be the perfect anchor. Other sites include four public housing projects (other than Councill Court) that surround downtown and are slated for redevelopment--Butler Terrace, Lincoln Homes, Searcy Homes, and Sparkman Homes (see map). They provide large tracts of land without having to go through multiple landowners. And while none are as large as the 50+ acres that will be bought in Research Park, as an urban campus, you're less likely to waste as much land on "ample" surface parking.

*I have heard before that Calhoun planned a downtown campus in the late 1980s, though I have never been able to independently verify that. 

**I understand there is some political conflict between Drake State and Calhoun about the latter "encroaching" on the former's "territory." However, this is not a political blog, and as such, I will leave that issue to other media. The downtown campus idea can work for either Drake or Calhoun, or both... The more, the merrier!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coming Soon: Huntsville's Long-Awaited Transit Plan

Hidden in the City Council agenda for Thursday (July 28th) is a request to authorize an agreement between the City of Huntsville and Nelson/Nygaard Associates, a transit consulting firm that has worked extensively in transit-friendly West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco, for a "Comprehensive Operational Analysis" (COA) of the Huntsville Shuttle. The federal government recommends a COA every ten years; however, this will be Huntsville's first since the introduction of the Shuttle in 1990. In layman's terms, a COA looks at an existing transit system and sees where it can run more efficiently and increase ridership by cutting/changing routes, decreasing time between buses, enhanced service during peak hours, etc. What the COA would do is lay the foundation for a longer-term transit plan for the city. There is a desire among city officials for a long-term transit vision, and Mayor Battle has on numerous occasions expressed the need for regional cooperation on transit.

The transit plan comes at a time of change for public transportation in Huntsville. Google Transit is expected to be available for Huntsville very soon, along with other web and mobile services, and a useful downtown circulator is in the works.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Downtown Ideas Results

Thank you again to everyone who participated with the second Ideas Map, which focused on general downtown ideas. Through Facebook and the SeeClickFix map, over 400 individual ideas were submitted, with 2,500 "likes" and 16,000 page views. The "Moving Chalkboard" made several appearances on TV and at Concerts in the Park, and had to be erased at least once to make room for new ideas (don't worry, we took pictures).

Special commendation should be made to the four City of Huntsville interns in the Mayor's Office-- Jessica Carlton, Ted Gillespie, Ryan McArthur, and Kyle Tipton-- who volunteered their time this summer to work on this project. They were the ones who made it all happen.

Below are the results, sorted by category and by platform (Facebook or SeeClickFix). I expanded the top ideas (where applicable) to give you a better idea what the user was talking about, with some much-needed grammatical editing.

1. Free Wi-Fi
2. Smart Parking Meters
3. Better Public Transit
4. Electric Car Plug-ins
5. Promotion/enhancement of trolley system

Business and Retail
1. Sidewalk Market
"I have always thought the sidewalk area around the Big Spring should be turned into a shopping district for specialty shops and artists. I know the Huntsville Utilities offices are there, but maybe some of the area could be redesigned for shops or at least have a weekly or monthly sidewalk marketplace. This is such a beautiful area with lots of shade and historical interest."
2. More Local Shops
3. Art Gallery/Studio Space
4. Movie Theater
5. Late Night Diner

Parks and Recreation
1. Street Performers
"Bridge Street has street performers on weekends at night. Do the same on weeknights. If it rains, let them play at surrounding restaurants. A good way to show off the local talent, and it will kep young people out of trouble."
2. City History Museum
3. Baseball Stadium
4. Bigger Splash Park
5. Amphitheater

Ideas Map
1. SmartCode
"Get zoning in place to create the downtown we want to see, not one that allows buildings based on uses."
2. Move the Municipal Complex (City Hall)
3. Roundabout at Church and Monroe
4. Parking Garage Ground-floor Retail
5. Commuter Rail Station

Business and Retail
1. Signature Tower
"Design and construct a ‘Signature Tower of Huntsville,’ one that has offices and residential condos. This would break the height limit on the skyline and promote the idea that Huntsville is sustainable for going up rather than out. Both the Mobile, AL RSA Battle House Tower and the Austin, Texas Austonian Towers are great examples of such projects."
2. Sidewalk Market
3. Affordable Apartments
4. Skydiving Tunnel
5. Comedy Club

Parks and Recreation
1. Active Park
"Provide places for outdoor yoga, tai chi, and bocci ball. Do a small pond for flood control, but keep water in it at all times. Center of pond might be good for scuplture fountain."
2. Sculpture Fountain
3. More Greenways
4. Multicultural History Walk
5. Baseball Stadium

Overall, Cumulative
1. Sidewalk Market
"An indoor/outdoor market with refrigeration and other support facilities for being open everyday."
2. Signature Tower
3. SmartCode
4. Riverwalk/Greenway
5. Affordable Apartments

Councill Court: What's Ahead

Since I keep reading about the Councill Court redevelopment in the paper, I guess I should talk about it, though I can't reveal any more details than what is already public information. Yes, it is true-- two years after closing Councill Court, the city and the housing authority may have found a developer who wants to do exactly what was envisioned for the area-- a mixed-use "urban village," a rare opportunity to create a whole new neighborhood in the heart of the city. If the project is approved and is built as advertised, it will change the course of the city center's development for years to come.

I won't delve into details and renderings until the project is made official, but here's a recap of what is public: a consortium of Huntsville and Nashville developers want to develop at least part of the former housing project into approximately 200 apartments, medical offices, small retail and restaurants, hotel, and the main attraction, an urban grocery store. However, there are two hurdles to overcome before anything happens.

First off, the urban grocery store, most likely a Publix, hasn't even signed on as a tenant yet. In Publix's case, a site presented to the company by a developer must go through an ominous-sounding "committee" before it is approved. Many store sites have made it to committee and have been rejected there, so a Publix store at Councill Court is not a guarantee until that happens, probably later this year. The good news is that Publix has experience with urban grocery stores in places like Greenville; Columbia, SC; and Atlanta.

The other big hurdle is the financing and construction of at least one, but probably two, parking garages. Mayor Battle has publicly said that the cost of the garage(s) will be $10-14 million. (By the way, if you're skeptical about going to a grocery store with a parking garage, it's becoming more common as retailers move into urban areas. So this probably won't be the last time you see this.)

There is good reason to be optimistic. One of the development companies that is part of the project, Nashville-based Bristol Development Group, played a major role in the redevelopment of an industrial area between Downtown Nashville and Music Row known as "The Gulch" by developing two condo towers, Icon and Velocity. In Germantown, another great Nashville neighborhood, Bristol is currently constructing an urban apartment complex similar in size to the one proposed at Councill Court. So these guys have a good track record and know what they're doing.

With the Councill Court project and Belk-Hudson, by the end of 2013, there will be 300 new apartments downtown, and there is room for hundreds more. An urban grocery store, whether it's Publix or another chain, will accelerate residential growth in the city center even further. It also gives smaller businesses, such as a dry cleaners or a sandwich shop, the anchor they need to thrive downtown.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Huntsville's Limestone County gets a land use plan

Huntsville unveiled this week a land-use plan for 9,323 acres of newly-annexed land in east Limestone County south of 72, east of I-65 and north of I-565. The plan was created by Sasaki Associates, a planning and design consulting firm with offices in Boston and San Francisco.

The land-use plan creates mixed-use villages surrounding a 1,500-acre major employment anchor, such as a new Research Park, or as The Birmingham News reported recently, a new Audi plant.

The long-term plan calls for 3-5 million square ft. of office space, 550,000-800,000 sq. ft. of retail, 2-7 million sq. ft. of industrial space, and 10-12,000 total residential units (single and multi-family). Development would be clustered into several mixed-use villages. Along with the plans for new development, the site's "greenprint" was also taken into consideration, where existing tree cover, flood plains/fringes, and wetlands remain mostly untouched. A network of trails and parks would connect parks, employment centers, and residential areas together. The street network in the plan included few cul-de-sacs, instead adopting a traditional "grid pattern." The plan assumed that the conventional zoning currently in place would be complemented by the form-based SmartCode overlay currently being worked on by the city's Planning Department.

The land use plan. (Photo credit: Sasaki/City of Huntsville)
My one major criticism of the plan is how much of this "smart growth" supposedly hinges on two new not-so-smart highways-- the Memphis-to-Atlanta interstate and Greenbrier Parkway. The economic portion of the report suggests that the amount of jobs and economic impact on the site would almost double, and congestion would magically disappear, if the two highways were to be built. While other cities and states are realizing that you can't build your way out of congestion, we think it's necessary to construct an interstate-grade highway terminating at a "spaghetti junction" complete with flyovers at what is now the intersection of two farm roads. I recognize that Browns Ferry and Greenbrier may have to be widened to 4 or 5-lanes one day, but a freeway? That sounds a bit overkill. Hopefully by then (being optimistic here) we will have embraced transportation alternatives.
The annexed area's proposed road network. (Photo credit: Sasaki/City of Huntsville)
Speaking of that, I've always thought it would be awesome if Greenbrier were one day transformed into a "transit village"-- a small  New England-style town anchored by a train station, an intermediate stop on a Huntsville-Madison-Decatur commuter rail line. It would remain in compliance with the land-use plan, though the village could be larger if Greenbrier Parkway were to be scrapped.

Mayor Battle made a good point at the presentation of the plan to the Planning Commission-- this plan will have to be changed every few years to account for unforeseen changes. And with that in mind, I think that the plan is a good start.

The plan now goes to a Planning Commission public hearing on August 23rd.

Download the land-use plan report here.
Download the Fiscal and Economic Report here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bikeshare, The Huntsville Way

In honor of the Downtown Ideas Map, here's an idea I had. Remember, the Downtown Ideas Summit is on July 21st at 6PM at the old Regions building on the Courthouse Square.

If you've been to Washington, DC this year, you may have noticed a lot of people riding on red bikes. More than likely, they're using Capital Bikeshare, DC's answer to a phenomenon that began in Paris and has spread to other cities, including Montreal and London. Nashville launched a pilot bikeshare program last year. B-cycle has "franchised" the system they built in Denver to smaller cities, including Madison, WI; Des Moines, IA; and starting this week, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

So, how would such a scheme work here? I would start with about 10 stations with 8-10 bikes each in Downtown and Five Points-- the slower and narrower streets in these areas create an ideal bicycling environment. See the map below.

My concept for a bikeshare system in Huntsville (click to enlarge). Image: Google Earth/Illustration by James Vandiver
The initial system would primarily be used by Old Town/Five Points commuters, downtown workers going to lunch, and weekend visitors going to the museums or a VBC event. Stations would be within 5 minutes (walking distance, hence the 200m radius) of each other, so if one station is full you could easily access an alternate station. Eventually, the system could expand into the Medical District, Lincoln Mill, and other urban neighborhoods as it moves out of the trial phase and as development/demand/sponsorship warrants. More stations could be installed at the city's colleges and universities, and possibly at trailheads of popular greenways such as Indian Creek and Aldridge Creek.

In addition to monthly and yearly memberships, many bikeshare systems are funded through sponsorships from major corporations, such as advertisers and banks. Regions, you've got all of those green bikes-- ball's in your court.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Next Ideas Summit: Downtown

On the city-wide Ideas Map, which went live in January, general non-retail ideas for the downtown area came in fourth overall. Since then, the momentum has been building for downtown redevelopment-- the Belk-Hudson Lofts project has been announced (construction begins in August), the first hotel at Constellation opened, and if you can read between the lines, you may realize that Councill Court's redevelopment is imminent-- if you liked Belk-Hudson, believe me, if it all pans out, you're going to love what's in store for that site.

The City of Huntsville's Intern Class V this week is launching a new version of the Ideas Map that will be welcome to any downtown ideas-- not just new retail and restaurants. While the city is still using SeeClickFix for the actual map, we have come up with several other ways to get people involved, including a Facebook page and a chalkboard that will be at several events (e.g. Concerts in the Park) and locations throughout downtown in the next few weeks.

The summits will be consolidated into one finale, open to the public, to be held July 21st at 6PM at the Belk-Hudson building at the corner of Holmes and Washington old Regions Bank building on West Side Square. It's the same night as the Sidewalk Arts Stroll, so you should already be downtown. Speakers at the event include David Wilson (the new Downtown marketing director), Mayor Battle, interim planning director Marie Bostick, and Mary Jane Caylor. An after party hosted by Huntsville Young Professionals will be at Humphrey's immediately after the event.

So, how effective was the original Ideas Map? Some uber-vague highlights:
  • One of the Top 5 new retailers, fully aware of their placing on the map, is now aggressively pursuing a site for their first Huntsville store. If they are successful, history shows in other cities that another store in the Top 5 wouldn't be too far behind. 
  • One of the Top 5 restaurants, which originally had no plans to expand here in the near future, has zeroed in on an area for their Huntsville location. And if someone committed to opening at least five Dunkin' Donuts franchises in the area, that would be two in-demand eateries taken care of. 
  • A grocer already in the area was disappointed in its competitor's high ranking on the map. So it has accelerated its plans to expand in the city. 
  • Ideas for better transit also ranked highly on the original map. This moved plans forward for Huntsville's first transit plan; its kickoff should be coming soon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alternatives for Walmart and Country Club

In the three and a half years that I have been writing this blog, I have never seen such a negative response to a development as I have seen with the proposal to replace the Country Club Apartments on Airport with a full-size Walmart store. Can't say that I didn't expect it either. Now that the plan has been scrapped by the developers (Scott and Jerry Averbuch), it's now time to start talking about alternatives for both Walmart and the Country Club site.

The following are four possible alternatives for Walmart, including finding a new site for a super center, remaining and expanding at the Drake Avenue store, or splitting into two Neighborhood Market stores. Each alternate idea, like the proposed Airport store, has its pros and cons and won't satisfy everyone. Neither I nor the City have endorsed any of these ideas, and they are in no particular order. 

Alternate Plan 1: Make Useless Useful
This alternative would take advantage of the Useless Overpass, that "bridge to nowhere" between Drake and Airport on the Parkway, by placing the Walmart along a new boulevard that would run West from the Parkway towards Leeman Ferry. Combining the old Ramada site, the Century Office Center and an underused surface lot for the Hollywood 18 movie theater would give Walmart about 13 acres, only two-thirds the size of the Country Club site. To obtain enough space for a Supercenter (20-25 acres), you would have to cut into unused John Hunt Park land and the surface lots that surround Joe Davis Stadium. Any non-recreational use of that land is subject to a public referendum, further delaying the project but giving citizens a more direct say in Walmart's plans.

The area bounded in white is privately-held land. The area bounded in red is owned by the City of Huntsville and is subject to a public referendum for non-recreational use. (Illustration by James Vandiver using Google Earth)
Pros: Good location that needs/wants redevelopment; infrastructure in place (Walmart basically gets its own overpass)
Cons: Current store still closes; multiple owners; privately-held lots too small for full-size store; any expansion would require public referendum

Alternate Plan 2: Airport and the Parkway
This alternative would utilize the Northwest corner of Airport and the Parkway, near where the old Copeland's sits today. Much of the site is unused, except for a trailer home dealer and an area that includes Kid's Space, the new Sports Hall of Fame, and the Veterans Memorial Museum. Any development on this site would require the relocation of these public facilities. Moving the site north would create an oddly-shaped site (due to the armory) that may not be suitable for a Walmart.

An aerial view of the NW corner of Airport and the Parkway. (Source: Google Earth)
Pros: Good, visible location; still on Airport; infrastructure in place (traffic lights, overpass)
Cons: Current store still closes; playground and museums on site would have to be relocated; possible public opposition

Alternate Plan 3: Stay at Drake
This alternative keeps Walmart at its current location. The site is currently 8 acres, too small for the run-of-the-mill Walmart design. Any expansion of the 100,000 sq. ft. store would require some innovative thinking. I see two options: expand the front of the store and take out a chunk of the parking lot (underground parking, anyone?), or close Leeman Ferry behind the store and expand in its right-of-way. This could be a good test case for Walmart, which is currently expanding into urban areas, places that cannot fit your average 25 acre Supercenter.

Pros: Current store does not permanently close; no new infrastructure necessary
Cons: Possible loss of public right-of-way; expensive; Walmart unlikely to make such an investment

Alternate Plan 4: Neighborhood Market
This plan would close the Drake store and split it into two smaller (30-40,000 sq. ft.) Neighborhood Markets-- one, at the old Winn-Dixie at Bob Wallace and Triana, and the other along Airport or in Jones Valley.

Pros: Grocery store in high-density underserved area (Southwest Huntsville), no "big-box" stigma
Cons: Existing store still closes; Neighborhood Markets would not draw as much tax revenue

Redeveloping Country Club

Like it or not, Country Club will inevitably be redeveloped. I would expect that, if the Averbuches don't want another fight on their hands, they will figure something out with the zoning that is currently in place.

A couple of weeks ago, after Walmart's plans went public, I asked Facebook fans of the blog about what they would like to see at Country Club. There seemed to be a general consensus towards a denser mixed-use development on the site. Based on your responses, I have drawn up a conceptual mixed-use plan for Country Club-- something that would be more appropriately named "What I would do if I had twenty acres on Airport." My concept includes a smaller anchor store, ground-floor retail/upper-floor office buildings, a pedestrian-oriented design, and a residential buffer zone that would include apartments, townhomes, and a hotel.

The entire concept. (Illustration: James Vandiver using Google SketchUp)
Some close-ups of the main features:

The plaza would be the central "gathering point" of the development, in this case revolving around a fountain inside a traffic circle. Shops and restaurants would appeal to both the Crestwood daytime crowd and the residential nighttime population. There would be plenty of outdoor seating. The plaza also marks the divide in the current zoning, with apartments and a hotel on the North side of the plaza.

Another concept I have seen in other cities is where a segment of houses front a small park and street access is moved to the back. Basically you would have a large front yard without having to personally maintain it. (I will include a rendering of this in a later update.)

So, as always, tell me what you guys think about both/either the alternate Walmart locations-- if you think you know of a better site that isn't on my list, let's talk about it-- and/or the Country Club concept I came up with-- if you haven't already chimed in, what you would like to see in there? Be as specific or as general as you like. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Country Club Redevelopment: Yes, It's a Walmart

The surrounding area of the 20-acre Country Club Apartments on Airport Road in South Huntsville. Current zoning shown. 
For a while now, Walmart has wanted to move its Drake Avenue location, the last non-Supercenter store in the Huntsville area. They have looked at several sites along the Parkway over the years, but now they seem to have found the "perfect" site-- on Airport Road.

At the Huntsville City Council meeting Thursday night, it was revealed that the redevelopment of the 50-year-old complex on Airport Road would be a 189,000 sq. ft. Walmart. As expected, this did not go over well with the residents of the Piedmont neighborhood, which is just to the north of the Country Club site.

Some of you may recall that a couple of months ago, a rezoning request for the site was denied due to a need for a traffic study conducted by the city, which concluded that a theoretical big-box store would only exacerbate the congestion of Airport, which isn't scheduled to be improved until 2016 at the earliest, according to the city's Capital Improvement Plan.

While the city of Huntsville doesn't actively pursue new Walmart stores, municipal governments do like them because each Supercenter nets approximately $50 million in annual sales, which translates to about $2 million in sales tax revenues (the main revenue stream of Alabama cities). So they do welcome them at every chance they can get one. The problems with this particular store are that it will replace an existing store, leaving 100,000 square feet of vacant retail on the Parkway, and create only a marginal gain in sales tax revenues (compared to a completely new location). And did I mention the traffic it would create?

Some of you may recall that the redevelopment of Country Club was to be mixed-use, hence the odd current zoning of the 20-acre site as 60/40 multi-family residential (R2B) and neighborhood business (C1).

In this case, when the costs-- vacant retail, more traffic, unhappy neighborhood-- outweigh the benefits-- infill development, a better looking Walmart-- maybe it's time to put this proposal to rest and come back with a better plan. Airport Road is a desirable corridor, and other retailers will follow that aren't as touchy and will be willing to be part of a denser mixed-use development with a residential "buffer zone," which is what Country Club should have been all along. But Walmart shouldn't be left out in the cold, considering their significant contributions to the tax rolls-- something could probably be worked out that would keep them on the Parkway, or better yet, expand their current location.

UPDATE (6/3/2011): The Averbuches have pulled their plans to rezone the Country Club property to all commercial, effectively killing plans for a full-size Walmart there.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Shoppes of Madison Tenants (Official and Rumored)

GBT has a new lease flyer out for Madison's new Target shopping center, with some of the smaller tenants that will join the big-box retailer shown. Ladies and gentlemen, if you were expecting something huge out of this project (and for that $7.5M price tag, you should), prepare to be disappointed.

I think most of the retailers and restaurants are familiar to you guys, with a few exceptions. Kinnucan's is a clothing store with locations in Auburn and Tuscaloosa. Which Wich is a sandwich shop whose closest locations are up in Nashville. Pie in the Sky Pizza is a small Nashville-based restaurant whose Madison location would be their first outside of Middle Tennessee. Zen Berry sounds like a frozen yogurt shop, and it is-- in British Columbia. Somehow I really doubt their first US location will be in Madison, so it may be something else. (UPDATE: Zen Beri is a frozen yogurt shop in Decatur, something I wouldn't have found if it weren't for one of the comments below.)

Update (12/2011): A previous version of this post discussed the possibility of HomeGoods being the junior anchor. With the announcement of Ross, there is no space left for HomeGoods at this shopping center. 

Below is a combined list of rumored and confirmed tenants:

Retail (smaller shops not included):
Dollar Tree
Massage Envy
Rack Room Shoes

Which Wich**
Zen Beri
Fulin's Asian Cuisine
Pie in the Sky Pizza**
Panera Bread
Moe's Southwest Grill?
Buenavista Mexican Restaurant

* New to Region 
** New to State
? Rumored/Unconfirmed

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Belk-Hudson Lofts

By the Summer of 2012, the Belk-Hudson building and adjacent lots (top picture) will be home to the largest downtown residential development in modern Huntsville history (Bottom picture-- photo credit: Schoel Architecture of Decatur)
The Belk-Hudson Lofts is a proposed 6 story, $11.5 million project at the corner of Holmes and Washington. Part of the project will involve renovating the historic building at the intersection, which formerly housed a department store that gave the development its name, and another part will be constructed on a vacant lot that was occupied by the Old Towne Brewery until a few years ago, when a fire destroyed that building. The developer is Charlie Sealy, a Huntsville resident whose family manages apartment complexes throughout the Southeast, including in Huntsville. With 75 apartments, this project will more than double the amount of free-market residential units available in the CBD. The project is expected to break ground in July, and open in summer 2012.

One of the major concerns about downtown living is the prohibitive cost, especially for young professionals and empty-nesters, the groups of people most likely to live there.  According to Zillow, the cheapest residence for sale downtown right now is about $370,000. The one- and two-bedroom apartments at Belk-Hudson will rent between $850 and $1350 per month-- comparable to a nice apartment out in the suburbs.

So, what do you guys think? Awesome? Pointless? The start of something huge for downtown, or a one-time event?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Providence to get apartments, hotel

The Village of Providence is growing again. With new office and retail buildings already under construction, developer Todd Slyman announced at last week's Economic Development Summit two major expansion plans expected to break ground later this year-- 200+ "urban-style" apartments and another 100-room Hilton brand hotel. (If I had to guess which hotel brand, it would be Home2 Suites, a new boutique extended-stay hotel which just recently opened its first hotel in Fayetteville, NC.) The apartments and hotel will be located in the Town Center on Providence Main (see map above). Providence also has plans to replace some of its surface parking with at least one parking deck.

Village of Providence PDF map (shows layout of future buildings, parking deck)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Grocery Store for Northwest Huntsville

We may not have a Trader Joe's yet, but another grocery store owned by the same German family is opening its second Huntsville store. Aldi, which already has one store under construction on 72 West in front of TJ Maxx, will begin construction soon on its second area store, in 12,500 sq. ft. of the old Office Depot at the intersection of University and Sparkman. This puts Aldi in one of the youngest (thus, more frugal) areas of Huntsville, with nearly 10,000 college students nearby. This will also give shoppers in the area an alternative to Walmart (too crowded) and Earth Fare (awesome, but too expensive for everyday goods).

The Ideas Map Results

Tonight, the City of Huntsville revealed the results of the Ideas Map, which went online in January. In the 18 days during which the map was live, users posted 926 ideas, and 4,897 interactions (likes, comments, etc.) to those ideas. This overwhelming response bodes well for future experiments in public interaction.

For the past couple of months, I've been analyzing the results of the map, and a report of all the lists I created and an analysis of the top retail/restaurants and other ideas is now posted at huntsvilleal.gov/ideas.

Top New Retailers, Citywide:
  1. Trader Joe's
  2. Macy's 
  3. Ikea
  4. Container Store
  5. Whole Foods
Top New Restaurants, Citywide:
  1. Cheesecake Factory
  2. Chipotle
  3. Joe's Crab Shack
  4. Dunkin' Donuts
  5. Dave and Busters
Top Ideas, Individual-- these were the single most-"liked" ideas.
  1. Kroger at Martin and Zierdt
  2. Five Points Streetscaping
  3. Trader Joe's in Lincoln Mill
  4. Joe's Crab Shack at Bridge Street
  5. Target in Northeast Huntsville

Overall, the top ideas were-- this combines similar "liked" ideas in a certain area:
  1. Trader Joe's in Southeast Huntsville
  2. Macy's at Bridge Street
  3. Target in Northeast Huntsville
  4. Downtown Redevelopment
  5. Trader Joe's in West Huntsville
As you can see, several non-retail ideas made it into the top 5, both individually and cumulatively. While downtown ideas ranged from a new ballpark to a brewpub, the idea below got the most support:

The only way to make Downtown Huntsville into a viable walkable community is to pass an ordinance that requires the spaces facing the street to be limited to retail and restaurants. The attorneys, insurance companies, storage space, etc. should be only on upper floors and rear offices…”

This idea for the expansion of the Five Points streetscape project turned out to be very popular:

I'm not sure, but I would guess that 5 Points/Old Town is one of the densest areas in Huntsville. It's also (at least east of California) one of the most affordable for young professionals and families. As a result, it could easily be one of the most vibrant, walkable areas of Huntsville, but it seems that there are power poles growing from every crack in the sidewalk, where sidewalks can be found.  Also, none of the buildings in the area (with the exceptions of Star Market and 1892) have been improved lately. Landlords should be encouraged (read: incentivized) to upgrade their facilities. Ideally, buildings would be 2 or more stories with small setbacks and provide, in some cases, apartment living (like the main street in Providence).  Further, I would personally love to see California turn into a 2 lane road with parallel parking and bike lanes between Randolph and Beirne. That, coupled with sidewalk improvements, would go a long way towards creating a pedestrian-friendly environment in the area of Huntsville that would be most receptive to it.

And, finally, this made me very happy: cumulatively, ideas for better transit service throughout the city came in #6. Most, like the one posted by a user named "Zach" below, revolved around an eventual rail-based transit system:

The key to having a great city is people being able to move around efficiently and quickly. Huntsville should lead the US and create its own mass transit system. There are plenty of existing rail lines that could be upgraded… You could turn the downtown station back into a usable station. It would be great, because it is right by the Visitors bureau and the main Shuttle Bus station. Passengers could then rely on (a much improved version) the shuttle buses to get them exactly where they needed to be. Some major areas could be accessible by the rail network though, such as; UAH, Parkway Place, Huntsville Madison County Library, VBC, Downtown Madison, and the Arsenal. Huntsville Hospital could even offer a van service to shuttle from a station located near Gov. Dr. on the L&N Line to the hospital or extend their trams. Crestwood could also offer the van service. A special Arsenal train could be offered to get people from the Downtown station to the Arsenal. MPs could be stationed on the train to have everyone's IDs checked by the time the train arrived at the Arsenal gates. This would greatly decrease crowding at the gate in the mornings and evenings. Moreover, a efficient and useful mass transit system would greatly benefit the city both now and in the future. Don't wait to build this after the city has already expanded and needs help. Anticipate the expansion and plan for the future!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2010 Census: A Brief Analysis

After a disappointing 2000 Census that saw a population decline in Huntsville, the city increased by nearly 22,000 residents in the 2000s for a total population of 180,105. Madison continued its impressive population increase to hit 42,938 in 2010, from 29,329 in 2000.

The number that has gotten the most attention, however, has been 417,593-- the "metro area" population, which is the sum of Madison and Limestone County's populations. While the Times has run several stories proclaiming that Huntsville is now the second-largest metro area in the state, it is a bit premature to determine that. The new Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) definitions won't come out until the Summer of 2013, and only then can we officially determine whether or not we surpassed Mobile to become #2. That is doubtful however, considering that Mobile will probably (re?)gain Baldwin in the new MSA; even if Huntsville gained Morgan and Lawrence counties in the new MSA (population: 571,422), it still wouldn't be enough to surpass a theoretical Mobile-Baldwin MSA (population: 595,297).

The population junkies out there may enjoy this map compiled by The New York Times of Census 2010 data that has been released in the past month or so, visually showing growing and shrinking Census tracts and their demographics.

Source: The New York Times
I'll state the obvious first: Monrovia, East Limestone and Hampton Cove were the fastest-growing areas in the region between 2000 and 2010. But here's some interesting facts you may not have known, before you looked at the map of course:
  • Five Points had the largest population decline of any city neighborhood in the past decade. Downtown also had a decline in population, mainly due to the loss of public housing. Lowe Mill, on the other hand, remained stagnant, nearly reversing years of population decline. Blossomwood, Oak Park, and even Terry Heights had slight population increases. 
  • Hispanics fuel growth on the Southwest side. Hispanics now make up 6% of Huntsville's total population. Much of this growth is in Southwest Huntsville, where one tract recorded a ten-fold increase in the Hispanic population. 
  • Southeast stagnates. Neighborhoods surrounding Bailey Cove recorded slight population declines in the past decade, while new home construction fueled growth in neighborhoods along the Parkway. My theory for the decline in older SE areas-- Southeast is aging, with more "empty nesters" (parents whose kids have moved off to college and beyond). You can see this phenomenon in other areas, such as East Madison, Southeast Decatur, and neighborhoods along Governors Drive. It is part of the natural cycle of a stable neighborhood-- once younger families begin to move in again (as can be seen in Piedmont and Jones Valley), the population grows. 
What to watch for in the next ten years: 
  • Alabama's newest largest city. Birmingham, Huntsville, and Montgomery will all be around the same size in 2020 (approximately 200,000 each).  
  • Significant increases in urban neighborhoods. As "Millenials" (e.g. yours truly) come of age, urban living options will be more in demand. Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods will become hot residential markets, especially if the removal of the housing projects continues, and gas prices continue to rise. 
  • Suburban growth continues. It will be different, though-- walkable, mixed-use (Providence-style) suburban neighborhoods will become the norm, thus becoming more affordable. So-called cookie cutter subdivisions will become unpopular and appeal only to the lowest bracket of home buyers. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A lack of retail in North Huntsville?

Major retail development along North Parkway since 2000. (Graphic created by James Vandiver for the City of Huntsville.)
The claimed "lack" of retail development in North Huntsville is back in the news this week. Here's the truth: 1,034,000 sq. ft. of new or renovated retail space has been developed on North Parkway alone since 2000 (see graphic above). Retailers such as Costco, Gander Mountain, Lowe's and Walmart have opened stores in the corridor during that time. While there is still work to be done, North Huntsville definitely hasn't been left out. 

And this week at the Economic Development Summit, the city will be announcing yet another North Huntsville project expected to begin construction soon, and it's coming without "free land" or sales tax rebates. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Economic Development Summit, Part 2

After the overwhelming response from the Ideas Map and the the first Economic Development Summit in January, the City of Huntsville has announced plans for a second summit to unveil the results of the Ideas Map. This one will be held at the Monaco theater at Bridge Street on THURSDAY, APRIL 7TH FROM 6-7PM. As was with the last summit, it is free and open to the public. (By the way, if you confirm your attendance with the city at rsvp@huntsvilleal.gov, you will receive a "special offer" from Smokehouse Restaurant)

I don't want to get everyone's hopes up just yet, but there is a chance that the Mayor will be making several announcements at the meeting if all goes according to plan.

The city has been discussing making the "Developing Ideas" summit into a series, focusing on specific issues (e.g. transportation) that will affect the future of the city.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Second Mondays Event on Downtown Development

So I decided to attend one of the "Second Mondays" events put on by the Downtown Development Initiative. Tonight's event was an update on a few downtown developments. A summary is below.

Doug Smith talked about his Park Place project on Meridian Street. The relocation of Cleveland Street is nearing completion. A new bar, the Lone Goose Saloon, will open soon at the project. The next phase after the Cleveland streetscape project is to continue renovations of the Lumberyard as an event space by renovating the 1920s Pullman train car and adding a rooftop space that will feature views of the downtown skyline and the mountains.

Scott McLain discussed his Constellation development at the Parkway and Clinton. The SpringHill Suites will open May 1st, and the Residence Inn will begin construction this summer. After that, the office and retail (still a "green grocer" as the anchor) will come, then around 100 apartments with rents around $1000/month. He also gave his general ideas for the restaurants that he would like to see come to the development-- a seafood restaurant for the convention crowd "with $40 lobster" (like McCormick and Schmick's) and a restaurant with an emphasis on its brews (like Gordon Biersch or its sister restaurant Big River in Chattanooga). Don't hold me (or Mr. McLain) to those concepts; as he said, he's on "Plan Number 40" for Constellation, and the plans are subject to change. One thing that's holding up progress is the lack of a large office space tenant; while McLain is convinced that moving City Hall is the answer, I think that a large bank (Wells Fargo?) and/or a tech company looking for space may be a bit quicker than waiting for the city to make a decision.

A new event was announced at the meeting-- the Greene Street Market, which will be a farmer's market that will run every Thursday night from May 19th until September in the old Health Department lot at Greene and Eustis, just to the east of the Courthouse and across from the Church of the Nativity.

One last note-- a shout out to the lady who stood up and, having seen it "somewhere" and liked it, commented about the Justice District idea.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Colonial Promenade is Back

With Target planning to open in Madison in the Summer of 2012, Walmart has accelerated their plans to open a store just to the west of the Target site in Huntsville city limits. Pending a City Council vote later this month, Huntsville is planning to provide up to $1.4 million in infrastructure improvements for the store and its surrounding center, Colonial Promenade. In addition to the 180,000 sq. ft. Walmart, the center will have 55,000 and 75,000 sq. ft. anchor stores along with 50,000 sq. ft. of small shop space. The Walmart is expected to open in Spring of 2012.

Site plan of Colonial Promenade

Friday, February 25, 2011

Symposium Stresses Need for Regional Planning

The 25th Symposium on the Future of the City was held today (Friday, February 25th) at the Knight Center on the A&M campus. If you didn't know about this until now, you're not alone, as publicity for this event was pretty sorry (I didn't really know about it until the day before). The audience consisted of city and planning officials and volunteers from nearly every group involved in sustainability in the Huntsville region, from bicyclists to local food groups.

The reason why I attended though was to listen to the keynote speaker, APA (American Planning Association) president-elect Mitchell Silver, Director of Planning for the city of Raleigh, NC. Raleigh and Huntsville are very similar cities; granted, we are about a third of the size of the Triangle region, but our knowledge-based economies and high quality of life make up the difference in population. Both cities are growing rapidly, but much of the growth has come in the form of low-density, largely uncontrolled sprawl. The difference is that Raleigh eventually realized that sprawl is expensive to maintain if it isn't managed correctly.

A couple of years ago, Raleigh decided to create a comprehensive plan with cooperation from the region. This created a single document that brought together long-range plans for land use, transportation, and greenspace. It was compiled using an interactive public involvement process that allowed everyone to have a say in the future of their city, which in part gave the plan a 96% approval rating among citizens.

And Raleigh wasn't destroyed. People weren't forced out of their homes. Some still moved to the suburbs. But now a balance in growth is being created, with suburban and urban living options (thanks to $3 Billion in private investment downtown in the past five years). Now, Raleigh is tackling another challenge-- rewriting and simplifying their zoning code, accelerating the comprehensive plan's goals.

What can Huntsville take out of this? I think the obvious point is that we have to think regionally. That means regional land-use and transportation planning with muscle-- no more weak committees or "plans for plans" (e.g. the "Tennessee Valley Regional Growth Coordination Plan"). We need an enforceable plan-- one that has been created with the public, agreed upon by the city/county governments, and is strong enough to refer to when making strategic planning decisions.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ideas for North Parkway

Before I discuss what's wrong with North Parkway, let's take a look at what's happened on the corridor in recent history. Starting in the late 1990s, a dead mall was demolished and replaced with a Home Depot, Staples, and Costco. An aging/closing Kroger site was redeveloped as a Lowe's. Sam's Club moved elsewhere, but was soon replaced by Gander Mountain. Walmart opened a new Supercenter in 2004, replacing a trailer park; the store it once occupied is now home to Big Lots and Tractor Supply. Kroger recently renovated their Oakwood Avenue store. So while some might look at developments like Parkway Place and Bridge Street and think that North Parkway was somehow "left out," if you think about it, a lot has happened on the corridor, much of it redevelopment/infill, in the past decade or so. Plus, malls are so yesterday.

Despite these successes, North Huntsville had the second-highest commercial vacancy rate in the city in 2009 (10.8%, behind University) according to Graham and Company.

The North Parkway commercial corridor is different from South Parkway in several ways. First off, the storefront vacancies aren't mostly concentrated in one shopping center, as they are on the South side (in Haysland Square). Second, I have noticed in my research that there is a lack of modern retail space. Many of the shopping centers along the corridor were built in the early- to mid-1960s, and it appears that most haven't been renovated since. This hampers the ability to attract retailers, except for the ones whose only requirement is super-cheap rent-- such as check-cashing centers and thrift stores, which happen to be the anchor tenants of these strip malls.

Any developer will tell you that one major problem with the Parkway (North and South) is that as the road has expanded, the commercial zoning along the corridor has not, leaving little space for major redevelopment projects. My solution to this problem is to turn storefronts away from the Parkway and towards the secondary streets, treating it more like a limited-access freeway rather than a frontage road (see Builder's Square concept below for an illustration).

Some reasonable ideas for North Parkway were submitted by users of the City of Huntsville Ideas Map, including a grocery store, a hotel, and a fitness center. A new grocery store has been a top demand from North Huntsville residents for years now. The hotel and fitness center ideas were new to me, but both seemed logical, as there aren't any good options for either on the North end of town (though A&M recently opened a fitness center).

The maps below are a compilation of ideas for North Parkway's "Opportunity Sites"-- underutilized commercial sites that are in need of a little attention from their owners.

View Ideas for North Parkway in a larger map

I know there are several smaller sites in the area not shown on the map that are in need of a little TLC, but I'm hoping that some more visible redevelopment would draw other land owners to clean up their properties.

Finally, I wanted to focus on one Opportunity Site-- the 135,000 sq. ft. shopping center at Max Luther and the Parkway that once was occupied by Builder's Square and Food World and now houses a flea market, Furniture-4-Less (super super super sofa sale!) and Dirt Cheap. As this is the largest of the seven Opportunity Sites and the most expandable, I thought this would be the best place for a mixed-use redevelopment concept.
Illustration: Google Maps/James Vandiver
The current site would be redeveloped for a ~100,000 sq. ft. anchor store, along with an equal amount of 1-2 story small shop/junior anchor/office space. The 13-ish acres behind the commercial center would be set aside for a mixture of medium-density residential units (condos/townhomes/apartments) and green space, though if done today, this portion of the redevelopment would require a rezoning from Light Industry to Residential.

What do you think needs to be done on North Parkway? What kind of retail do you think would work there? Comment below, or use Facebook, Twitter, or email to share your thoughts.