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Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Justice District

For the next few weeks, I will be periodically discussing some of the more intriguing ideas posted on the City of Huntsville's Ideas Map. 

Idea 1: To rezone ground-floor spaces downtown to allow only retail and restaurant uses. I see two issues with this. First off, restricting land use also restricts innovative concepts for these spaces-- that's why I'm a huge fan of form-based code, which regulates based on design, not on use, which allows for more mixed-use development. Second, the ground-floor offices, which mostly house law firms that want to be close to the courthouse, would more than likely be "grandfathered" into any zoning restriction against them, so it wouldn't be very effective after all and might actually keep people and companies from moving to downtown.

If we want to free up space downtown for retail/restaurant uses, let's go back to an idea that has been discussed many times before-- move the courthouse, currently in a widely-hated 10 story building built in the 1960s, out of downtown and much of the space currently used by the law offices would free up, especially if office space is developed around the relocated courthouse. The courthouse itself could be demolished to make way for a Savannah-style square, or it could be renovated into offices, residential units, or even a hotel.

So, where would the courthouse go?

The general idea for years (and someone's idea on the map) has been to move the courthouse to the old grocery store site at Oakwood and the Parkway. I disagree with this proposal-- one, there is little space for law offices within walking distance, plus that site is visible, being next to a relatively busy intersection, so it could probably be put to better use other than a courthouse, which doesn't have to be so prominently placed. I propose renovating the old store into an "entertainment center," with a large bowling alley, billiards bar, and restaurant, like the Ace Bowling Center in Montgomery. That is, when the lease with Albertsons runs out in a few years, which further complicates redevelopment of that site.

I present an alternate location for the new Courthouse, in a redevelopment of an industrial area just north of downtown that I call the Justice District.

There are plenty of vacant/underused sites around the existing public safety complex and jail, so why not use them for the courthouse and the law offices that will follow it out of downtown? Here's what I envision: A 5-7 story courthouse on Wheeler Avenue, surrounded by 2-3 story office buildings for law offices, some with restaurants on the ground floor. A new park would replace an unsightly vacant gravel lot that is in the floodway. A greenway and transit corridor (bus or rail) would connect the district to points north and south, eventually reducing the need for parking.

Streetscape improvements would include "road dieting" Wheeler Avenue from four lanes to three, with parallel parking along one side. Trees would line both Wheeler and Fiber Street and sidewalks would be installed for easy pedestrian access.

Moving the courthouse out of downtown would definitely free up more space for new shops and restaurants, especially around the square. But what guarantee do we have that new businesses would open in these newly-vacant buildings? If this move is done at the wrong time, e.g. before there is a critical mass of residents and employees downtown, we could have a major vacancy problem on our hands and a significant daytime population decline that would harm the businesses already present. It's best not to rush this project; plus, there are a whole lot of people out there who still have a bad taste in their mouth from the jail fiasco. So embarking on another public building project that could potentially cost tens of millions of dollars might not be so popular today. But five years from now? Definitely.


Greg said...

and you removed the clientele of the downtown restaurants. not a great idea.

James said...

Did you read the last paragraph, Greg? I know it would kill the existing businesses downtown if we did it today. That's why I would wait 5-10 years, when we should have a critical mass of residents and other businesses (besides law firms). Plus by then the courthouse will probably become a public hazard and will have to move. And I would rather have it at least close to downtown than move it to, say, Research Park.

Anonymous said...

Good Article. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Brent said...

So would you just eat the costs of all the improvements we just did around the courthouse?

I like the idea but it just seems like a waste of all the improvements we just spent to spruce up an area around a dreadful looking building.

Mark M said...

This is a good idea whose time has come. It needs to be added to the city's long term growth plan. By moving the Courthouse and other government offices out of down town, you will make these offices more centralized and easier to make use of. I see the best use of the current courthouse foot print being a Hotel with Townhomes in the upper floors, Fine Dining/Bar and Meeting Rooms downstairs, maybe even a Pool /Recreation area on the roof. This would draw visitors down town to replace the loss of foot traffic made by moving the Courthouse. As stated, the law firms would naturally relocate closer to the new Courthouse opening new retail and destination opportunities that would finally make the revitalization of Downtown viable.

Anonymous said...

It's the stairs and walkway that is bad about the courthouse, because the rest is just a glass box. I think that the courthouse stairs and walkways could be renovated to match the completed, existing sidewalk renovations, and that would take away the worst of the unsightliness.

I'm not as concerned about the downtown lawyer infestation (heh) since there are vacant store fronts just off the square. The space to have more nightlife is already there, just waiting to be used.

John W said...

HSV needs to nurture its downtown. Scanning the square and side streets, there seems to be quite a bit of ground floor vacancies, and a low interest in intown-living (a recent condo tower is still quite empty). We've gotta have a reason to come downtown 1st, and right now its terribly under-utilized. Havent seen a viable plan to create the critical mass we need happen. Start w/ the cafes and shops, or apts, and a destination may sprout.

Natalie said...

I really do like your plans on moving the courthouse. Plus with that move it would make it more convenient for the jail to take said criminals to court instead of hauling them to downtown. I think if the downtown area felt more open and user friendly more people might want to go down there. Especially with that 1906's eyesore right in the middle.

It is hard to attract folks to go to downtown when it feels like a hassle to get there.

timber said...

move the courthouse to the empty lot at the corner of holmes and jefferson -- keeps it in downtown but frees up the square -- the only way downtown will grow is with affordable housing -- not 301 east pricing. If people are here business will come.