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.