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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. 


sambadad said...

This drawing looks remarkable similar to one that was done for another developer in town with interest in that property. This would work, though I would like to see the retail and office off the street so that it had a city street feel to it with potential for street vendors, etc.

Nicole said...

Plan #2 has another huge con, one which you put under "pros" -- that is, still being on Airport. It still creates the same traffic issues. Tweaking a few stoplights isn't going to fix that, and the idea to 7-lane Airport would only make that corridor worse.

I can't say I'm real keen on destroying a park for a Wal-Mart, either.

MJ said...

Can someone please explain why we need another Walmart? If the Drake store isn't successful, let's just close it. How many acres would it take to get an Earth Fare in that area? Could they use the old Copeland's space without having to tear down parks and museums?

Andrew said...

Do you have any idea for what the Drake Walmart location could be turned into if Walmart did eventually vacate it? I can't imagine that it would stay vacant long though since it is seems to be a good spot.

Nicole said...

MJ - As much as I am not a fan of Walmart, that Walmart serves a low income part of town and its about the only thing they have. Of course Walmart would rather be in a higher income area like Airport, but it isn't good for the city, and Earthfare wouldn't serve the same critical function.

James said...

@Andrew: I don't know of any specific plans for the Drake Avenue site. If you want an out-of-the-box idea, I could see the site becoming an extension of Parkway Place, with the existing building being demolished to make way for a department store that is connected to the mall via a pedestrian bridge.

@Nicole and MJ: Just about any development, with or without Walmart, at Airport and the Parkway that would require more than the current Copeland's footprint would use some park land. Also, Earth Fare prefers existing vacant retail buildings.

Nick said...

The Country Club concept seems like it would be successful. However, I think some residential lofts above the mixed-use offices on Airport would be beneficial to keeping the street-front alive.

As for Walmart, keep it where it is, but don't let them rebuild. Huntsville doesn't need another anti-urban big box store taking up land.

Nicole said...

I agree with Nick that redevelopment of the existing location is the best option for the customers and the city. It's also the hardest for Wal-Mart.

Barring that, what is happening with the big piece of land where the Huntsville Nursery used to be at Airport/Johnson and Leeman Ferry? It's off the beaten path a little, but Wal-Mart doesn't need a busy intersection to capture business.