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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.

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.