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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, 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.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kohl's Coming to Jones Valley

Google Maps/HDN Illustration

Yes, the rumors are true: Assuming some access issues will be resolved, Kohl's is coming to South Huntsville. According to site plans, the new 64,000 sq. ft. store will be on the East side of Carl T. Jones just South of Ledges Dr., which would place it directly across from SuperTarget. This will be a stand-alone store, similar but a bit smaller than the existing location on 72 West. Construction is expected to begin in April, with completion early next year.

A Kohl's in South Huntsville was one of the more popular ideas on the city's Ideas Map.

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.