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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, April 15, 2011

The Belk-Hudson Lofts

By the Summer of 2012, the Belk-Hudson building and adjacent lots (top picture) will be home to the largest downtown residential development in modern Huntsville history (Bottom picture-- photo credit: Schoel Architecture of Decatur)
The Belk-Hudson Lofts is a proposed 6 story, $11.5 million project at the corner of Holmes and Washington. Part of the project will involve renovating the historic building at the intersection, which formerly housed a department store that gave the development its name, and another part will be constructed on a vacant lot that was occupied by the Old Towne Brewery until a few years ago, when a fire destroyed that building. The developer is Charlie Sealy, a Huntsville resident whose family manages apartment complexes throughout the Southeast, including in Huntsville. With 75 apartments, this project will more than double the amount of free-market residential units available in the CBD. The project is expected to break ground in July, and open in summer 2012.

One of the major concerns about downtown living is the prohibitive cost, especially for young professionals and empty-nesters, the groups of people most likely to live there.  According to Zillow, the cheapest residence for sale downtown right now is about $370,000. The one- and two-bedroom apartments at Belk-Hudson will rent between $850 and $1350 per month-- comparable to a nice apartment out in the suburbs.

So, what do you guys think? Awesome? Pointless? The start of something huge for downtown, or a one-time event?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Providence to get apartments, hotel

The Village of Providence is growing again. With new office and retail buildings already under construction, developer Todd Slyman announced at last week's Economic Development Summit two major expansion plans expected to break ground later this year-- 200+ "urban-style" apartments and another 100-room Hilton brand hotel. (If I had to guess which hotel brand, it would be Home2 Suites, a new boutique extended-stay hotel which just recently opened its first hotel in Fayetteville, NC.) The apartments and hotel will be located in the Town Center on Providence Main (see map above). Providence also has plans to replace some of its surface parking with at least one parking deck.

Village of Providence PDF map (shows layout of future buildings, parking deck)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Grocery Store for Northwest Huntsville

We may not have a Trader Joe's yet, but another grocery store owned by the same German family is opening its second Huntsville store. Aldi, which already has one store under construction on 72 West in front of TJ Maxx, will begin construction soon on its second area store, in 12,500 sq. ft. of the old Office Depot at the intersection of University and Sparkman. This puts Aldi in one of the youngest (thus, more frugal) areas of Huntsville, with nearly 10,000 college students nearby. This will also give shoppers in the area an alternative to Walmart (too crowded) and Earth Fare (awesome, but too expensive for everyday goods).

The Ideas Map Results

Tonight, the City of Huntsville revealed the results of the Ideas Map, which went online in January. In the 18 days during which the map was live, users posted 926 ideas, and 4,897 interactions (likes, comments, etc.) to those ideas. This overwhelming response bodes well for future experiments in public interaction.

For the past couple of months, I've been analyzing the results of the map, and a report of all the lists I created and an analysis of the top retail/restaurants and other ideas is now posted at huntsvilleal.gov/ideas.

Top New Retailers, Citywide:
  1. Trader Joe's
  2. Macy's 
  3. Ikea
  4. Container Store
  5. Whole Foods
Top New Restaurants, Citywide:
  1. Cheesecake Factory
  2. Chipotle
  3. Joe's Crab Shack
  4. Dunkin' Donuts
  5. Dave and Busters
Top Ideas, Individual-- these were the single most-"liked" ideas.
  1. Kroger at Martin and Zierdt
  2. Five Points Streetscaping
  3. Trader Joe's in Lincoln Mill
  4. Joe's Crab Shack at Bridge Street
  5. Target in Northeast Huntsville

Overall, the top ideas were-- this combines similar "liked" ideas in a certain area:
  1. Trader Joe's in Southeast Huntsville
  2. Macy's at Bridge Street
  3. Target in Northeast Huntsville
  4. Downtown Redevelopment
  5. Trader Joe's in West Huntsville
As you can see, several non-retail ideas made it into the top 5, both individually and cumulatively. While downtown ideas ranged from a new ballpark to a brewpub, the idea below got the most support:

The only way to make Downtown Huntsville into a viable walkable community is to pass an ordinance that requires the spaces facing the street to be limited to retail and restaurants. The attorneys, insurance companies, storage space, etc. should be only on upper floors and rear offices…”

This idea for the expansion of the Five Points streetscape project turned out to be very popular:

I'm not sure, but I would guess that 5 Points/Old Town is one of the densest areas in Huntsville. It's also (at least east of California) one of the most affordable for young professionals and families. As a result, it could easily be one of the most vibrant, walkable areas of Huntsville, but it seems that there are power poles growing from every crack in the sidewalk, where sidewalks can be found.  Also, none of the buildings in the area (with the exceptions of Star Market and 1892) have been improved lately. Landlords should be encouraged (read: incentivized) to upgrade their facilities. Ideally, buildings would be 2 or more stories with small setbacks and provide, in some cases, apartment living (like the main street in Providence).  Further, I would personally love to see California turn into a 2 lane road with parallel parking and bike lanes between Randolph and Beirne. That, coupled with sidewalk improvements, would go a long way towards creating a pedestrian-friendly environment in the area of Huntsville that would be most receptive to it.

And, finally, this made me very happy: cumulatively, ideas for better transit service throughout the city came in #6. Most, like the one posted by a user named "Zach" below, revolved around an eventual rail-based transit system:

The key to having a great city is people being able to move around efficiently and quickly. Huntsville should lead the US and create its own mass transit system. There are plenty of existing rail lines that could be upgraded… You could turn the downtown station back into a usable station. It would be great, because it is right by the Visitors bureau and the main Shuttle Bus station. Passengers could then rely on (a much improved version) the shuttle buses to get them exactly where they needed to be. Some major areas could be accessible by the rail network though, such as; UAH, Parkway Place, Huntsville Madison County Library, VBC, Downtown Madison, and the Arsenal. Huntsville Hospital could even offer a van service to shuttle from a station located near Gov. Dr. on the L&N Line to the hospital or extend their trams. Crestwood could also offer the van service. A special Arsenal train could be offered to get people from the Downtown station to the Arsenal. MPs could be stationed on the train to have everyone's IDs checked by the time the train arrived at the Arsenal gates. This would greatly decrease crowding at the gate in the mornings and evenings. Moreover, a efficient and useful mass transit system would greatly benefit the city both now and in the future. Don't wait to build this after the city has already expanded and needs help. Anticipate the expansion and plan for the future!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2010 Census: A Brief Analysis

After a disappointing 2000 Census that saw a population decline in Huntsville, the city increased by nearly 22,000 residents in the 2000s for a total population of 180,105. Madison continued its impressive population increase to hit 42,938 in 2010, from 29,329 in 2000.

The number that has gotten the most attention, however, has been 417,593-- the "metro area" population, which is the sum of Madison and Limestone County's populations. While the Times has run several stories proclaiming that Huntsville is now the second-largest metro area in the state, it is a bit premature to determine that. The new Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) definitions won't come out until the Summer of 2013, and only then can we officially determine whether or not we surpassed Mobile to become #2. That is doubtful however, considering that Mobile will probably (re?)gain Baldwin in the new MSA; even if Huntsville gained Morgan and Lawrence counties in the new MSA (population: 571,422), it still wouldn't be enough to surpass a theoretical Mobile-Baldwin MSA (population: 595,297).

The population junkies out there may enjoy this map compiled by The New York Times of Census 2010 data that has been released in the past month or so, visually showing growing and shrinking Census tracts and their demographics.

Source: The New York Times
I'll state the obvious first: Monrovia, East Limestone and Hampton Cove were the fastest-growing areas in the region between 2000 and 2010. But here's some interesting facts you may not have known, before you looked at the map of course:
  • Five Points had the largest population decline of any city neighborhood in the past decade. Downtown also had a decline in population, mainly due to the loss of public housing. Lowe Mill, on the other hand, remained stagnant, nearly reversing years of population decline. Blossomwood, Oak Park, and even Terry Heights had slight population increases. 
  • Hispanics fuel growth on the Southwest side. Hispanics now make up 6% of Huntsville's total population. Much of this growth is in Southwest Huntsville, where one tract recorded a ten-fold increase in the Hispanic population. 
  • Southeast stagnates. Neighborhoods surrounding Bailey Cove recorded slight population declines in the past decade, while new home construction fueled growth in neighborhoods along the Parkway. My theory for the decline in older SE areas-- Southeast is aging, with more "empty nesters" (parents whose kids have moved off to college and beyond). You can see this phenomenon in other areas, such as East Madison, Southeast Decatur, and neighborhoods along Governors Drive. It is part of the natural cycle of a stable neighborhood-- once younger families begin to move in again (as can be seen in Piedmont and Jones Valley), the population grows. 
What to watch for in the next ten years: 
  • Alabama's newest largest city. Birmingham, Huntsville, and Montgomery will all be around the same size in 2020 (approximately 200,000 each).  
  • Significant increases in urban neighborhoods. As "Millenials" (e.g. yours truly) come of age, urban living options will be more in demand. Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods will become hot residential markets, especially if the removal of the housing projects continues, and gas prices continue to rise. 
  • Suburban growth continues. It will be different, though-- walkable, mixed-use (Providence-style) suburban neighborhoods will become the norm, thus becoming more affordable. So-called cookie cutter subdivisions will become unpopular and appeal only to the lowest bracket of home buyers. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A lack of retail in North Huntsville?

Major retail development along North Parkway since 2000. (Graphic created by James Vandiver for the City of Huntsville.)
The claimed "lack" of retail development in North Huntsville is back in the news this week. Here's the truth: 1,034,000 sq. ft. of new or renovated retail space has been developed on North Parkway alone since 2000 (see graphic above). Retailers such as Costco, Gander Mountain, Lowe's and Walmart have opened stores in the corridor during that time. While there is still work to be done, North Huntsville definitely hasn't been left out. 

And this week at the Economic Development Summit, the city will be announcing yet another North Huntsville project expected to begin construction soon, and it's coming without "free land" or sales tax rebates.