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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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Next Ideas Summit: Downtown

On the city-wide Ideas Map, which went live in January, general non-retail ideas for the downtown area came in fourth overall. Since then, the momentum has been building for downtown redevelopment-- the Belk-Hudson Lofts project has been announced (construction begins in August), the first hotel at Constellation opened, and if you can read between the lines, you may realize that Councill Court's redevelopment is imminent-- if you liked Belk-Hudson, believe me, if it all pans out, you're going to love what's in store for that site.

The City of Huntsville's Intern Class V this week is launching a new version of the Ideas Map that will be welcome to any downtown ideas-- not just new retail and restaurants. While the city is still using SeeClickFix for the actual map, we have come up with several other ways to get people involved, including a Facebook page and a chalkboard that will be at several events (e.g. Concerts in the Park) and locations throughout downtown in the next few weeks.

The summits will be consolidated into one finale, open to the public, to be held July 21st at 6PM at the Belk-Hudson building at the corner of Holmes and Washington old Regions Bank building on West Side Square. It's the same night as the Sidewalk Arts Stroll, so you should already be downtown. Speakers at the event include David Wilson (the new Downtown marketing director), Mayor Battle, interim planning director Marie Bostick, and Mary Jane Caylor. An after party hosted by Huntsville Young Professionals will be at Humphrey's immediately after the event.

So, how effective was the original Ideas Map? Some uber-vague highlights:
  • One of the Top 5 new retailers, fully aware of their placing on the map, is now aggressively pursuing a site for their first Huntsville store. If they are successful, history shows in other cities that another store in the Top 5 wouldn't be too far behind. 
  • One of the Top 5 restaurants, which originally had no plans to expand here in the near future, has zeroed in on an area for their Huntsville location. And if someone committed to opening at least five Dunkin' Donuts franchises in the area, that would be two in-demand eateries taken care of. 
  • A grocer already in the area was disappointed in its competitor's high ranking on the map. So it has accelerated its plans to expand in the city. 
  • Ideas for better transit also ranked highly on the original map. This moved plans forward for Huntsville's first transit plan; its kickoff should be coming soon.

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.