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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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I-565: Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this month, Interstate 565 was opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by city and state officials. Planning for the highway began in the 1960s and when completed, the cost of the entire 21-mile highway was around $500 million ($790 million in today's dollars). At around $38M per mile, the highway was a bargain by today's standards; if the same cost-per-mile estimates for the Southern Bypass ($65M) or Birmingham's Northern Beltline ($90M) were applied to 565, the cost may have been well into the billions.

Much of the interstate has served its purpose, carrying 100,000+ cars daily in some spots. It has cut cross-city trip times significantly (ask anyone who has lived in Northeast Huntsville for more than 20 years), and has been credited for making Madison the medium-sized suburban city it is today.  There is one portion, however, that has created headaches for engineers, drivers and planners alike-- the 2.4 mile "urban overpass." Only a few years after it was opened, cracks were found in many of the bridge girders. Whenever snow or ice threatens, the bridge is always the first to close, shutting down the city's major east-west arterial. And unknown to many drivers who use the overpass daily, the bridge has left a scar of underused land right in the middle of the city.

The I-565 Urban Overpass (outlined in light blue) occupies about 140 acres in the heart of the city. (Google Earth)

The overpass is underused volume-wise, especially the stretch between Memorial Parkway and Oakwood Avenue which averages about 45,000 vehicles per day-- less than many segments of University Drive. Also, the interstate's planners didn't think about the finite life span of an overpass-- most last up to fifty years, sometimes less, meaning that sometime in the next thirty years the cost of maintaining the overpass will become too great and we will have to talk about replacing it.

Overpasses as far as the eye can see, over Church St. (Photo credit: James Vandiver)

The officials at the 1991 opening ceremony praised the economic development opportunities that 565 would bring to the area, but when the time comes, replacing part of the highway with a surface or below-grade boulevard could bring substantial development as well. A boulevard would have a substantially smaller footprint than the current overpass structures, opening up valuable land near downtown for greenspace and development. It would also create a less hostile environment for bicyclists and pedestrians, and eliminate the physical divide between North and South Huntsville. Another added perk of eliminating the overpass is a redesign of the Parkway/565 interchange, which is badly needed even today.

Elevated freeway removal has been a growing trend in American cities-- even Birmingham is considering it in their long-term plans with I-20/59 downtown. You may have heard of Boston's "Big Dig" project, though that may not be the best example due to politics, shoddy engineering and massive cost overruns. Here are a couple of less infamous examples:

San Francisco: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged several elevated freeways in the Bay Area, including the Embarcadero Freeway. The highway was replaced in the 1990s with an at-grade boulevard, a light rail line, and park space along the once-inaccessible waterfront. Here's a link to a video discussing the Embarcadero transformation and the recent removal of another San Francisco highway (the Central Freeway).

Milwaukee: In 2002, the Park East Freeway was demolished, opening up 24 acres of their downtown for redevelopment. Projects include residential (apartments and condos), an Aloft hotel, and the new world headquarters for Manpower. http://city.milwaukee.gov/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment.htm

In a quick search, I found that Syracuse, New Haven, and New Orleans are considering highway removal as well. The Urban Land Institute has a list of current and proposed highway removal projects in the US.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hotel Boom on the Westside

There are at least seven new hotels are proposed or under construction in West Huntsville and Madison that have a good chance of being completed in the next year.  Check out the map for locations; a more detailed list of the hotels is below.

1. Holiday Inn Express and Suites- Watercress
Developer: Owings Properties d.b.a. Watercress Hotel Associates, LLC
This hotel is planned to be built behind the new Kroger at 72 and Jeff Road.

2. Holiday Inn Express and Suites- Madison
Developer: Omega Hotel Group
This 4-story, 96-room hotel is currently under construction at Madison Boulevard and Wall-Triana Highway. It is expected to open in March.

3. Madison Hospital
Developer: GBT Realty (entire development)
A 5-story, 110-room hotel is in the plans for a development just to the west of the new hospital along Balch Road in Huntsville city limits. I would expect this hotel to be limited-service, similar to a Hampton Inn or a Fairfield Inn.

4. SpringHill Suites- Providence
Developer: Providence Hotel Partners, LLC
The new urbanist development is getting a second hotel now that the first, a Homewood Suites by Hilton, has been wildly successful. At first glance, I assumed that another Hilton-brand hotel would be built here, but it turns out that a SpringHill Suites by Marriott will be the new format.

5. Home2 Suites/Hampton Inn and Suites- Research Park
Developer: LBA Hospitality
Dothan hotel developer LBA Hospitality is building a hotel on Governors West, just south of Bridge Street. LBA has built several Home2 Suites locations, a new Hilton extended-stay brand, including the first one in Fayetteville, NC earlier this year. It is possible that this hotel will be a Home2 as well. The hotel will be co-branded as a Home2 Suites and a Hampton Inn and Suites, the first of its kind in the United States.

6-7. Redstone Gateway 
Developer: Jim Wilson and Associates (entire development)
At this mega-development at 565 and Research Park Boulevard, two hotels with a combined ~300 rooms are in the master plan. These two hotels will probably be more full-service and business-oriented than the others on the list, similar to a Doubletree or a Hilton.