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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

For "Signature Tower" Site, a Signature Development Idea

Current view of the Holmes-Jefferson city lot. (Photo: James Vandiver)

Shortly after lifting the height limit downtown, the City of Huntsville in early 2009 solicited proposals for a "signature tower" to be built on a city-owned 2.6 acre lot at the corner of Holmes Ave. and Jefferson St. At the time, as it is now, it was used as a public surface parking lot. Some of you have asked what happened to the signature tower proposal-- during the solicitation period, the city received zero proposals for redevelopment of the site, a victim of poor timing.

Even with the economy looking better and a renewed interest in downtown redevelopment, a signature tower is still out of the question. With a 21.5% office vacancy rate downtown, building a signature tower before the market demands it (ideally, when vacancy rates are <10%) would only increase that rate, absorbing many downtown offices currently scattered throughout the CBD into one large building, leaving in its wake a glut of vacant space in existing buildings. The risk of killing the momentum of downtown revitalization is just too great for what is essentially an aesthetically-pleasing addition to the skyline. The new thinking is that a signature mixed-use development, with modest amounts of residential, office, and retail spread out among several mid-rise buildings, would not overwhelm the market and become a model for other "opportunity sites" (vacant/parking lots, low-rise buildings) downtown. Plus, from a developer's point of view, this is a more realistic plan in a world where "flashy" doesn't get financed.

With that in mind, the city thought it would be a good time to take another look at the site. For the past few months, the city's Planning Department (with assistance from yours truly) have been working on some ideas to redevelop the Holmes/Jefferson site. One of the hypothetical development concepts is shown below.
An aerial of the concept, looking towards the south. (Graphic credit: City of Huntsville)
  1. A 6-story office building at the corner of Holmes and Jefferson, the most visible and heavily-traveled (both vehicle and pedestrian) intersection on the site. Because of this, the ground floor was reserved for a retail anchor. 
  2. A 4-story, 100-room boutique hotel. The inspiration for this was the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The name speaks for itself-- it's a hotel and a public art museum. 
  3. A 6-story apartment building at Holmes and Spragins, similar to the Belk-Hudson Lofts under construction about two blocks to the east. Other residential units would be spread out in the development as "live-work" units above retail or office space. 
  4. The area along Spragins was left somewhat open-- it could be expanded into more office space, green space, or even a museum (Sci-Quest?)
  5. A 4-story parking deck that would be placed behind the buildings, hidden from the street (save for the entrances/exits, of course). 
The conceptual office/retail building at the corner of Holmes Ave. and Jefferson St.  (Graphic credit: City of Huntsville)

Miscellaneous items included in the concept-- wider sidewalks to encourage pedestrian activity, "forecourts" for outdoor seating between some of the retail buildings, and rooftop gardens on top of the hotel and apartment structures.

So, what do you think? Other than a signature tower, what do you envision at this site?


Anonymous said...

Great ideas! Love the hidden parking. Could you squeeze a movie theater in there?

Why aren't developers coming up with these ideas for the land? Makes me think these ideas aren't 'do-able'...

Anonymous said...

Infill that looks similar to Providence would be nice. A signatue tower that houses a hotel, condominiums, a bank and a top floor restaurant could happen--it just takes some vision and creativity. I mean even a 20 story building would be a huge deal for our skyline. It may not be the case, but it seems as though there really isn't any sincere interest in building a highrise. I am happy with many of your suggestions, thanks for the contribution!

Anonymous said...

All I know is I want to be able to see downtown from 565. Hopefully that'll happen in my lifetime lol

Anonymous said...


David said...

The city should solicit proposals from Indian tribes to build a resort hotel and casino on the site. That would bring tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Huntsville, make the VBC more attractive for large conventions, and bring lots of new revenue into the city. The Huntsville Times reported today that one tribe is planning a 20 story resort hotel in Wetumpka. Something like that would have a huge positive impact on downtown. Of course you'd have to get it past the hysterical district first.

MrsDragon said...

Love the hidden parking, forecourts, and rooftop gardens.

What would be awesome is if some of those rooftop gardens were run by/for a restaurant in one of the buildings. Don't know if it's practical, but what an cool way to eat local.

Anonymous said...

The city is tying a knot with one hand and untying it with the other. There won't be demand for commercial real estate downtown while the city promotes research park. Once the city figures out how to draw diversified business to downtown, the need for proximal retail and restaurants follow. Behind that will be a demand for adjacent residential such as condos and apartments.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. If you took a quarter of the businesses that are in research park and Redstone, downtown would be much more vibrant. Huntsville needs to draw attention to it's downtown. Look at other cities, such as Birmingham or Chattanooga. Downtown is their corporate hub. Not the case in Huntsville. Downtown Huntsville has to compete with research park and Redstone arsenal, that's the issue.

Anonymous said...

They should just use a lighting projection, like they did to simulate the World Trade Center after it was destroyed. Just make it look like there is a tall building in Huntsville, so they can pretend it's a "big city."

Anonymous said...

For a skyline item, why not move a Saturn 1-B into downtown? The footprint is small, it's impressive-looking, and if if ANYTHING says ROCKET CITY, USA, it's an actual rocket built in Huntsville.

On another note -- HOORAY for hidden parking. All of our downtown parking towers should be retrofitted with retail space on the ground floors. Otherwise, they are black holes for pedestrian traffic.