What Huntsville’s downtown master plan means to you

single-meta-cal April 12, 2017

You can’t surf through the TV channels without landing on some “makeover” sort of show, whether it’s a ground-up renovation or adding a simple facelift.

Downtown Huntsville is headed for its own makeover. Just how extreme it becomes will depend upon a variety of factors. But the unbridled imagination of Urban Design Associates (UDA), built upon suggestions and ideas generated in this community, envisions downtown as a place you’ll still clearly recognize yet can hardly believe.

The goal, said Dennis Madsen, the City’s director of long-range planning, is to “play up what makes us special, and a vibrant downtown is a key to that.”

UDA representatives set up camp recently at U.G. White Mercantile to meet with residents. UDA, a 53-year-old company based in Pittsburgh, outlined some of its plans and continued to solicit ideas and suggestions. It capped its visit with a presentation at the Von Braun Center, with an elaborate show conducted by UDA chairman Rob Robinson.  (Watch here)

“Some changes will occur organically, as they have already, but there must be a “focused strategy” for the facelift.”

“They know what helps makes a difference, to grow in a quality way that will be sustainable and be unique,” Madsen said of UDA.

Robinson offered a laundry list of things he and his staff frequently heard from residents:

  • Make downtown streets delightful to walk or bike
  • Better connect downtown to nearby trails, parks, destinations and neighborhoods
  • Embrace Big Spring Park as an even better, more active place
  • Give people more choices for pre- and post-event entertainment near the VBC
  • Improve access to parking
  • Add more active retail or dining on ground floors, instead of just offices
  • Make Downtown more like a neighborhood, with different choices for living, shopping and neighborhood services
  • Replace City Hall and the Municipal Garage with new, better versions of each

Robinson addressed the most pertinent issues and he outlined several key initiatives. Some are as simple as a traffic re-route and a few buckets of paint, others will involve capital investment from both the public and private sector. Some changes will occur organically, as they have already, but Robinson stressed there must be a “focused strategy” for the facelift.

Among UDA’s Proposals

Spragins Street:  The simplest of the proposals, it would eliminate automobile traffic on the short stretch of that street leading from Clinton Ave. into Big Spring Park, serving as a pedestrian connector to …

Clinton-Holmes:  The goal is “to make this a great place to be with shops, cafes and a unique urban setting,” Robinson said. The foundation has already been built with a number of existing restaurants and shops, including the repurposing of the ground floor of a parking garage for shops alongside Clinton.

When the federal courthouse moves to a new location, it will enable a big, historic building to be repurposed. UDA plans include a new structure housing shops and restaurants at Holmes and Jefferson. Currently at the site is a parking lot, which is another piece of the puzzle …

Parking:  Finding a good spot along a curb somewhere is getting tougher. And parking garages convenient to central city are expensive and devour space that can be more efficiently used.

Implementing a “circulator,” an electric bus that ferries people from remote parking lots and runs a precise route through downtown is a more cost-effective way to do business. It means less time circling blocks looking for an elusive space, eliminates the high cost of parking and could deliver the rider closer to his or her destination.

New construction could include parking structures incorporated more closely within the facility. Even more intriguing is using existing parking structures as the foundation for development. Particularly across from the spot that annually draws 800,000 visitors …

Von Braun Center:  It’s time, Robinson said, “to bring the VBC into the heart of the city.” One method would be to modify the parking garage across Monroe, adjacent to Big Spring Park. A row of informal bars and restaurants would attract visitors to the VBC.

Those locations could also look out across the park. Unlike most cities with a centrally located park, few of the building around Big Spring Park actually open up into the park. That could happen by tying in dramatic changes up the hill …

Fountain Circle:  What happens here could be “transformational,” Robinson said. The aging parking garage needs to be replaced and City Hall is bursting at the seams, with many departments having to locate “off campus.” UDA envisions a multi-use development there to take advantage of the breathtaking view overlooking Big Spring Park.

Yes, it’s long-range, but it’s also essential to move quickly, Robinson stressed.

“The way people are using their cities now, in five years what you have here could feel like it’s 1860 now,” he said.

Photo credit: David Phillips Photography