It’s just a tiny early move, a bit of a formality, but you’ve heard the old Chinese proverb about “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The lengthy journey to a new City Hall for the City of Huntsville and a dramatic facelift for downtown Huntsville has, in fact, already taken many small steps in discussion and planning and dreaming.
Now, in a consequential step, Mayor Tommy Battle will enter into a letter-of-intent (LOI) with developers who want to purchase the current City Hall property, setting the stage for construction of a new City Hall that will provide for more efficient operation, enhance the City’s image and assure safety for visitors.
The Huntsville City Council last week authorized the Mayor to sign the LOI with Triad Properties Corporation/Crunkleton and Associates LLC, which wants to purchase the property on which the current Administration Building and the City Hall Annex (now vacant) sit. Battle stressed to the Council that the property would be sold “at appraised price. That’s the only way to do it.”
Because of the decaying condition of the current City Hall, its overcrowding and the fact that the City is forced to lease offices in other buildings to house various departments, a new City Hall has been discussed for a number of years. (Read Decision Time on City Hall).
“We’re getting towards the end of our useful life in this building,” Battle said. “So we’ve got to recognize the fact that we’ve got to do something with City Hall.”
The interest expressed by Triad Properties/Crunkleton and Associates in the current property has accelerated the process somewhat, but as Shane Davis, Director of Urban and Economic Development for the City of Huntsville said, “There’s a long way to go before there’s anything to get excited about.”
A recommendation by Urban Design Associates (UDA) of Pittsburgh, a consulting group with expertise in downtown redevelopment, would be to relocate the new City Hall on the site of a current municipal parking garage across the street from the current location.
According to bylaws, the Mayor does not have to receive council authority to negotiate and execute a letter of intent, because it is a non-binding agreement. But with the magnitude of the potential project – the sale and eventual demolition of an iconic building and the construction of a new facility – “we wanted to make sure that you understand that we are working on this and to be fully transparent,” Battle said.
UDA’s Downtown Master Plan, which has been presented at multiple public functions and endorsed by City Council, has Big Spring Park as a centerpiece for redevelopment.
Unlike parks of similar size in other cities, there is very little immediate access to the park from commercial buildings. Much of the property surrounding the park is affiliated with the government (the Von Braun Center and its parking garage, Huntsville Utilities building, etc.) or is owned by the City, including the municipal complex that rests atop the hill on Fountain Circle and stretches downhill to Church Street.
The plan would have mixed-use development of retail, restaurants and housing on that latter property as a new “front door” onto the eastern side of Big Spring Park.
The potential developers, who are a local entity, approached the City with interest in doing what Battle called “an iconic building in the downtown area.”
The team has “a solid reputation as developers, and especially developers of office buildings,” he said.
Having a letter of intent in place begins “a timeline and a time frame of how we would develop,” Battle said. The next step would be a development agreement that is binding and, as he said, “is subject to council approval.
“And also,” Battle added, “subject to us coming to an agreement that we feel is in the best interest of the taxpayers and the people of Huntsville.”