Huntsville Prepares for the Future: Parking Problems or Problem with Perception?

Change is hard but it has never stopped Huntsville from rising to a challenge.

In the same way we adjusted to becoming the Rocket City in the 1960s; to becoming a booming defense industry maven in the 1990s; and a five-county regional economy over the past decade; Huntsville is looking yet again to the future and sometimes – just sometimes – we get a whiff of frustration as the construction holds up traffic, a red light seems to be holding longer than it used to, or there does not appear to be enough parking at a popular new shopping venue!

Parking spaces have become precious commodities.

As Huntsville continues to grow and expand, city planners are trying to get ahead of the headaches seen in large, fast-growing metropolitan cities by redesigning it as they go for the future, and a central tenet of this strategy involves Land Use.

Land Use is the management and modification, or “urbanization” of a natural environment into residential, commercial, and public “urban open” sectors.

In the past, especially in the past 50 years, Land Use has been geared toward making room for urban sprawl and commercialization at all costs. Shopping centers have focused on gigantic asphalt parking lots where drivers battle constantly for the closest parking spot. Stores sit back off the main thoroughfare to accommodate it, while anxious holiday drivers follow on the heels of customers exiting the storefront like automotive stalkers until they reach their vehicle, either sniping the spot or deciding to try for one that’s closer.

Most of the time however, these parking fields are more than half empty, always built larger than required, leaving an asphalt eyesore and a tremendous waste of land.

In the past few years, Huntsville city planners have been studying Land Use analyses to help reshape Huntsville’s character and to better manage Huntsville’s land and natural environment to fit a more contemporary view of how people live, work and play.

The Shops at Merchants Walk and Shops at Merchants Square on Bob Wallace Avenue are based on “New Urbanism.” While the tenants and some customers perceive there to be insufficient parking, Merchants Square was designed to sit close to the street with some ground-level parking, backed up by a three-floor parking deck.

Jessica Partington, property manager for RCP Properties which developed both shopping centers, said the overwhelming success of the developments has put the need for additional traffic and parking solutions front and center.

“The Shops at Merchants Square has been wildly popular, which is something we will never be upset about, but perhaps a bit more popular than we anticipated,” she said. “When Chuy’s opened, it was a record-breaking opening for them nationwide and no one anticipated how popular it was going to be.

“Of course, we are not upset by that but with that came some unexpected challenges.”

She said that as of now, the parking ratios required for that venue are not showing they are under-parked in terms of code compliance, but there are a couple of things at play.

“Employees are required to park on the upper level of the deck but because there is not what most people perceive as being much parking at ground level, we find that people don’t always go all the way up the deck,” she said. “And on weekends, we find there are parking spots at that last hook in the parking deck and up top that people miss.”

Partington said there is a lot of construction work during the day and construction vehicles in the deck that take up a lot of room and are taking up some spaces that would normally be available.

“But we are nearing the end of that, so it won’t be a problem much longer,” she said. “Also, Aspen Dental will have their own ground-level parking and when they are finished, people can park there at night and on weekends when the problem seems to be worse.”

According to Kelly Schrimsher, director of communications for Mayor Tommy Battle’s office, Huntsville is experiencing some growing pains that can be easily addressed by changing people’s perception.

“The Shops at Merchants Square and the Shops at Merchants Walk on Bob Wallace Avenue are the perfect example,” Schrimsher said. “There is actually plenty of parking. You just have to look at it from a more efficient Land Use perspective and tie it to where the future will be taking us.

“We are rethinking parking requirements to better fit a model for the not so distant future where people are walking more, are driving more electric cars, where more people are using services like Uber, and where people will walk outside the store or restaurant and ‘dial their car’ to come pick them up. Although it may sound farfetched now, it is not so far away from reality.”

Rendering shows an example of a crosswalk idea for Bob Wallace Avenue.

The city is also working on a couple of solutions they believe will help alleviate the Bob Wallace traffic and parking issues as well.

“We are building a decorative pedestrian crosswalk from the much larger parking lot at the Shops at Merchants Walk that will be visually appealing and substantial enough to slow the traffic down on Bob Wallace so people can safely cross back and forth,” said Shane Davis, director of urban and economic development for Huntsville. “The city is acquiring material quotes for the intersection improvements and expect to have it completed in early January. It will also really dress up the area.”

Made of “stamped thermoplastic material” with a brick, stone and slurry concrete design, Davis said it will provide for improved pedestrian crosswalk safety, more driver awareness at the intersection, and overall improved aesthetics of the area.

Over the next year, visitors to that part of the city will also see sidewalks up and down both sides of Bob Wallace from the Parkway to both shopping centers, and down the road there are plans for an equally decorative crosswalk across Memorial Parkway at the Bob Wallace intersection.

“The city also has a plan to connect Regal Drive on the Parkway Place side next to Belk, to the Shops at Merchant Square,” said Partington. “Those through-roads will alleviate some of the traffic flow and allow people to walk a little bit, which we are doing more of in Huntsville.”

“It is a little bit of educating people and preparing them for what we know is coming in the future,” said Schrimsher. “Downtown Huntsville residents have been going through this same evolution since its revitalization began.

“The days of fighting for a parking spot right in the front door and every individual business having their own asphalt parking lot is being phased out and shared parking is being phased in,  If you live downtown, strangers may park in front of or near your home. And they are using parking decks and Uber rather than driving their car everywhere.

“But people who choose to live downtown in areas like Twickenham Square and Avenue Huntsville, do so for the convenience, the amenities, and the pedestrian-friendly environment. They do not have to jump in the car to drive to the grocery store or a restaurant or to have their hair cut or grab a cup of coffee. If they live in these areas, they adjust to it and even enjoy it.”

According to the city’s statistics, Huntsville is a sprawling city overall, but it has population density pockets such as downtown of more than 5,000 people per square mile, making it comparable to cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Paul, Minn.

Interestingly, Five Points is an excellent example, originally developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb” that was not designed for the automobile and is still, today, easily walkable because of it.

Compare that to Cummings Research Park, which was established in 1962.

Designed for driving, originally, there were no restaurants, retail or residential originally allowed within the park.

That began to change when, 1982, the city purchased land and it evolved into Cummings Research Park West. In 2007, Bridge Street Town Centre was developed and it now includes more than 80 restaurants and stores and two hotels. An apartment building has since opened and a third hotel will open soon.

Some sections of Research Park East are being rezoned for small, very condensed multi-use developments, multistoried and sitting close to streets so as not to waste land. The parking will be enough, but it will not be a sprawling field of asphalt.

Tenants can expect some retail-like coffee shops and cafes, and perhaps even hotel rooms on the upper floors to alleviate having to jump in your vehicle for every errand.

Residents are already seeing bikeshares in Cummings Research Park for quick and emissions-free runs.

There are more pedestrian-friendly multi-use developments such as the Village of Providence, downtown’s Twickenham Square, Town Madison along I-565, and MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, following a popular trend across the U.S. where people are demanding less pollution, less asphalt, less traffic and more outdoor-friendly landscaping, easier accessibility, and more walkability.

“We recognize that our residents need more mobility options, especially when it comes to urban development,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “With each new project, we look to create safe and unusable connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists as well as public transit and motor vehicles.”