Huntsville city planners ready to go from “The Big Picture” to smaller pictures

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - "The Big Picture" marks Huntsville's first comprehensive master plan in more than four decades. City planners began the endeavor in May of 2014. While it won't be unveiled until spring of 2016, it is already making an impact.

"From the growth we're seeing in Huntsville and from the strong engagement in participation of citizens, this plan is needed and this plan is important and it's truly going to define the direction we go and the decisions that we make as we move forward," said Mayor Tommy  Battle.

Through community conversations and date gathering, the planners have already established the city's core issues from transportation and greenways to neighborhood revitalization and quality of life.

"This plan has done exactly what we hoped it would do," said Director of Planning Michelle Jordan. "It's helping us set our priorities for the future, priorities that our council and mayor will act upon and really helps us all solidify around these five main issues that deal with our quality of life and really just making Huntsville continuing to keep Huntsville a really special place to work, live and play."

Officials now want to narrow their focus, though, from challenges to solutions.

"Now what we're doing really as we start to transition to fall is going from that big picture, going from what are the challenges and what are the issues to what exactly are we going to do about them," said Urban and Long Range Planning Manager Dennis Madsen. "We frequently call this going from the big picture now to many smaller pictures."

Two public planning meetings are scheduled this week:

October 13, 6:00 p.m., Grissom High Master Plan Open House, 7901 Bailey Cove Road
Discuss the redevelopment of the campus for “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to create a town center for South Huntsville
October 14, 6:00 p.m., Medical District Planning Charrette, 2304 Billie Watkins Street, at the Huntsville High Freshman Academy
This rapidly transforming neighborhood is accommodating medical, business and residents.

 To learn more about "The Big Picture," click here. A brief summary includes:

Public Input

  • Greenways, greenways, greenways.  One of the most popular amenities in Huntsville, it's among top requests from BIG Picture outreach: “We love the greenways and want to see more of them”
  • Greater diversity in transportation. A good road network is important, but we also need to improve our bike and pedestrian networks, and there has been a surprising amount of expressed interest in expanded transit options
  • Quality-of-life investment in general has been very popular. Not just greenways, but developing quality parks, attracting new retail options, supporting more special events - particularly those unique to Huntsville
  • Beautification of ugly corridors
  • Do more to support the revitalization of individual neighborhoods

Planning/Market Analysis

  • Continue efforts to support small businesses, start-ups and innovation
  • Update zoning code to support development trends that are increasingly mixed use-oriented
  • Aging-in-Place: support housing and transportation options for an aging community
  • Incentivize re-use of older commercial properties, particularly those among major corridors;
  • Be more creative in developing public-private partnerships to create quality development.

What Have We Learned?

  • The community wants to see more emphasis on quality-of-life investment, particularly parks and greenways, and economic development on the neighborhood scale
  • The future of our economy is pointed toward diversity in industry, both large and small, imported and home-grown, and in a workforce that spans across the age, wage and education spectrum.
  • To deal with future transportation challenges, Huntsville needs to diversify its approach to include more modes, and more technology
  • The City is experiencing increasing pressure, both from public and private sectors, to facilitate redevelopment over "greenfield" development.

Unexpected Directions

  • The interest in Ditto Landing, and the interest in transit has been a surprise. This has led us to an early master planning effort for the Marina, and a look at some potential corridors for expanded transit
  • The interest in incubators and innovation districts have indicated that more support might be warranted to small-scale business centers, as well as the recently initiated CRP master planning update
  • The overwhelming support for the greenways have led us to discussing a formal partnership with the Land Trust to help accelerate the planning and build-out of the greenway network
  • The pride in the local maker culture and its overlap with the arts point us toward exploring how we support more projects like Lowe Mill, Campus 805, the Grissom redevelopment, and how we do it throughout the city

Changes Already Occurring

The City is responding to public input by stepping up efforts on the Ditto Landing master plan, Grissom High redevelopment plan, creating new Business Associations to help reinvigorate specific areas of town, renewed emphasis and investment in Parkway and University Drive redevelopment, accelerated capital plan funding for the Natatorium and John Hunt Park, transit studies on the Holmes Avenue Corridor and the possibility of a bike-pedestrian path connection from A & M University to Ditto.

What happens next?

BIG Picture teams will keep the conversation going with citizens in our community, but the dialogue will now shift from "what are the issues?" to "how do we deal with them?" The end result will be a comprehensive master plan, projected for Spring 2016, that is a combination of projects and policy changes to reshape how the City does business and how it prioritizes growth.  At the same time, the City’s will begin to look at specific parts in greater detail, such as planning for growth in the Medical District.

The City of Huntsville contributed to this story.