Thursday, February 12, 2015

Redevelopment in Huntington, West Virginia; The Jewel City

This week I saw a tweet announcing that Strong Towns, the non-profit that supports models of development that allow cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient, would be visiting my old stomping grounds of Huntington, West Virginia for a few days. The City of Huntington and the non-profit Create Huntington will host Strong Towns at their Chat and Chew tonight. (I was happy to see that Charles Marohn was also able to visit Huntington just over a year ago as well.) Strong Towns will be working with the City of Huntington on implementation strategies for their updated comprehensive plan, Plan2025.

But before we talk about the future of Huntington, let me back up a bit. In the summer of 2008 I was offered an opportunity to pursue a graduate assist coaching position with the Marshall University Women's Basketball team. I had never been to Marshall, and honestly knew nothing about the school aside from seeing Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and the rest of the Thundering Herd playing on ESPN. I also had heard of We Are Marshall, but hadn't seen the movie at that point. I wanted to pursue a basketball coaching career as well as a master's degree, so I agreed to head to Huntington.

I was working basketball camps at the University of Tennessee that summer, so on my way back to Michigan I made a visit to Huntington. I wanted to see where I would be spending the next two years of my life. It was an eye-opening experience. I entered Huntington from I-64, driving up Hal Greer Boulevard, past some fast food restaurants near the ill-fated Kinetic Park, then driving a bit farther to be welcomed by the "Welcome to Huntington: Home of the Thundering Herd" sign. Just a bit further on my right was the Northcott Court public housing complex. To be honest, the complex was actually a nice reminder of the type of development that had occurred in cities like Huntington in the past, as compared to the typical suburban-style development we see now. I was more taken by the number of buildings in disrepair and the overall coal-town / rust-belt atmosphere of the Jewel City. Now, that housing complex has been torn down, and redevelopment of that site awaits. More on that to follow.

As I continued to drive around late on that Sunday night, I was second-guessing my choice to come to Marshall. Of course, Huntington was sleepy on the Sunday summer night, with students away for the summer. I was looking for one redeeming quality about Huntington at that point, and struggled to find it. Adventure and the promise of a free graduate education kept me going. As I arrived on campus later that fall, I met some of my now best friends, became busy with basketball and classes, and developed relationships with native Huntingtonians. As I explored the city more and learned more of its history, the urban planner in me would dream about the type of town Huntington could be. To have such a cute downtown situated so close to a major university, it seemed like that would be a recipe for success.

I had a wonderful two years at Marshall and in Huntington. I really didn't want to leave after graduate school. Once I developed those relationship and understood more about the city, I really did see the city as a jewel. It just needed to be scrubbed and buffed a bit before you saw its beauty.

Enough about my time though. Let's talk about the future of Huntington, especially considering some specific current development opportunities, as well as opportunities for ordinance reform.

A City of Gateways

Because of the geographic constraints of a city like Huntington, there are very few ways to get in and out of the city. During a form based code study that my friend, and current City of Huntington Planning Commissioner, Will Holland and I completed during our time at Marshall, we noted that the City of Huntington is a city of gateways.

A sample from our form based code study.

As most people who visit Huntington can attest, the drive along Hal Greer Boulevard from Interstate 64 into Huntington is pretty underwhelming (aside from Cabell Huntington Hospital) until you pass under the viaduct between 7th and 8th Avenues. During my time in athletics at Marshall I heard stories that coaches specifically avoided that path to campus when bringing in recruits, just to skip by blighted and unsightly parts of the city, likely including Northcott Court.

From Charleston the gateway into town isn't much better along Route 60. The nicest gateway is actually coming into Huntington from Chesapeake, Ohio. The are then other corridors within the city that demand attention as well, especially the 4th Avenue corridor and the area surrounding 20th Street, just north of Norway Avenue. It's great to see 4th Avenue gaining bicycle lanes and infrastructure improvements. The town and gown relationship between the City of Huntington and Marshall University is strongest along this corridor, and I hope that these improvements are helping attract even more Marshall students into Downtown Huntington.

4th Avenue in 2010

Along 20th Street, there are many opportunities to continue to build a gateway corridor, likely through economic development. It's an area that has great existing form, but needs some beefing up. It's a shame that businesses like the CVS and Chase Bank were built so far back from the street, with parking lots at the front of each property. This form actually seems out of context compared to the surrounding building form.

20th Street at Charleston Avenue

Huntington's Form; What to do with Northcott Court

But Huntington is not hopeless. Quite the opposite! In reiterating what Charles Marohn said regarding his time spent in Huntington, the city has many traditional forms of development and a compact downtown that might make many other small cities jealous. Huntington's neighborhoods have great grid street patterns. Many buildings are situated in walkable settings along sidewalks. There's a great foundation. Now, it's about filling in the gaps. That leads us back to Northcott Court, a public housing complex in Huntington. The complex is in the process of being torn down, and has had a history of attracting violence.

My friend Will Holland sent me the conversation on Engage Huntington regarding the redevelopment of the site, and I wanted to weigh in. I was a bit surprised when I read the Northcott Court Fact Sheet from the City of Huntington, that residential uses would not be pursued for this site. I am not sure if this is a federal mandate, or whether the Huntington Housing Authority simply did this out of good will to ensure that new (inevitably more expensive) housing would not be built on a site that one was home to lower income residents. I understand the sensibility to former residents, but isn't that also what happens in many rezoning applications? If the promise has been made to exclude housing from this site, does that mean that a mixed use development is out of the question? (Huntington Mayor Steve Williams has confirmed that the site will be developed as mixed use, apparently including residential.) If residential is not included, there may be challenges at attracting certain retailers to the site. Retailers must be certain that they will make a return on an investment, gauging the number of nearby residents and their income. Even without retail though, the site is sure to be a catalyst for what the Hal Greer corridor will look like in the future.

So, that begs the question, what type of retailer would be the best fit for the Northcott Court property? Many have noted the lack of grocery options for the neighborhood (and honestly, for the entire city of Huntington). A grocer would be great. However, given the neighborhood's economic status, this might be a stretch. Trader Joe's does not have a great track record when it comes to locating in lower income neighborhoods. For more on that, read this piece from Next City. It helps explain why it might be more likely a Whole Foods would locate to a lower income neighborhood, much like they did in Detroit. For a city that has a median household income just shy of $30,000, (although the 25701 zip code is a bit higher at $34,617) upscale retail may be tough to reign in. I'd have some reason to believe that's why it took so long to get a Chipotle in Huntington, even with the concentration of Marshall students. It may be worth exploring the feasibility of a Walmart neighborhood market as in Huntsville, Alabama, a Target Express, another Aldi (the shipping route is already established) or a local cooperative or a local grocery, much like what has been done in New Orleans.

Whatever development materializes at the site, it certainly needs to be a variety of businesses that should not only fulfill needs in the community, but also draw others, especially students and medical professionals. Other suggestions from the Engage Huntington conversation include a coffee shop (which would presumably receive a boost due to its proximity to the Cabell Huntington Hospital) and some sort of late night study spot for students.

It's important to discuss what type of businesses would be best for the community and city as a whole, but we must also address the type of development that would best serve the community. Does the City of Huntington want the typical suburban-style strip mall, typically served by large parking lots at the front of the property? That form may be great for suburban neighborhoods, but this is a great opportunity to establish a walkable district along Hal Greer Boulevard. Unfortunately, the Rite Aid at Hal Greer and Charleston Avenue was built with its parking lot adjacent to Hal Greer, reflective of suburban development. While Huntington's zoning code does not have a minimum setback in many commercial districts, there is no maximum, so this incompatible form of development continues to occur.

Hal Greer Boulevard at Charleston Avenue (Google Maps)

As Huntington moves forward with redevelopment and enacting the visions of their Plan2025 goals, it will be important to look at zoning ordinance revisions. Planning Commission and city officials must ask for each zoning district throughout the city,  "Do these permitted uses and regulations help us achieve the type of development that citizens desire in Huntington?" If not, revising the ordinance may be needed. For example, if there is a surplus of parking in a downtown district, it would make sense to remove parking lots and parking garages as a by-right use. There's no doubt that cities need parking, but let Planning Commission and City Council decide those uses, and give them a bit more discretion in how those sites may be developed. Again, this is an example of the type of use that detracts from the walkable urban environment that most places desire.

Downtown Huntington, anchored by the Keith Albee Theatre

Finally, a consideration of form based codes may be helpful in some districts of Huntington. Downtown and the Old Central City area especially. Form based codes, unlike most current zoning codes, are less concerned with the use of a property, but instead concentrate on the built form of a neighborhood. The graduate work that Will Holland and I completed while at Marshall explored this idea and recommended three gateways for consideration.The City of Cincinnati recently established form based codes for some of their neighborhoods, and could be looked to as an example. It could be a long process, but it may be most productive in guiding the form of the built environment in years to come.

Though I am no longer a resident in Huntington, I love the city and its potential. The city has great neighborhoods and development patterns at its core. The periphery is where the most work can be done though. Huntington also has great leadership. Mayor Steve Williams is leading in providing opportunities for residents to express their desires and hopes for Huntington, and I can guess that this trickles down to other staff and entities within the city. As the city continues to consider the redevelopment of the Northcott Court site, it will be important to remember that incremental development choices can have major impacts on the larger goals of a city or neighborhood. The Northcott Court site lies within arguably the most vital gateway corridor into Huntington. Let's not let the first thing that people see be a suburban-style development, but something else that speaks to the ambition of Huntington to have the thriving neighborhoods that the Jewel City deserves.

UPDATE: See this Herald Dispatch article for a review of Strong Towns' visit to Huntington.