Shopping in someone’s garage has long been a guaranteed way to get a good deal on secondhand goods. But shopping for first-run merchandise or dining in an upscale eatery in a commercial garage, now that’s something new.
But since Downtown Huntsville Inc. (DHI) and the City of Huntsville partnered to convert 15 parking spaces on the bottom floor of a 30-year-old garage into retail space, that’s exactly what Huntsvillians and visitors have been doing. Open since October 2016, the Garage at Clinton Row was recognized by the International Downtown Association with a Certificate of Merit, marking the fourth consecutive year that DHI has received an award from the association.
“This is the only time in history that a 30-year-old parking deck has been converted into retail use, ” says Chad Emerson, president and CEO of Downtown Huntsville Inc. “You see them now built new with retail, but not converted.”
Building a District
For DHI, creating The Garage at Clinton Row was not just about implementing a cool downtown project. It was about building on and boosting the area’s current strengths. In 2014, DHI launched the Clinton Row Project, a retail startup business incubator that aims to help new retail businesses develop a market and find a permanent location within a year of locating in the incubator. The following year, U.G. White Mercantile, an authentic general store based in Athens, opened its second store in a renovated historic building on Clinton Avenue in the same block as the incubator.
“When U.G. White Mercantile located to Clinton Avenue, along with the Clinton Avenue Shops, we realized this could be a dynamic retail destination, ” Emerson says. “But there’s a parking garage across the street from all this activity, and we needed to keep the parking because that’s important.”
As Emerson and Wesley Crunkleton, a local real estate developer and DHI board member, walked downtown, chatting about how to bring more retail to the area, they had the idea that a coffee shop in the bottom of the parking garage would be convenient — and unique.
“There are not a lot of vacancies downtown, so we thought of the garage space, ” Emerson says. “We are fortunate that there are not a lot of vacant properties in downtown Huntsville, but that means there is not a lot available for retail, and we know that retail works best on the first level and retail works best when it’s around other retail. You can’t have U.G. White and Clinton Row by themselves. You need others. You create a critical mass. That’s what prompted us to think about taking out those parking spaces.”
Partnering for Progress
With a unique idea and a developer willing to consider the project, DHI next needed to partner with the city government to repurpose the existing municipal parking garage. “We went to the city and city leaders said, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound normal, but we’re willing to try, ’” Emerson says. “We really needed the teamwork provided by the city of Huntsville; we couldn’t have completed the project without the city and our third-party developers.”
With city leaders on board, DHI turned to Crunkleton and his team at Crunkleton and Associates to make the garage-turned-retail-destination a reality. “Wesley and his team were able to see more than a well-maintained, 30-year-old municipal parking deck with a fence cage on it, and that this could be a great retail destination, ” Emerson says. “We had to have just the right developer because it was a very unconventional development.”
There were also construction challenges. “I had to essentially build two stand-alone buildings in a 30-plus-year-old parking garage, ” Crunkleton says. “Therefore, design and construction itself was a little tricky.”
Crunkleton says he walked the garage for months, trying to figure out depths and heights before moving forward with the project. “I am sure the parking attendant on duty was on high alert when ‘the guy in the suit was walking around the garage again, ’” he says. “The other challenge was convincing the city that I was not crazy and that I really could pull off the construction project without damaging the city garage or surrounding areas.”
The idea panned out, and Crunkleton attributes its success to the fact that “it’s something different, ” as well as the synergy between existing and new restaurants and retailers. The Garage is now home to Elitaire Boutique, Roosevelt & Co., Scout & Molly’s Boutique, Frios Gourmet Pops and Honest Coffee Roasters, which has already expanded into additional space. Soon, J. Kennedy Clothing Co. will fill the last available vacancy in the development. And all these tenants mesh with their neighbors; within two blocks there’s a pocket park, U.G. White Mercantile, Zoom Indoor Cycling, Rockaxe City Throwing Club and restaurants including The Bottle, Church Street Purveyor, Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen and others.
“It is much easier to make an area like Clinton Row a destination when you have a variety of things for people to experience, ” Crunkleton says.
The Garage at Clinton Row hasn’t just wowed development and redevelopment groups; it’s also boosting Huntsville’s bottom line. “Viewed from an economic development angle, we have increased the value of what was 15 parking spaces by increases in sales and property taxes, which results in more revenue for the city, ” Emerson says.
ABOVE Once the home of Martin Stove, the Stovehouse project — slated to open this year — will house offices, event space, retail and restaurants.
What’s Cooking at the Stovehouse
Just west of downtown Huntsville, another redevelopment project promises to bring more dining, entertainment and retail to the area. Stove House Properties is partnering with Crunkleton and Associates to create Stovehouse, a redevelopment of the former Martin Stove building on Governors Drive.
Built in 1929, the Stovehouse building has been added on to here and there over the years and now has 225, 000 square feet under one roof. Developers are transforming the former industrial space into offices, event space, restaurants and retail. The complex will include the city’s first permanent urban food garden, wine and coffee bars and chef-driven restaurant concepts, according to the developer.
While Crunkleton has been involved with retail leasing, management and development for years, he has developed an interest recently “in creating cool, unique spaces in underserved retail areas, ” he says. “We have a tremendous amount of untapped opportunity.”
For instance, the Stovehouse building is not in the immediate downtown area — but it is in a strategic location at the intersection of a major highway and Interstate 565, representing an opportunity to create another entertainment district adjacent to downtown. “Huntsville’s growth came after the industrial revolution, so we do not have a lot of buildings like Stovehouse, ” Crunkleton says. “The few that we do have are not strategically located on the intersection of a major highway and interstate, so this presents a real opportunity for Huntsville to have a commercialized industrial redevelopment as you see in other markets like Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham, that have become so popular and well supported.”
Construction is ongoing at Stovehouse but should be complete in the summer of 2018. However, a few office tenants have already moved into the building’s completed office spaces. The food garden, event space and retail areas will be filled after construction is complete.
Nancy Mann Jackson and Tyler Brown are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.