Retooling Cummings Research Park

Cummings Research Park, in Huntsville — the second largest research park in the U.S. and probably the most valuable commercial real estate development in Alabama — is about to begin a long-awaited redevelopment. Since it began in 1961, CRP has undergone several expansions. CRP West was added to the original (CRP East) in 1982. An adjacent, private retail area, Bridge Street Towne Center, opened in 2008.

But it’s been 30 years since the master plan was updated, and it’s high time, we’re told, the landmark park was scaled up to the expectations of a new generation of workers.

Erin Kushut, the director of Cummings Research Park, takes us on a tour of a new master plan for CRP that is nearing final approval.

The city called for a new master plan in March 2015 and hired as consultant Perkins+Will, a research-based architecture and design firm with offices in more than 20 U.S. cities.

Kushut was hired as CRP director in July 2015. Prior to that she worked for AkinsCrisp Public Strategies, overseeing for them, for 13 years, the contract for management of the award-winning Tennessee Valley Corridor technology and economic development initiative.

- Sponsor -

As CRP director, Koshut is part of the economic development group of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce. 

The community leaders — the city and the Chamber of Commerce — had seen a shift a few years ago in what companies were looking for and where they located. For many years at research parks across the country, the idea of a suburban research park was valuable and attractive, but a shift began to happen when the young people whom companies were recruiting were looking to work in a place full of activity, connected to a community and involved with the community, and with amenities close by. At the same time, many of the older buildings began to reach a point where putting added value into them did not make financial sense. And the other consideration was that the park had never had a comprehensive plan that looked at the entire 3, 843 acres together as one unit. The East had its own master plan, UAH its own plan, the West its own plan, and Bridge Street another, separate plan. 

We have found that when companies are recruiting and employees are considering where they want to work, the prospective employees will do a test run of the city. They’ll fly in or drive in and see what kind of activities are going on at night or on the weekend. Younger professionals want convenience. They don’t want to spend a lot of time in cars. They want to have all the activities and amenities right at their fingertips. They want to work for companies that are connected in the community and that offer an ability to be engaged in the community in efforts that give back. And they are very experiential. They want to be able to step outside that building and walk through a lovely courtyard that speaks to the overall areas, walk next door to a café and meet a friend, walk back a short way to work. 

Huntsville stacks up very well. Thanks to work that Downtown Huntsville Inc. has done under the guidance of Chad Emerson, we have a very active and energy-focused downtown area, which is a key component to attracting young people. Certainly the cost of living is very attractive, and the less than 20-minute commute time across the county. Those are the two factors most important, as well as a vibrant downtown. 

The city hired a long-range urban planner who could take a look at the planning from a city perspective over the next 20-25 years, and CRP was factored into that. They hired Dennis Matson, from Atlanta, who had experience in urban and master planning from the private and public sectors. The city and the chamber and Dennis knew what they wanted a master plan to do, but they needed to hire a consultant for the market research study. Last May they put out a request for proposals. Among 12 companies that responded, they selected Perkins+Will, which has brought along three other firms to do the master plan. 

In doing the marketing study, Perkins+Will were looking at where Huntsville and CRP compete in attracting various industries and in capabilities for attracting those industries. They did focus groups across a lot of industries and research areas asking what specific companies would be looking for. They came down to what each industry’s growth potential was and our assets and potential in that segment, and we narrowed it down to seven innovative growth opportunities for Huntsville: biotechnology, integrated electronic systems; aerospace and missile systems; modeling and simulation; cyber defense, and high performance materials.

But the master plan is not market-driven alone. A research park certainly has the special ability to support entrepreneurial development, to create an innovative environment in addition to the market-driven forces. We will be aligning the park’s development with the lifecycle of a company’s growth. It might begin, for example, with research out of UAH — a graduate student who can take research and start a company. The company may first be located at Biztech or one of the new incubators that will be on line soon, which set the foundation. 

Then they will need another place to go that still cultivates them, that’s collaborative. So we’ve added a research and development area called maker/hacker village — a maker space for new products and cyber war rooms for the cyber security/hacking community. Entrepreneurial small offices and mixed-use surrounding that are in line with entrepreneurs. 

Then we have created, in the plan, areas for Scale Up — areas that are much more dense and with taller-storied buildings, with retail on the ground floor and offices above, and with courtyards and streets and parks and greenways that serve to connect the company from initial growth to the programing they need at the different stages of their growth.

And ultimately these companies grow into the apex companies, like those in CRPWest that have the more corporate campuses. And with these campuses and in the older East CRP, it’s more a matter of connecting to amenities — adding in bicycle lanes, widening pedestrian walks, putting in walkways around existing lakes and benches and pavilions. 

We anticipate that the entire draft plan as laid out will take 50 to 60 years to develop completely, but in five to 10 years will address the major infrastructure changes and develop several of these catalyst areas. In the draft plan there are four mixed-use nodes — three in the East and one in the West. As to which we will do first, we don’t know now. We don’t have a project plan in place. But some things, such as improvement in physical infrastructure and the zoning that allows that to happen, those will follow immediately after final plan approval.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

Interview by Chris McFadyen

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox