Rocket City’s Planning Propulsion

Huntsville’s planning and infrastructure investment laid the foundation for one of the largest commercial developments in the country — transforming a vacant regional mall into a “walkable, connected community.”

It was only two years ago that Councilman Will Culver invited young professionals to a private event to introduce a new “city within a city” in the Huntsville community.

That vision was MidCity Huntsville, a live, work, play development surrounded by parks, plazas and walkable streets. The project — executed by Huntsville real estate firm RCP Companies — would supplant Madison Square Mall, a nearly 1 million-square-foot enclosed shopping center that had fallen on hard times after years of neglect along University Drive.

Today, MidCity is one of the largest active commercial real estate developments in the United States, according to research firm CoStar. RCP co-founder Max Grelier says the title confirms his company’s original vision, which was to make MidCity a destination that goes beyond retail to embrace both community and commerce.

“Huntsville has always been a town that punches above its weight,” he says. “We, as a city, simply expect to be relevant globally, and these accolades are small ways to be a small part of the bigger picture for our community.”

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The $500 million, mixed-use project is well underway where Madison Square stood for more than 30 years, at the edge of the city near Cummings Research Park. With Topgolf as its first tenant, MidCity is changing Huntsville’s commercial landscape in a big way.

At full capacity, MidCity is planned to comprise 350,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment, as well as 200,000 square feet of office space, 400 hotel rooms and 900 residential units. Grelier says the project also will include a 1,500-seat performing arts venue, an 8,500-seat amphitheater, an outdoor Adrenaline Zone, a tech and digital arts accelerator.

To date, announced tenants include REI Co-op, Topgolf, Dave & Buster’s, High Point Climbing & Fitness, Aloft Hotels, Wahlburgers, Rascal Flatts Restaurant and Pies & Pints. Grelier says they are currently targeting Trader Joe’s or a similar organic grocery store, as well as a regional brewery/distillery.

“We continue to look for businesses and uses that complement the current lineup and sync with our overall mission, which includes health and wellness, recreation, entertainment and unique culinary offerings,” he says. “The next phase of retail will begin focusing on boutiques, home furnishings and accessories and technology retailers.”

The process of revitalizing the 110-acre former Madison Square site began in 2014, when the City of Huntsville developed an urban renewal plan for the property and 300 additional acres in and around Research Park East. After RCP acquired CBL Associates’ portion of the mall a year later, Urban Design Associates (UDA) began crafting a master plan for the site.

Given the national climate for brick-and-mortar retail, Huntsville Director of Urban and Economic Development Shane Davis says the city’s goal was to create an urban development that was long-lasting and would balance the retail-heavy University Drive corridor.

“In order to stabilize and maintain the relevance of this part of Huntsville, the city had to take bold action in order to prevent decay of the area,” he says.

Since the project broke ground in 2017, Davis says the city has installed about 60 percent of the public infrastructure, which includes new underground utilities, block-style streets and 15 acres of the proposed 38-acre public park within MidCity. Final infrastructure work should be complete in 2019.

MidCity will include four to six total phases over the course of seven years, starting with the installation of city infrastructure and the front block of retail space set to go vertical this year. Grelier says Phase II is in design and will include Aloft Hotels, 40,000 square feet of technology offices, 270 residential units and more retail.

Before MidCity, UDA Chairman Rob Robinson says the Pennsylvania firm had collaborated with RCP on The Ledges, a private club and golf community in Huntsville. When the opportunity to develop MidCity came along, he says RCP knew it needed to approach the project in a unique way.

“It’s a whole different animal to do something that’s coordinated as a walkable place rather than a regional shopping center,” Robinson says. “We do a lot of this work around the country. The idea of both a walkable, connected community versus a single-use retail center was at the core of our involvement with RCP.”

Finding a balance between creating a new anchor for the University Drive corridor and positioning it so surrounding businesses and neighborhoods could thrive was a challenge. RCP, UDA and the city also considered how other nearby developments, such as Village of Providence and Bridge Street Town Centre, would fit with the MidCity model.

Robinson says it was clear early on that the city was interested in a regional destination that would make the property appealing to a broader population beyond Madison County.

“This partnership with the city really required us to think about how the west end of the city was evolving from Research Park to the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and downtown,” he says. “How can they all be better connected, more flexible and more diverse in what they can accommodate? It was an interesting issue, particularly in an area that wasn’t used to a lot of urbanism.”

While MidCity reigns as one of the top commercial developments in the country, Grelier says it hasn’t always been easy. Early challenges included establishing a common vision among key investors and assembling the site to execute the MidCity concept.

More recently, the firm has tackled rising construction costs and interest rates coupled with decreasing retail demand nationally and Huntsville’s market size. Grelier says these challenges are typical when developing large-scale, multi-phase projects like MidCity.

RCP must also maintain the public’s long-term interest while meeting project deadlines from both the city and MidCity stakeholders.

“As with all construction, building buildings takes some time,” he says. “So anticipation builds between announcing our newest tenants or concepts and opening the doors.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle says momentum is building where Madison Square was once a leading regional retail destination in Huntsville. Since the demolition of the mall and start of new construction in 2017, he says confidence is growing among national retailers and new investments are occurring along the University Drive corridor.

With major economic development announcements from Toyota, Boeing, Facebook, Blue Origin and others, Battle says more people than ever are hearing the “Huntsville story.” The Birmingham native, who moved to the area in 1980, believes MidCity will capitalize on Huntsville’s strong aerospace, defense and technology base by bringing new life and tourism to the region.

“They’ve heard about Huntsville, they’ve heard about the per capita income and they’ve heard about the job opportunities here,” he says. “All of that pulls together to be the picture of a successful economy retailers and others want to be a part of.”

Lucy Berry DeButy is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Decatur.

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