Thoughtful Communities

When the city of Auburn began developing its comprehensive plan, CompPlan 2030, it did not hire outside consultants, as is common. Instead, the plan was developed and managed entirely by city staff and addresses long-term plans for land use; natural systems including land, air and water; transportation systems; and civic systems such as public safety, utilities and parks and recreation.

“We felt for this plan to be realistic and implementable, it was critical that all city departments not only be involved, but assume ownership for the final plan document, ” says Forrest Cotten, director of planning for the city. “Ownership becomes much more real, important and valuable when you perform the work yourselves.”

For instance, the Public Works Department sanctioned, reviewed and approved the plan’s transportation section, and the Water Resource Management Department sanctioned, reviewed and approved the Utilities Chapter of the plan. And most important, “the Planning Commission and City Council were actively involved throughout the process, so that the final review and adoption process was cohesive and fluid, ” Cotten says.

The city’s goal in developing CompPlan 2030 was to provide guidance for the future, Cotten says. “The plan gives aspirations of the community substance and form by providing recommendations on how to implement the community’s vision, ” he adds.

By giving the city a Future Land Use Plan that provides parcel-level recommendations for the type, location and scale of new development, the plan offers “predictability and fairness” for citizens, elected officials, city staff and the development community. It also guides the various city departments in working together effectively and towards a common purpose.

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The Alabama chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) recognized Auburn’s homegrown plan for the next two decades in its annual awards ceremony.

Cotten believes the plan deserves recognition because “it serves as sound evidence that Auburn is a city that cares about maintaining the same high quality of life 20 years from now that our residents have enjoyed for decades by mapping out our future, literally. This provides residents and newcomers alike with a comfort level and sense of security about how we are managing and planning our future resources and built environment.”

When new commercial development threatened the historic character and function of Birmingham’s Highland Park neighborhood, the Highland Park Neighborhood Association and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham turned to Gresham, Smith and Partners to develop a neighborhood plan for the community. Highland Park is primarily comprised of five National Historic Districts, and although the City of Birmingham established the Highland Park Local Historic District in 2003, the neighborhood contains 80 acres that are not covered by the historic district design review process — leaving it vulnerable to incompatible development.

“Highland Park decided that it was important to have in place a long-range plan that covers the entire neighborhood, encompassing day-to-day issues such as traffic, speeding and parking, addressing future land uses and introducing a form-based overlay to the existing zoning regulations, ” says John Houghton, AICP, senior planner at Gresham, Smith and Partners. “Taken together, the form-based overlay and the traffic calming measures resulted in a plan that reinforces the community’s character and public space at multiple levels and helps ensure the neighborhood’s long-term success.”

Because the plan extends across the entire neighborhood, it removes the uncertainty associated with new development, clearly establishing standards that address building heights and setbacks, facades, roofs and parking. The plan’s traffic calming improvements are designed to complement these standards and strengthen the neighborhood’s streetscapes and community spaces, especially its parks.

As the only neighborhood in the state that has adopted such a comprehensive approach, Highland Park’s plan has begun to serve as a model for other neighborhoods in Birmingham facing serious issues. In 2011, the Alabama APA recognized Highland Park in its annual awards for individual project plan.

In addition to clarifying the vision, goals, objectives and policies of the neighborhood, Highland Park’s plan also reinforced the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham’s five regional planning goals: protect natural and cultural resources; support economic development; promote intergovernmental coordination; provide housing choices, and promote coordination of land use, transportation, and community facilities and services. “By ultimately helping to ensure the long-term economic, social and physical viability of an historic urban neighborhood, the Highland Park Neighborhood Plan contributes to each of the regional planning goals, ” Houghton says.

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Tourism Department

Before the city staff of Dothan began developing a long-range plan, they looked to the citizens of Dothan for extensive input. By holding five public forums and extensively surveying community members, they wanted to develop a plan that could truly represent the ideas and goals of the city’s residents.

“The most extensive chapter of the plan is the one that discusses our community involvement efforts, ” says Todd McDonald, director of the city’s department of planning and development. “We wanted very much to make sure that 100 percent of the residents of the city had the opportunity to provide input into the document.”

As a result of the public input process, Dothan planners, who developed the plan without the help of outside consultants, created a list of goals including:

  • Protect Dothan’s environmental infrastructure from adverse development impacts.
  • Create a neighborhood centric city.
  • Enhance, preserve and protect cultural attractions, community character and aesthetics.
  • Promote investment in the community.
  • Seek opportunities to create and enhance transportation and accessibility alternatives.

The Alabama chapter of the American Planning Association presented awards to Dothan for both its long-range plan and a standalone bicycle and pedestrian master plan.

Photo courtesy of Neel-Schaffer Inc., planning consultants.

During the public input process, city staff grouped each citizen comment into one of eight areas of concern, such as “improvements to downtown” or “transportation improvements.” These concerns became the foundation of the plan’s implementation strategy, and each concern carries a list of implementation recommendations.

Because residents so frequently expressed an interest in preserving or creating areas for bicycling and walking, the city eventually developed a standalone bicycle and pedestrian master plan. The Alabama APA presented awards to Dothan for both the long-range plan and the bicycle and pedestrian master plan.

“An immense amount of value was generated by the planning process itself, ” McDonald says. “The planning process assembled information and data about many diverse aspects of the city that generally haven’t been made available before. Often, the process reveals the unseen interrelationships that exist between the functions of city government and their impact on how the community develops. Furthermore, we fully understand that our citizens are one of our finest assets, and whenever they are involved in our governmental or planning processes, tremendous value is added to our community. This is a first step in creating the culture of planning, its importance in developing community, which is a tough thing to achieve.”

The Guntersville Downtown Historic District comprises 76 buildings and homes, including the now decommissioned downtown post office building (above).

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Historical Commission

In June, the Alabama Historical Commission officially honored the new Guntersville Downtown Historic District. The district, which has long been a goal for the city, consists of 76 buildings and homes in downtown Guntersville that were named to the National Register of Historic Places in December 2012.

In 2009, the City of Guntersville received a Downtown Streetscape Renovation Grant to renovate the streetscape in the Downtown Historic District area. Working with Huntsville-based Bill Peters Architects, the city developed a master plan for downtown renovation and used the grant money, in addition to city funding, to make sweeping improvements. Every sidewalk in the historic district was replaced; sidewalk trees and landscape islands were added, and decorative crosswalks and vintage street lighting were installed. City Horticulturist Wendy Walker and her staff designed and installed landscaping throughout the area.

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Historical Commission


Located one block from the Guntersville City Harbor, the area has seen increased pedestrian traffic since these improvements were made, from people arriving both by land and water. In response, a number of downtown merchants have joined in the effort, cleaning up storefronts and adding flowers, planters and unique features, says Milla Sachs, a spokesperson for the city of Guntersville.

“Many small cities have lost their historic downtown areas as more and more businesses locate on by-pass areas and leave their downtowns, ” Sachs says. “We are proud of our historic downtown buildings and believe that cultural heritage is good for our economy. We are always looking for ways to support and encourage the businesses that are located in this area. The merchants in this area have seen a big increase in sales through the city’s efforts to renovate downtown, and this brings sales tax dollars to our city so we can continue to invest in making Guntersville the best it can be.”

In addition to luring shoppers to downtown businesses, the city’s downtown improvements have made the area a popular gathering place for events and community functions. In July, Guntersville held a grand opening for its new downtown Errol Allan Park. After a resident donated the land for the multi-use park, the city provided funding for the park’s timber frame structures and landscaping. To kick off the use of the new facility, the Mountain Valley Arts Council hosted concerts in the park each week for six weeks this summer.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

Text by Nancy Mann Jackson

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