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Light Rail and Wal-Mart are from different planets!



Planning and academic research on the subject of property value changes due to the presence of a nearby Light Rail station consistently documents a positive investment opportunity, especially for commercial property and apartments.

Ingleside Road Tide Station in NOrfolk, VA

There was an article on the second page of the Virginia Pilot in the June 8th issue, relaying a story about a new Wal-Mart and Wawa coming to the intersection of Ingleside Road and Princess Anne Road in Norfolk. My first thought was, “Does this investment have anything to do with the proximity of the Ingleside Light Rail station for The Tide?”

The article compared the proposed Wal-Mart at Ingleside to a so-called “Neighborhood Market” on Holland Road in Virginia Beach. A typical Wal-Mart store does tend to look and operate like the Holland Road Marketplace. That project would be more aptly be described as  an “Un-neighborly Marketplace” since walking there from a nearby house or apartment is to be faced with traversing a wasteland of parking areas and driving aisles.  I am open to the possibility that Wal-Mart and Light Rail could be designed to be mutually supportive but the comparison to the Holland Road Marketplace translates to more of the same.

City planners can sometimes influence the design of a large commercial project.  They cannot however, transform the design from a big box store to become a truly pedestrian-friendly “Neighborhood Market” project.  This project is likely to look and function like the Holland Road Marketplace to which the article writer refers.   (That site was formerly a giant Super K-Mart that was closed a few years back.)Kroger Center in Virginia Beach, VA.

The proposed Wal-Mart project is not likely to be a positive influence on the surrounding neighborhood at Ingleside and Princess Anne roads, in terms of becoming a better place to live. There is already another Wal-Mart center about 3 miles away, next to the JANAF shopping center, whereas the proposed new location is 1.7 miles from the Ingleside Light Rail station. Sadly, there is no pedestrian linkage between the two. Distance is not the only obstacle to overcome for Ingleside Road to be imagined as a walking path to the new Wal-Mart, since there is also Norfolk Industrial park that lies along the route.

I believe the presence of light rail is the single most direct opportunity to influence proper urban patterns into the future. As gasoline prices climb upward to the level that they are in Europe already ($12 per gallon) development choices are going to need to be made that do not depend on the private automobile to the extent that has been during the 20th century. We can begin now to make development choices that will shape our urban environments to function more like European cities. Pick your favorite European city and notice how important fixed route public transportation is to the pleasure of the place.

The path from the Ingleside Road Tide Station to the proposed Wal-Mart Center

Weighing the pluses and minuses of this prospective Wal-Mart at Ingleside Road and Princess Anne Road, I can see that the new Wal-Mart is good for the tax base of the City of Norfolk, and would provide some new jobs in the area. Another plus is that this Wal-MartCenter has two HRT bus routes within a half mile radius.

By having these bus routes close to the Wal-Mart, they make this proposed site an infill property that is well integrated into the fabric of the existing public transportation systems. Even if the City Planners succeeded in helping the new Wal-Mart appear to be a pedestrian destination instead of another automobile oasis, it is not walkable to the surrounding residents.

I would like to see the stops for The Tide light rail surrounded by small retail establishments that can service the commuters. When stations provide parking spaces for commuters, retail businesses see advantages in locating to those areas. A treed park could pop into the picture, and pretty soon nearby residents would go to those areas for reasons other than to board the light rail. The criteria for selecting stops for new light rail routes should strongly take into consideration intersections where there is already some element of pedestrian activity. The Wal-Mart at Ingleside and Princess Anne Road will do nothing positive for its surrounding neighborhoods. Neither does it contribute to stimulate any pedestrian dynamics for the light rail station at Ingleside Road.

The presence of the Tide light rail station stop at Ingleside Road and the proposed Wal-Mart at Ingleside are too far apart to have a pedestrian relationship, too economically detached have common goals for the surrounding neighborhoods.  It’s more like they come from different planets and chanced to land on the same road.

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2012 Shaping the future of Hampton Roads, Virginia



The Virginian Pilot this week has been chock-a-block with significant stories that could foretell some remarkable physical transformations of Hampton Roads for years to come.  The visions of the future urban planning opportunities are all around.

1. HRT has established a bus route to Norfolk International Airport, 1/27/12 (how long have our airline travelers been deprived of this simple service?)  It starts on February 5 and will be in effect only until March 10 to test customer interest.  I think everyone should drive over to the airport and take a bus ride someplace to rack up some passenger data that will establish the service permanently. Waterside cartoon at Chez Marcus
2. The editorial cartoon 1/29/12 for choosing a plan for the future of Waterside was worth a thousand words ….resounding the sentiments expressed by one of the Norfolk City council members at this week’s public display of the five plans under consideration: “Do we have to choose one of these?” Those of us in the audience of onlookers know the answer full well: “we want none of these plans if you please, they are all baloney.”

3. A really BIG item this week is the page one story 1/29/12 about a possible referendum in November for extending The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach. This is remarkable since it un-stalls the opportunity to get federal stimulus funds for the project before it’s too late.

4. Urban Outfitters is coming to 271 Granby Street.  This news got a huge spread in the Sunday business section 1/22/12.  It is actually is very good news, foretelling future prospects of re-establishing downtown Norfolk as retail shopping destination.  Congratulations to developer Bobby Wright.  This event brought out the editorial commentary of a staff writer, Michelle Washington, to emphasize the belief held by city and regional planners that this kind of development is the beginning of Norfolk’s reemergence as a pedestrian “happening” place, in her words: the city’s Cool Factor.

5. Then there was the story about the Kempsville Historic Master Plan, Beacon 1/29/12, where citizens are concerned about the crossroads acreage at Witchduck Road and Princess Anne.  It is proposed to rezone the area to higher density residential use, namely apartments on the property surrounding the former Kemps Landing School structure.  We hope that the fears of surrounding residents can be assuaged to allow for the opportunity to give this geographic confluence a sense of place that it lacks at the present time.  Kempsville presently is hardly more than a zip code and a school district.  Where is it really?  How does someone know they are in Kempsville?  The change of zoning will allow for a place-making opportunity that careful planning can shape into a desirable place to come, to walk, to mingle and to identify.

6. My last entry of the week’s recap of urban planning opportunities in the Virginian Pilot is kind of “tongue and cheek”, I admit.  There was a story in the travel section about the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  It struck me that cars belong in a museum and that maybe we will stop planning our cities and neighborhoods like life depends on the automobile. I visited Copenhagen this past year, where gasoline is the equivalent of $12 per gallon and the sales tax on purchasing a new car is 180%.  In such an environment one learns quickly how to exist without depending on a car.  The end result is walkable urban living patterns and some of the best shopping streets in the world.

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Adaptive Reuse – planner’s agenda for a rewarding project



When the original use of a structure becomes obsolete or is no longer required, as with older buildings from the industrial revolution, architects have the opportunity to change the primary function of the structure, while retaining some of the existing architectural character that makes a building unique. The Captain George’s Restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia is an example of a large adaptive reuse project. At the time it was purchased by the owner’s the prior use was as the Williamsburg National Wax Museum, 1986.

Among the most rewarding redevelopment projects are the conversions and reuse of existing warehouses, school buildings, offices and other types to apartments. Such projects are rewarding in the context of providing affordable housing in established locations of lifestyle convenience to the prospective residents: neighborhood shopping, public transportation, schools, recreational and cultural opportunities.

Such an opportunity is under consideration for the Kemps Landing School building in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The current structure was built on the site of previous public schools for the Kempsville community. The old county jail was the first public school after the courthouse moved to Princess Anne in 1824, and remained the school location until the late nineteenth century when it was replaced by a frame structure which stood near the east bank of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The existing two-story structure, completed in 1941, continued in use until it became part of the Historic Kempsville Area Master Plan, adopted in 2006.

On the agenda for project execution Virginia Beach City Planners are faced with three administrative tasks:
1. gaining neighborhood acceptance
2. adopting appropriate prescriptive land use regulations
3. establishing building and safety guideline standards within the spirit of the current building codes (if not the letter)
These challenges are “business as usual” for rewarding adaptive reuse projects.

The concern about gaining neighborhood acceptance diminishes with each successful undertaking. There really is no other way than to handle each conversion on a project by project basis. This is accomplished by open meetings and hearings with the respective neighborhood civic organizations. No new science here. Good intentions are eventually communicated and approved, albeit with conditions as derived from the meetings.

In the case of the other two challenges it is worth noting that in cities where adaptive reuse has been around for a long time guidelines an ordinances have been written to streamline the process. Take Los Angeles, CA for example. It has had an Adaptive Reuse ordinance and guidelines in effect since 1999. The latest edition was published in 2006. Provisions in The LA Handbook provide greater flexibility in meeting zoning and building code requirements for building conversions.

In regard to Zoning and Land Use Ordinances the LA Adaptive Reuse Ordinance includes: (1) many non-compliant conditions, such as building height, parking, floor area and setbacks are permitted without requiring a variance, as well as residential density requirements, (2) new mezzanines less than one-third the floor area of the space below are not counted as floor area, (3) discretionary review by the planning department is not a requirement.

In regard to Construction Codes the LA Adaptive Reuse Ordinance offers conditions in which the conversion of the original structure does not automatically trigger disabled access requirements in the residential use areas. Disabled access is still required in areas used by employees and that are open to the general public.

The virtues of Adaptive Reuse as an urban redevelopment strategy is compelling, including land conservation and reducing the amount of sprawl. Adaptive reuse is also related to the field of historic preservation. I think it would be energy well spent for planners to endeavor to compose the new Adaptive Reuse regulations that are useful for a variety of projects, rather than just the one that is on the table at a given moment in time. I am interested in your comments and stories of your own experiences.

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  • GREGORY M. FRECH

    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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