West Huntsville emerges as Huntsville’s next hot district

By Lee Roop | lroop@al.com The Huntsville Times
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on June 07, 2015 at 7:00 AM, updated June 07, 2015 at 7:02 AM

As Huntsville’s school districts change and its downtown booms with commercial and residential projects, people are wondering what’s next. Where’s the next cool place to buy a house, rent a house or open a retail space? Where will the growth go, and where can I get a deal now I’ll love five years from now?

A growing number of people think they’ve found that place west of Memorial Parkway. They say the area roughly bounded by Governors Drive on the north, Drake Avenue on the south, the Parkway on the east and Triana Boulevard on the west is about to go from bubbling to sizzling hot. In this area – call it the Lowe Mill area for now – growth is less about schools and more about lifestyle, affordability and a community of young artists and entrepreneurs.

“There’s a trend that as a downtown revitalizes, the areas around it revitalize,” Chad Emerson, director of Downtown Huntsville Inc., explained recently. “In Nashville, it was downtown first, then Germantown, then East Nashville.”

Old neighborhoods are “historically well-designed,” Emerson said, and they can revive if they have reliable entertainment or job anchors. “With infill, it’s the reverse of normal,” Emerson says. “In the suburbs, retailers follow residential. In downtown neighborhoods, residential follows retail or jobs.”

The Lowe Mill area took off after an addition and a subtraction. The addition was the 2004 opening of the Flying Monkey Arts Center at Lowe Mill on Seminole Drive. The subtraction was the 2008 removal of a large homeless mission next door to Lowe Mill.

Today, the Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment center is home to nearly 200 working artists, and a new home for two craft breweries and performance center is being built in the old Stone Middle School building nearby. A former elementary school a few blocks west of Lowe Mill has become a high-tech business incubator.

For decades, Lowe Mill was mainly home to low-income families, singles and the elderly. The mission put a steady stream of homeless men and women on the streets, and that stream attracted bad people to parts of the neighborhood.

“Hookers and heroin,” Greg Price said last week of the street he moved to nine years ago.

Price, a Huntsville restaurant manager, owns a home and the adjoining lot a few blocks south of Governors Drive. He and his wife, artist Alex Smith, have a new baby, and Price thinks their street is safer now than some of his friends’ streets in the popular Five Points on Huntsville’s east side.

Monique Given thinks west Huntsville is safe, too, and she knows the 1928 Craftsman home she owns on Seventh Avenue would cost far more in Five Points, the neighborhood mentioned most often as the prototype for the Lowe Mill area revival.

“I’ve lived all over the world,” Given said. “Give me a break. There are no parts of Huntsville that are really rough. We have dogs. We’ve had no break-ins or problems.”

Vacant homes dot the area now. There are five on Price’s block alone, and not all are worth fixing. But one fixable old house with a huge back yard on Price’s street is $30,000, he says.

“People will snatch those up in the next year, year-and-a-half,” predicts Lowe Mill arts complex spokesman Dustin Timbrook. He lives across the street from the arts center at the corner of Seminole Drive and 9th Avenue.

“It’s hard to buy a house in Five Points,” Timbrook said, echoing a common refrain. “In Lowe Mill, you can find a foreclosure for $20,000. This is not a high-crime neighborhood. It’s a low-income neighborhood. I get disturbed when people equate those two things. Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

The area was just rezoned from Butler High School to Columbia High School, a relatively new school in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park. But Emerson doesn’t think schools will play a big role in the Lowe Mill area for some time.

“School zones are important in some instances,” he said, “but that is an evolving situation. A lot of early adopters don’t have school-age children.”

Dr. Deborah Barnhart, CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, is an example of another group interested in the area. Barnhart grew up on Ninth Avenue west of Lowe Mill, and she’s bought two lots in the area and may buy more. It’s an investment, she said recently, but it’s more than that.

“Even if it’s just an emotional return,” she said, “I feel that I’m helping my own community, that I’m bringing back the area where I’m from and where I was reared.”

Barnhart isn’t just sentimental. She lived in both the Old Town and Five Points areas before they became historic districts, and she’s sure she’s made a good investment.

“It’s not getting any farther from downtown…,” she said of the area. “It is so central; it’s so logical. And it has a lot of history.”

Rita Burkholder agrees. She recently moved her store – Fig Leaf Costumes – to an old cotton mill office at 3301 9th Ave just east of Triana Boulevard. The store was formerly located in, you guessed it, Five Points.

Burkholder has coined the name “Tri-Arts District” for her neighborhood running along Triana Boulevard. Fantasy Playhouse and the Huntsville Community Chorus both have headquarters nearby, and there’s an old movie theater that could be reopened to arts events.

Development is picking up speed, Burkholder says, and she lists new stores and new residents she knows nearby. But she is also wary of what could happen here, particularly to the lower-income and Hispanic residents who call West Huntsville home.

“I heard a lot of chatter last summer from people with money to invest,” she said last week. “I heard a lot of talk about houses and business spaces up to renovate and flip for profit, because they thought this neighborhood was up and coming.

“It occurred to me that if that were to happen, it might actually cause some harm the way it did to Five Points. In Five Points a lot of people went in and bought all the properties and thought they could turn it over for a profit,” Burkholder said. “But what ended up happening was as the property values rose, the small, quirky businesses started disappearing and falling away. So the very thing that attracted people to the neighborhood wasn’t there the way it was in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Burkholder isn’t worried about investors like Barnhart, whom she knows. They have roots in the area and talking about using their land for small shops or homes.

But west Huntsville, whatever we end up calling it, is growing because it’s convenient, affordable and a little exciting. It’s the part where it becomes a popular investment – the part happening now – that Burkholder hopes the neighborhood can survive.