By Sam Prickett
On July 9, the city of Hoover’s planning and zoning board voted unanimously to approve the city’s first-ever comprehensive plan.
The vote marked the end of a two-year process that involved city officials, school system officials and Hoover residents – “a true cross-section of the city,” said Mayor Frank Brocato.
While the resulting 178-page document has no regulatory power, it charts a suggested course for the city’s growth across four broad categories – its social, economic, natural and built environments – by outlining what it describes as a series of “guiding principles for making Hoover a successful and sustainable city.”
More specifically, that involves plans for establishing walkable city centers, reducing traffic congestion and diversifying the city’s economy.
Establishing a comprehensive plan was one of Brocato’s campaign promises – one that he said was motivated by looking at ways that the city had originally grown.
“The biggest challenge is, you just think about how Hoover grew up as a suburb,” he said. “I don’t want to say that there wasn’t any planning, but it was like, whoever got there first, that’s what was built. There wasn’t anything in mind when it came to connectivity, walkability, things like that.”
Walkability is a keyword that recurs throughout the comprehensive plan, and Brocato said that making Hoover more pedestrian-friendly was a priority expressed by many residents during the plan’s public comment phase.
“It turns out, that is what people want,” he said. “They like that lifestyle. They like to be able to walk to a little restaurant in their neighborhood, or to a coffee shop … . People focus so much on a healthy environment and being able to get out and walk safely.”
To address this, the plan establishes the idea of creating town centers – “hubs that cater to the needs of the adjoining communities and neighborhood” – as well as a city center, which is meant to serve as a gathering place for residents from throughout the city. These areas, Brocato said, are important to developing Hoover’s identity and sense of place.
Suggested town centers include Hidden Valley, an as-yet undeveloped stretch of land between Interstate 459 and U.S. Highway 150; the Lorna Road area, which the plan reimagines as a “secondary downtown;” and the Meadowbrook office park, which the plan suggests could transition into a “tech village” combining residential and commercial uses.
For an overall city center, the plan identifies the Riverchase Galleria, due to its location and existing infrastructure. “We don’t have a real downtown, so we’d like to take this opportunity through the plan to develop a downtown Hoover,” Brocato said. “In our opinion, and the professionals around us, that area is probably the Riverchase Galleria.”
The plan establishes a handful of ways the mall might be redeveloped to fit that concept, including redeveloping parking lots into small parks and mixed-use buildings, establishing a cultural and performing arts center on the mall’s campus, and making streets more pedestrian-friendly.
“The Galleria is a very vibrant, active mall and has been for 30 years, but we all know that retail is changing, and our shopping patterns are changing,” Brocato said. “So, we don’t want to just sit there and see the Galleria just start to experience a decline. We want to get ahead of the curve while it’s enjoying a good, solid life right now, take the opportunity as things become available to make it better and start to transform it in a way that’s more walkable, that develops a city-center sort of atmosphere.” He points to the SoHo development in Homewood as an example to emulate.
“I think they’ve done a great job in Homewood in developing that essentially into a suburban city with that little bit of urban feeling.”
But these redevelopment ideas aren’t just about increasing walkability and fostering a sense of place, said city planner Mac Martin.
“I think what we’re looking at with the Galleria and several of the office parks is a microcosm of the larger goal and emphasis of the plan, and that’s to work toward diversifying the city’s economy over time,” he said. “What you see at the ground level in places like the Galleria, the office parks, and other areas of the city is really a diversification of the uses of land, creating more of a mixture of uses within close proximity to one another.
“The highest and best use of a piece of property is one that can be utilized in some shape or form 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead of seeing these particular portions of town serving only one use, one of the strategies going forward is to look at it through the prism of mixed-use and having a variety of activities going on in these centers that will allow folks not only to go and shop there but also to work there, to recreate, to play and have entertainment, and even in some cases live there.”
Aiming at Road Congestion, Other Quality-of-Life Issues
The plan isn’t all about foot traffic – it also suggests several ways to alleviate road congestion, one of the biggest complaints received from the public. Those suggestions include constructing a series of connector roads throughout the city, as well as widening Old Montgomery Highway and portions of Valleydale Road.
But, Martin said, town and city centers could play just as much of a role in reducing traffic.
“We’re already seeing what I think we could already call success with the Village at Brock’s Gap,” he said, referring to the new development in the city’s Trace Crossings subdivision. “It’s an example of neighborhood-oriented commercial (development) coming right to the front door of residents. They’re not having to travel by vehicle as far; it’s right down the street from a lot of residences.”
The plan covers a wide variety of other topics as well, including protecting natural resources such as the Cahaba River, working with Hoover City Schools on developing diverse career paths for students and establishing more efficient public transit. But each aspect of the plan, Martin said, contributes to one core goal: raising the quality of life for every Hoover resident.
“We want to have the highest possible quality of life of any city in the Birmingham-metro area,” Martin said. “I think going through the plan and taking stock of all the strengths that we have, we’re already at or near the top. For us, the challenge is going to be continuing to offer the best possible quality of life for our citizens, and that encompasses the four main topic areas of the plan – our built environment, our economic environment, our natural environment and our social environment. If we can excel and be exceptional in those four areas across our city, then our quality of life going forward will be unmatched.”
When asked if he has anything to add, Brocato laughs: “I thought that was pretty doggone good, myself.”
Hoover’s comprehensive plan, as well as many supporting documents, is available online at futurehoover.com.