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  NEW TOWNS
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008
 

Fast Forward
Village of Providence in Huntsville, Alabama

New urbanist thinking generally holds that fledgling TNDs should wait until they have a critical mass of residential rooftops before they build their town centers. For the most part, this is a wise strategy. But because of preexisting conditions, some TNDs can bypass this guideline.

The Village of Providence in Huntsville, Ala., does so spectacularly. Just five years into its buildout, Providence boasts a fully functioning core of retail, commercial and mixed-use components that already are drawing patrons from well beyond the community's 300 acres.

A variety of factors contribute to the town center's success, said David Slyman Jr., who, along with his brother, Todd, founded Providence. "This is the first TND that [Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company] (DPZ) has designed where the TND itself controls both sides of a major thoroughfare (Providence Main Street). Our town center straddles that road. In this situation, we had a five-lane, which our plan reduced to two lanes with on-street parking on each side, north/south road intersecting with a seven-lane major thoroughfare (University Drive), with about 75,000 cars a day going by our front door," said Slyman.

Built-in customers have been almost a gimme for Providence from the start. Huntsville is strategically located along a high-tech corridor that includes defense, aerospace, biotech, telecommunications, and software industries. Cummings Research Park is just one mile from the village's town center.

"In real estate you have to have a great location," said Slyman. "The TND principles are phenomenal and you can build them over time, but one of the blessings we have -- a godsend, really -- is our proximity to Cummings. That gave us the ability to start the town center at the same time we started the housing. Now we're concentrating on letting people know Providence is not an exclusive area; it's for everybody in northern Alabama to come and enjoy, to use the services. I think that's why we've been so successful in the execution."



David and Todd Slyman didn't begin the project with the idea of building a TND. They bought the property from the U.S. General Services Administration in 1991 and focused on one specific portion of it. That portion bordered a conventional suburban development (CSD), and the brothers saw no need to deviate from the status quo; in 1996, David began designing an apartment complex to complement the CSD component.

But another development strategy was finding its way onto David's radar. "I was researching TNDs and believed Huntsville was ready for one," he said. "We had a fully designed, titled and financed CSD project, but I pulled the plug. We changed gears and started interviewing town planners."

Not surprisingly, the road ahead held a few bumps, most of which were found in local regulations that were geared toward the CSD model. "The city engineers had been dealing with sprawl for years, so they didn't understand what it takes to make a great place; they didn't understand what we meant to develop," said David Slyman. "The default setting was 'Let's go with a wider road.'"

To address the learning curve, the Slymans flew Huntsville city engineers to Charleston, S.C., showing them the narrower streets there and how they accommodated fire and garbage trucks. They pointed out how buildings could safely be built close to each other. Their efforts paid off, said David Slyman, who credits Huntsville city officials with a laudable willingness to learn. "It's not that they didn't want to do [TND development], it's that they hadn't been doing them and needed to see proof of concept.

"We're very pleased with the great public/private partnership we've had with the city of Huntsville," said Slyman. "I'm not talking about money; rather, it was a partnership of going down the path of learning and creating a great place without bumping heads and not getting into any serious arguments or disagreements over principle."

Providence broke ground in 2003 and began construction later that year.



With David Slyman handling the commercial town center and mixed-use marketing sales, development and financing and Todd Slyman helming the single- and multi-family residential, plus general neighborhood aspects of the project, Providence has grown rapidly to become a destination in northern Alabama.

The neighborhood offers an impressive variety of housing options, including cottages, villas, live/work units, lofts and flats (see sidebar for complete listing). Townhomes are currently sold out, with more planned for future phases. A design for apartments follows a "big house" concept, looking to the untrained eye like a large, single-family dwelling; construction on these is slated for the second quarter of 2009.

On the commercial and retail side, the vaunted town center has "a full gamut of services," said Slyman.

"We have 80,000 square feet of office built and occupied, and about 40,000 square feet of retail built and occupied," said Slyman. And that doesn't include a 107-room Hilton with suites, which weighs in at just over 100,000 square feet.

Hungry? The town center at Providence offers a variety of restaurants, including Tony's Little Italy, Cheeburger Cheeburger, Grill 29, Market Street Café, and Phukat -- a Thai restaurant. Mellow Mushroom will open soon, too. There's Five Points Cleaners (a dry cleaner), The Pink Pelican (clothing store), and Roosters Men's Grooming Center, an old-fashioned barber shop that regularly pulls in clients from 40 miles away. A State Farm agent who lives in Providence plans to open an office in town soon.

No public transit stop is available currently, but the city of Huntsville plans to create a bus stop in Providence in the near future. There's Providence School, a K-8 facility, which was built for 1,000 children and is already over capacity; it's currently expanding to accommodate 1,200 kids. More retail, office and housing components will be built, too, said Slyman.

"We have doctors, dentists, attorneys, bankers -- lots of people who live here and walk to work," said Slyman. "And, in the rental market, there are housing options for our service people, such as wait staff."



The reality of a stumbling housing market is an issue Providence, but David Slyman has mostly good things to report. Interestingly, it's the "tire-kickers" who have removed themselves from the game, for the most part, leaving mostly serious buyers and a growing trend for strong regional sales.

"We've seen a slowdown in the overall traffic, but what we call our 'A' and 'B' customers -- those more likely to buy -- have increased," said Slyman. "Therefore, our sales have actually gone up.

"Huntsville has more defense and biotech jobs coming in. It's an area that's been overlooked and has been a sleepy technology town, but now it's exploding."

Modeled after Providence, R.I., the Alabama iteration is a model itself. Major retailers already are approaching David Slyman, buying into the walkable format that accommodates auto traffic in ways other than oceanic parking lots. "A major grocer is 'getting it,'" said Slyman. "They're trying a new design for their next building, one that should fit into Providence. They want to be involved in the fabric of our small town."Like the success of its town center, the success of Providence as a whole relies on several factors. Slyman names three of them.

"First, we hired professional planners; we used DPZ -- a phenomenal, world-renowned firm.

"Second, we have a great town architect in Steve Mouzon. We wanted to make sure we didn't create a 'Disneyland' feel; we wanted real fabric and a sense of place, sticking to the historical architectural precedents of the southeast. With Steve, we're able to do that; we're not sacrificing the details.

"Third, we have great builders, both in the town center and on the residential side. We knew this part was absolutely crucial, that we had to have the seven best builders in Huntsville, who are executing on the single-family side of things. We found them in Mike Johnson Custom Homes, Inc.; B.T. Neely Construction, Inc.; Old Towne Homebuilders; Savannah Creek, Inc.; Steve Stricklin Custom Homes, Inc.; Vintage Construction, Inc.; Westmark Construction, Inc."

Not one to blow his own horn, Slyman omits from the list Slyman Construction Company, Inc., which is run by him and his brother, Todd. Slyman Construction Company oversees every project from design through tenant occupancy, hiring general contractors to manage the construction of the retail, commercial, and residential components.

But the story of Providence is incomplete without the influence of its founders, so New Towns asked Robert Martignoni, president of Huntsville-based Building Science Associates, Inc., and the designer of record for Providence Builders Guild, for his assessment of the Slymans.

"The Slymans are committed to quality, very determined to make Providence the best," said Martignoni, whose firm designed most of the neighborhood's residential options. "They're very hands-on in all the details, and they're very strict: They don't let [anyone responsible for the built environment] get away with much. With Steve Mouzon, they keep an eye on adherence to the historical precedent in the architecture, the details.

"To my mind, that is what makes Providence great: It has combined a commitment to principle and quality in both design and construction by the developers, land planners, builders, designers and architects involved," said Martignoni.

That level of dedication should see Providence through to become what all new urban town founders pursue: a place that is far greater than the sum of its parts. David Slyman succinctly sets forth a grand vision for Providence: "I want it to be one of the next great places," he said. "When people think of Huntsville, Ala., I want them to think of Providence."


SIDEBAR: Providence at a Glance



The Village of is just off Highway 72 on the western edge Huntsville, Ala., just one road mile from Cummings Research Park. View a map of the area, and for more information visit the Village of Providence website, or call 256.704.3333.

Location: Huntsville, Ala.
Size: 300 acres
Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
Developer: Town Makers, LLC
Groundbreaking: 2003
Percent complete: 33%
Population: 250 homes occupied, about +/- 700 people
Cottages: Start in mid $300s
Side yard homes: in upper $300s
Villas: in mid $400s
Live/work units: in mid $500s
Lofts (2-story): in low $200s
Flats (1-story) in low $200s
Apartments: In design; will start +/- $950
(Construction to begin by Q2 2009)
Townhomes: in mid $300s
Courtyard homes: in upper $300s