Retail Rising


Retail Therapy

This week Alchemy, a new mens’ clothier, opened on 20th Street North between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in downtown Birmingham. Opened by owner Ace Graham, the store is one of the few outside of suburban locations to carry upscale brands which are marketed towards fashion-conscious men. As more and more people live in the greater City Center, “will retail follow?” has been a question on many minds. Thus far, bars and restaurants have been the principal retail outlets filling storefronts. We may be finally on the cusp of seeing a greater diversity of retail options joining food and beverage.

Lofty minimalism

Lofty minimalism

It’s clear from the interior concept (above), whose open, airy space contains a very carefully edited selection of clothing, shoes and accessories, that Graham has been inspired by fashion-forward shops in other cities. The brands– including Scotch and Soda, Puma Select, Nudie Jeans–are available at Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s in New York, but according to Graham only Saks Fifth Avenue here carries some, but not all of the lines. Many are certainly not sold elsewhere in Alabama.

Stylin' in BHM

Stylin’ in BHM

Is it a risk to carry $59 t-shirts and $200 jeans in the middle of downtown Birmingham? Sure. But it’s risk-takers like Graham who pave the way for others to follow. We hope this place is successful, and that it inspires other retailers of various stripes to consider downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods for new projects. Whether mass-market (the new downtown Publix supermarket and Chipotle restaurant), or high-end, or in-between, the urban core should support more retail as the City Center continues to expand its appeal to visitors and residents alike.

High and Low

High and Low

If you told even the most wildly optimistic developer a year ago that Tom Ford would be sold on 20th Street North, the news would be dismissed as a joke. Well, now it is (above), and it’s pretty cool.

The lost art

The lost art

Finally, fading from memory as the years go by is the fact that downtown Birmingham was at one time the principal shopping district for the entire metro. As in many other US cities, retailers stopped investing in downtown properties in the post-war years, favoring suburban locations instead. Bromberg’s, the local jewelry chain, was one of the first downtown retailers to open a suburban branch after the Second World War–but ironically was also one of the last to actually close its downtown location (2009). However, they still put considerable effort into dressing the original show windows (current layout of one of the windows on 2nd Avenue North, above). Who knows, with the prospect of retail returning to downtown, we may even shop at Bromberg’s again, rather than just gazing longingly at those show windows.  Until then, drop by Alchemy to meet Graham and check out something truly unique for this city.

Transforming Southtown

Southtown University

The Birmingham Business Journal reports this morning that Southtown Court, a public housing community administered by the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, may be transformed into a mixed-income development pending a Federal grant award (Google Streetview above, taken at University Blvd. and 24th Street looking east, with Southtown on the right and the new Veteran’s Administration parking deck to the left). Built in 1941 as temporary housing for working class families, like other similar developments all across the US it has in later years become considered as permanent housing for low-income people. Southtown in particular, with its proximity to wealthier and well-traveled precincts (UAB, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Highland Park), has long been discussed as needing renovation, or even  repurposing. In the past, HABD has resisted wholesale change; now they are leading the effort.

Park Place

Park Place, pictured above looking west from 26th Street and 7th Avenue North, is an example of HABD working with private developers in the mid-2000’s to totally transform the former Metropolitan Gardens housing community in the heart of the CBD. Credited with aiding perceptions of downtown (reduced crime, improved aesthetics) it was also controversial for its displacement of low-income people who could no longer afford to live in the new development, or for whom there was simply no room (fewer units emerged in the new project compared to the old one). With the disappointingly designed Veteran’s Administration Clinic about to finish construction on University–future post about that one–one can only hope that if a new Southtown emerges, it will be more thoughtfully designed (and include commercial/retail components which sadly Park Place did not).

Southtown SA

With all of the generic “urban developer style” projects going up around downtown, could this site pave the way for yet another one (above project in San Antonio, TX)? As the process unfolds, we’ll explore what needs to happen on the Southtown  site in more detail: with 25 acres in such a visible, high traffic area, the possibilities are pretty endless.

(thanks to Google MapsHABD and San Antonio Business Journal for the images)

Ripe for a rethink

Regions Tower Street

With a lot of new activity around downtown, a few older outdoor spaces could be updated and better integrated into the surrounding city fabric. One is the raised plaza outside the Regions Center (above). The design, an essentially anti-urban gesture typical of the times (1969-1972; architect Welton Beckett of Houston, TX), separates the building from the street and offers no retail or other stimulus to passerby. Preserving the architectural integrity of this space while engaging it with the street would be a fascinating challenge.

Downtown Charlotte-Tower Entrance Redo 9-15-15 (2)

A similar era building with a raised plaza in downtown Charlotte, NC–the Bank of America Plaza (1974) is slated to animate its own entrance with a new restaurant involving a canopy, outdoor seating and storefront glass (above). Not necessarily a solution for Regions, but the introduction of a human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly element that mediates between the building and the plaza is worth studying.

R-H Plaza Open Space Street

Just a block north on 20th Street is the long under-utilized outdoor space at the Regions-Harbert Plaza. Designed by HOK and finished in 1989, it is more accessible to pedestrians than its predecessor to the south–but there is little reason to enter. The wings flanking it belong to an interior shopping mall and food court; despite the proximity, no retail or restaurants open to the outdoors. Instead we get mainly blank walls, and some storefront glass looking into a corridor. If the inside could reorient to the outside, we’d go a long way towards establishing some vibrancy here.Maki Fresh There is a recent precedent for banks making their ground floors more accessible and interactive with the street–just stay on 20th Street and head back a couple blocks south to the Wells Fargo Tower where formerly austere, empty bank circulation space was converted into Maki Fresh (above), a branch of the popular local restaurant.  The bright green contrasting with the sober granite is terrific.

Pocket Park Street

Finally, there’s this lovely green space running between First and Morris Avenues between 20th and 19th Streets (above, looking south from First to Morris). The trees are mature, the shade is welcoming–but there is no way to really occupy this space between two buildings unless you’re walking along the narrow path to one side. Redesign the raised planter, add seating, and perhaps a water element and you’d have the makings of a great urban pocket park. With two new hotels including the Marriott Empire underway directly across the street, it’s a great time to reconsider this and other underused public spaces (additional view from across the street below).

Pocket Park Google Street View

(thanks to for the Maki Fresh image and RBA Group for the Charlotte rendering)

Downtown getting greener

Design Review Sept. image 3

Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham has been the catalyst for numerous private investments in the surrounding area. This morning at Design Review Committee, plans for a new public space adjacent to the park were approved: the Powell Avenue Steam Plant Plaza (image above is the SW corner of the plaza looking NE from First Avenue South and 18th Street). This project will join Railroad Park and Rotary Trail as the latest major investment in public green space in the CBD.

This high-caliber, thoughtful design was praised by the Committee as complementing Railroad Park without mimicking it; its design language and planting palette will be unique. The landscape architect is Nelson Byrd Woltz, a firm with offices in Virginia and New York which has worked on projects around the world. Notably, they are currently designing the public square in New York City’s massive Hudson Yards development underway on the West Side of Manhattan.

Design review Sept. image 2

The image above shows a birds-eye of the planned plaza with Railroad Park to the west in the lower left corner, and the Steam Plant directly north. Alabama Power commissioned this project and hopes to pull permits for the first demolition phase within a few weeks. The Steam Plant itself–recently decommissioned– is still in the design phase, with nothing definite to announce yet. But if the historic structure receives the same creativity and care as the plaza, we’re excited about the possibilities.

Design Review Sept. image 4

Powell Avenue itself has already been vacated at this location to allow unimpeded pedestrian (and bicycle!) access through the plaza to the steam plant; the image above shows the reflecting pools that span the plaza’s north-south axis from First Avenue to the Steam Plant. Besides space for strolling and gathering, there will be a dedicated area for food trucks. [As a side note, some will remember this block being the subject of the Community Foundation’s Prize 2 the Future contest.]

Hats off to Alabama Power for conceiving this huge civic amenity–we’ll eagerly await more news on the Steam Plant itself!

[thanks to Alabama Power and Nelson Byrd Woltz for the images]

We’re back.

I’m excited to announce I’m reopening my design firm based in New York and Birmingham. Please look out for regular posts happening here in a few weeks, follow Erdreich Architecture on Instagram, and check out our updated website. Cheers everyone!
suburban transformation

Downtown Loft for Lease or Sale

2326 08 Photos 043Yes, we’re still up in New York and no, unfortunately I haven’t figured out a great way to continue the blog in a meaningful way from afar. Maybe eventually.

However, if you are still reading this, please know that our wonderful tenants in our downtown loft in the 2nd Row building (above) unfortunately must leave at the end of November. If you, or anyone you know, are interested in renting or perhaps buying this condo, contact Kim at

About 1500 SF, prime 2nd Ave location, private parking, private garden with bocce court. Thanks everyone.

UPDATE: here is a link, with photos of the space and more info, on Craigslist.

Art downtown

Essential to urban vibrancy

Essential to urban vibrancy

This Sunday, February 24, Ellen Cooper Erdreich will exhibit paintings and drawings at the Phoenix Building downtown (corner 2nd Avenue and 17th Street North) with an opening reception from 2-5 PM–loft 409. Please consider coming to view this show. Full disclosure: the artist is my mother. [image above from the show: “ex vulvere mori”]

Coming together

The walls await

As we’ve discussed many times, art and artists are essential to the vibrancy of any urban center. We are proud that the Phoenix Building we developed offers reduced rents in the majority of its lofts, most of which are rented by artists. Hopefully more similar projects will follow soon. Enjoy the art, and see you Sunday.

[thanks to Ellen Cooper Erdreich for the images]