Author Archives: bhamarchitect

Peanuts!

Peanut Depot.jpg

Goodbye Morris, hello Parkside

The Peanut Depot, a longtime fixture on Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham (above, looking north between 20th Street North and Richard Arrington Blvd.), is perhaps the last surviving business of this street’s original incarnation as the Victorian city’s wholesale produce and warehousing center (most every building now contains lofts, professional offices, studios and bars). But you only have a few more weeks to enjoy them here, as they will be moving to Parkside in March. A downtown fixture for almost 110 years, Peanut Depot needs to expand to support their growing sales across the US; their new location near Region’s Field will also be convenient for Birmingham Barons ball games–for which they have, fittingly, the exclusive concession for peanut sales.

Sad that Morris Avenue will lose the delicious aroma of roasted peanuts–but great news this longtime business is relocating into one of the most exciting areas currently revitalizing downtown. Here’s to another century of deliciousness–and watch out for that unmistakable scent to drift over Parkside.

Avondale’s next phase

 

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After oysters and beer, can’t I just walk home?

While the formerly industrial South Avondale neighborhood has been exploding with new restaurants and bars (Fancy’s on Fifth is set to open imminently on the NW corner of 5th Avenue South and 41st Street, above), the clientele of these venues has often seemed less than truly local. Instead they come from the nearby precincts of downtown, Forest Park, and Crestwood–or slightly more distant suburban locales–with the assumption being that Avondale proper isn’t a “safe” place for hipsters, craft beer drinkers and assorted urban aficionados to call home, even if they like to eat and drink there. As it turns out, this isn’t quite true–and may become even less so as pioneering developers respond to increasing demand.

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Sprucing up the block

Just east of the 41st Street spine of taverns and cafes, the block bounded by 42nd and 43rd Streets and Third and Fourth Avenue South is illustrative of a changing attitude towards housing. Above looking north towards Third Avenue is the Avondale Apartment project redevleoped by Kahn Properties. Formerly shabby apartments are being renovated for rent to medical residents, young professionals, and others for whom Avondale may not have been on the radar even a couple years ago. Response is brisk and shows that a certain demographic doesn’t mind–and perhaps appreciates–living in a transitional neighborhood still known for low-income housing both substandard and decent (framed across Third Avenue is Avondale Gardens, an award-winning low-income development we helped design about twelve years ago).

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Seen better days for sure

On the SE corner of 4th Avenue South and 43rd Street is a vacant and severely damaged apartment complex (above) which is currently for sale. Unsightly, yes–but it’s not hurting the traffic at Avondale Apartments. While an older generation may look at the vacant property and shake its head at “blight without hope,” a younger generation shrugs and sees “future development coming soon.”

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All in the eye of the beholder

On the south side of Third Avenue a collection of older houses lines the street (above). Despite the fact that Third Avenue is also a busy state highway–with too many lanes and higher traffic speeds than a rejuvenating neighborhood deserves–once these houses are even modestly renovated, they have no problem attracting tenants. One local resident who owns a number of rental properties told us that a professional couple recently rented one of these renovated bungalows sight-unseen: they were that anxious to find something decently renovated in the middle of Avondale.

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Needs a solution

In the end, to develop a critical mass of attractive housing options, places like the Havenwood (above, Third Avenue just west of the bungalows previously pictured) need change. Long a haven for drug dealing and related crime, it is a destabilizing influence on on otherwise improving block. Whether this means a sale, redevelopment, or another outcome is unknown–but our guess is that pressure in the real estate market will force something to happen. It’s just a question of when.

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A grand reminder of better times

It is easier to visualize the promise of this faded beauty on the SW corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street (above). Over 100 years old, It is in the process of being stabilized and secured. Having served initially as a doctor’s residence, it followed the pattern of many large houses in declining neighborhoods across the City and became a low-rent boarding house for many years. Now that the boarding house partitions have been removed, and the massive ceilings and elegant staircase structure have reappeared, the possibilities for the future are many.

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A new era

While downtown itself has been subject only rarely to gentrification conflicts due to the historic absence of housing in the CBD, it is interesting to watch the process unfold in South Avondale. There is a lot of lower-rent housing for people of color; right now the influx of new residents (often white, though not always) has been modest enough that no fundamental balance seems upset. However, as the Zyp bikeshare stand on 41st Street attests (above looking south to Second Avenue), this neighborhood is changing. If the right mix of market and affordable housing joins the newly rejuvenated commercial storefronts, Avondale could demonstrate that a neighborhood of diverse economic, racial, and other groups can truly succeed. Stay tuned.

[Thanks to Fancy’s on Fifth for the mural pic]

Excellent Opportunity

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In the heart of Birmingham’s Theater District, the Jefferson Home Furniture property is for sale (previously Joiner and Cain Furniture). Above is a photo from the 1940’s showing the larger concrete frame building in the center on Second Avenue North between 17th and 18th Streets; the smaller wood frame building to the far right is also included. Directly to the west is the Phoenix Building, a popular 74-loft development (the old Jefferson Theatre in the photo was demolished soon after this picture was taken and replaced with the expanded Phoenix Building). Within a half block are the Pizitz and Thomas Jefferson Tower mixed-use projects currently under construction. A Zyp bike station is directly across Second Avenue;  Railroad Park and the booming Parkside District are 3 blocks south. The Alabama, Lyric, and Carver Theatres are all within a couple minutes’ walk.

Both Federal and State historic tax credits have been substantially approved for converting this property. Please contact Southpace Properties here for more info on this opportunity!

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Checking in again

 

 

Hilton Parkside

Could be anywhere

This morning at Design Review Committee, the new dual-branded hotel (Hilton Garden Inn and Home 2 Suites) along 2nd Avenue South between 17th and 18th Streets received approval for final materials (snapshot of rendered elevations above). This project, one block south of Railroad Park, will be the first hotel to rise in the Parkside neighborhood; the site is already cleared and construction should start soon. The materials are a combination of brick and stucco; the architect is Bradley, Schmidt & Carn from Dothan, AL. While the massing, color palette, and generic detailing are all scripted from Hilton’s playbook–with the result being a rather unmemorable composition–at least from an urban standpoint the facades come up to the sidewalk edges (with attractive landscaping by Birmingham’s Macknally Land Design) and the lobby lounges and cafes open to terraces facing the streets. The biggest disappointment is the large amount of surface parking in the rear which takes up half a city block–the City needs to do better creating shared, structured parking for the Parkside district so that each individual project isn’t forced to use valuable land for this purpose.

Homewood Suites

Trying to do the right thing

Also presented this morning was the long-awaited Homewood Suites hotel project (architect Richard Rauh above) which has already broken ground; it too was coming for final material approval. If you look closely at the image above, you’ll see a diagram on the screen of every piece of the historic ground floor facade (formerly Five Points Music Hall and Piggly Wiggly) documented for a meticulous replication. The original Art Deco facade was found close to collapse during demolition and could not be saved; the developer will now reproduce it. A synthetic stucco material was rejected by the Committee; the developer will return most likely with true limestone for this portion (the remainder of the eight story Art Deco-style building will be brick and stucco).

Empire Exterior

A notch up

A few blocks away, as we’ve previously noted the historic Empire Building (above, First Avenue North looking east to 20th Street) is under massive renovation into a luxury boutique hotel under the Marriott Autograph brand; the new Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook a few miles south shares this branding. A more modest 3-star Marriott offering will abut the Empire in the former Alagasco building directly west. Campo Architects of New Orleans is the architect.

Empire Lobby

100 years old and beautiful

A peek into the Empire’s lobby (above) shows the original marble, staircase, and light fixtures that we hope are on their way to loving restoration. Whereas the Hilton hotels in Parkside are resolutely bland and generic, this one should be full of character and specific. And it’s exciting that Birmingham will have more 4-star lodging options.

Redmont

And 4 stars more

Finally, as the Birmingham Business Journal reported earlier this week, the Redmont Hotel–at this point Birmingham’s grande dame having opened in 1925–will reopen next month as another 4-star hotel under Hilton’s Curio brand. We wish the Redmont, and these other hotels, much success as they increase City Center hotel options and–hopefully–provide us with some interesting new food and beverage choices.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season whether in a hotel or at home, and we’ll be back in January!

[thanks to Bradley Schmidt & Carn for the Parkside renderings]

Healthy job news

VIVA HQ Lobby

Center of corporate Birmingham about to get a little denser

Al.com is reporting today that VIVA Health, an HMO, is expanding its downtown headquarters at 20th Street North and 5th Avenue, resulting in up to 400 new jobs being added to the City Center. While the bricks-and-mortar impact won’t be immediately visible from the street—the expansion involves renovating existing empty floors within the building—downtown should feel the impact in a couple significant ways. One, more foot traffic and demand for retail services; two, a reduction in the overall vacancy rate of the Downtown Submarket which currently stands at 11.9%, slightly better than the metro average (current VIVA lobby, above).

Coincidentally, the news comes on the heels of another local healthcare corporation’s announcement about its own headquarters: HealthSouth, currently located on Highway 280 and Grandview Parkway (within the City limits of Birmingham but 9 miles’ distance from downtown) will build a new headquarters building in Liberty Park (again within Birmingham City limits, and about 15 miles’ distance from downtown). Unremarkable, except for the fact that HealthSouth had seriously considered moving to Parkside, the burgeoning downtown neighborhood, and constructing a signature headquarters building there instead. In a recent article in Al.com, CEO Jay Grinney defended the decision to stay in a distant location rather than join the increasing numbers calling the City Center home. The main factor, he claimed, was a company-wide poll of employees who were posed the question: Would you rather work downtown or Liberty Park? This poll came back with a solid majority in favor of staying south of the City, and he couldn’t bear the thought of all those unhappy workers stuck in traffic headed into downtown daily.

Quicken Loans Detroit

The sign says it all

Birmingham is not known for corporate leadership that looks beyond parochial concerns to support the greater community in an impactful way. Parisian CEO Donald Hess arguably came close by stepping up to chair the failed MAPS campaign of the late 1990’s (incidentally also supported by the former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy). But we’ve had no equivalent to Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert who moved 1,700 employees into a new downtown Detroit headquarters in 2010 after 20 years in the Detroit suburbs. This move is widely credited as crucial both literally and psychologically to that city’s current comeback; Quicken now has 12,000 employees in and around downtown and has decided to house them in formerly vacant buildings rather than build a glossy new tower (renovated Qube building above). Rebounding cities need lots of ingredients—from grassroots individuals to corporate CEO’s—to create a truly vibrant and diversified environment. One can only imagine if Gilbert had taken a “Would you like to move to downtown Detroit” poll of his employees back in 2005 what the response would’ve been—surely even more negative than the HealthSouth poll–but ultimately the workers now enjoy all sorts of urban amenities and conveniences they couldn’t have envisioned 10 years ago, and the downtown Quicken campus is consistently rated by employees one of the best places to work in the Detroit metro.

Ping Pong Quicken

Millenials + downtowns = fun

In the end, however, this week’s news is positive: VIVA is expanding, and HealthSouth, a company with 23,000 employees nationwide valued at $2.3 billion, remains headquartered in the City. What Birmingham truly needs is an influx of new people moving here from outside the metro, attracting new ideas to the area and expanding the economy (above, young employees take a break at Quicken downtown). For too long we’ve been playing a shell game between City and suburbs; instead we’d rather see a growing City, healthy suburbs, and all local municipalities banding together to attract new jobs to the area. As exciting as a new HealthSouth HQ may have been on the Midtown skyline, it would be a much, much bigger story if we could attract a Fortune 500 company from outside the state to do the same.

[thanks to West Second Street Associates for VIVA lobby pic; glassdoor.com for the Quicken building pic; and retaildesignblog.net for the interior Quicken rec room pic)

Public art!

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Vulcan, vulcan, vulcan

Great cities incorporate public art into the built environment; Birmingham has lagged others in this regard. Yesterday at Design Review Committee, the City took a step towards improving the situation with unanimous approval of a mural painting on the East wall of the Lichter’s Building (facing a parking lot fronting 19th Street North between 3rd and 4th Avenues, rendering above). The mural will be in the style of the late artist Andy Warhol, and will feature Vulcan, the symbol of the city.

It was especially heartening to see a unanimous approval for such a relatively large, bold artwork. Eight years ago there was push-back on the large painted mural sign we proposed for our 2nd Row development–which was at the time considered audacious for a downtown historic district (a muted dark gray in color, it was ultimately approved; progress photo from 2007 below). Thankfully, the Committee, and the public generally, now better appreciates the role that art, and its cousin good graphic design, can play in helping to revitalize and invigorate urban areas.

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A truly skilled urban artist at work

[thanks to Kyle Kruse for the Lichter’s mural image, and to the Birmingham News for the file photo of the 2nd Row mural]

If you build it…

National brands move in

National brands move in

The new Parkside neighborhood taking shape around Railroad Park is promoted as a mixed-use urban neighborhood with plenty of retail, restaurant, and entertainment. It seems basic, but new projects must provide rentable ground floor space to sign up the retail, restaurant and entertainment that attract people to live, visit and stroll the streets. How are some current projects stacking up in this regard? Currently under construction, 20 Midtown is one of the most prominent, retail-wise, in the area (multi-sites along 20th Street South between Second and Fourth Avenues; architect: Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds). The first building’s Starbucks has recently opened (above); a Chipotle is on its way, and a Publix supermarket is coming in 2016. This lineup of national retailers is fairly unprecedented for a single project downtown or midtown. The supermarket alone promises to be a major anchor that will pull other developments into the area.

Density on 20th Street

Density in Midtown

The next phase of the project (above) has even more retail space along both frontages. According to the retail leasing site, about 110,000 SF of retail and commercial space will be provided in the completed project (ground floor retail appears to be approximately 85,000 SF). From a pedestrian-friendly planning perspective, the “urban drive-thrus” servicing Starbucks and other businesses aren’t ideal, and the curb cuts required between these and the other inner parking decks feel excessive–but at least the overall mass of the buildings are dominant, and these cuts are relatively minor breaks to the retail street frontage. In sum, 20 Midtown does an excellent job providing storefront space to the neighborhood.

The park deserved a bit better

The park deserved a bit better

The Liv Parkside mixed-use development (above, main elevation on First Avenue South between 18th and 17th Streets; architect: Charlan Brock & Associates) fills an entire half-block in a very prominent location directly across from Railroad Park. Due to its size (it will contain 228 rental apartments) and its location, it’s disappointing that it will offer only 4,000 SF of retail. And it’s not just the paucity of retail that’s a concern–the treatment of the storefront is architecturally weak, an odd combination of brick and punched openings that feels out of proportion with the major civic space it faces. In comparison, 20 Midtown’s more straight-forward storefront feels sophisticated and well-scaled to the streets. Overall Liv Parkside is a missed opportunity for invigorating the sidewalks fronting the park. On the bright side, local coffee house Red Cat will anchor the retail mix and plans a Sunday brunch that will no doubt prove popular for residents and visitors alike.

Uncertain at the street

Uncertain at the street

Just southwest of Liv Parkside is the Venue, providing 236 rental apartments (above, looking at the corner of Third Avenue South and 16th Street; architect: BOKA Powell). In a blow to potential adjacent street life, this development offers no retail storefronts whatsoever, with the lobby and leasing office providing the only ground floor activity. If Liv Parkside offers too little rentable storefront, the fact that Venue offers none is truly a letdown.

Maybe there's hope

Maybe there’s a little hope

As a consolation, the developers do state that, while no retail is being offered, there is ground floor space behind roll-up glass doors suitable for food trucks; perhaps this same space can be finished out for retail in the future. In the rendering above (along 16th Street) it’s possible to see these openings in the middle-to-far distance. For a mid-rise, dense urban project, the architectural massing and materials are better than some, but the street level leaves, unfortunately, much to be desired.

Unfit for urban life

Unfit for urban life

Along 18th Street South and Second Avenue, Healthcare Realty Trust, the REIT which owns a building directly north, is constructing a parking deck on a former surface parking lot (above, looking east along Second Avenue). There is not much to say here, except that there’s no attempt at an architectural fig leaf: we get a stark, block-long wall of brick, with smallish pierced openings looking directly into the garage. That this is being built a half block from Railroad Park is pretty devastating. Zoning laws in the City should be amended to require any parking deck constructed in prominent urban places to contain ground floor retail or other components to enhance the adjacent public space of the street, rather than cheapen it.

Filling up

Filling up

Headed back over to 20th Street, the good news is the large Station 121 building (completed 2010, seen above looking east at the corner of 20th Street South and First Avenue; architect: Niles Bolton and Associates) is rapidly filling its storefronts. Having been mainly vacant due to the recession generally as well as market hesitation at this location specifically, the 21,000 SF of retail is now succeeding due to its proximity to newer developments including the Publix supermarket, and the general growth of Midtown which 5 years ago was still hypothetical. This block of retail and restaurant should nicely complement 20 Midtown’s efforts directly south.

A lost opportunity

A lost opportunity

Which brings us to our final, cautionary image: Athens Flatts, seen above along Second Avenue North between 23rd and 22nd Streets (completed 2007; architect: Rob Walker Architects). The ground floor is a cousin to the new parking garage mentioned above–arched openings with metal security barriers look into a bleak parking garage which, especially at night, is completely at odds with the pedestrian character of this part of Second Avenue which is filled with bars and restaurants. Perhaps one day a portion of this garage will be carved away allowing these arches to open into shops and cafes. Until then, it serves to show us what happens when developments neglect the life on the streets that every urban structure has an obligation to engage. Let’s ensure future Parkside developments don’t fall into the same category.

[Thanks to Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds and BOKA Powell for the renderings]