Mind the Gap (1)

How many crumbling historic (and gorgeous) buildings do we have to tear down, how many dilapidated Arts and Crafts style bungalows or shotgun houses have to be razed, or how many weedy lots do we have to witness before we do something? We have got to stop wasting the opportunities we have right in front of us before we sprawl our city all the way to Clanton

Why do we have so many gaps in our urban fabric…parking lots where buildings used to be, empty lots in our historic residential neighborhoods, historic houses abandoned or burned down?

There are many reasons, but the result is all about density — or lack of it. If you’re concerned about transit, or grocery stores, or dog parks, or walkable blocks, start thinking about density. Density provides the riders for bus routes or rail, the shoppers for the store, the canines for the park, or the consumers for restaurants, late-night coffee shops, and skate shops–which of course means pedestrian traffic and active storefronts which make a block walkable.

In a city like Birmingham, which used to be denser and more populated, we had, according to the 2000 US Census, 242, 820 residents and a density of 1619 people/square mile. Compare this to the 1950 census, when we had 326,037 residents and a density of 4,993 people/square mile. And our population is estimated to be a good deal less in 2010–closing in on 200,000 residents. [We are talking city limits of Birmingham here, not the metro area, which of course is considerably larger, much more populous, and also even less dense than the city proper].

Then take an older city like Providence, RI: in 1950 it had 248,674 residents and a density of more than twice Birmingham’s at 13,892 persons/square mile. By 2000 it’s population was down to 173,618 but it’s density was still considerable at almost six times Birmingham’s: 9,401/square mile.

Unlike some other cities which have deliberate density initiatives, we have been watching passively as people leave the city without enough new residents to replace them; new land is not annexed for dense development but for sprawling shopping centers; and of course gentrification occurs in certain older, desirable neighborhoods (such as Highland Park and Forest Park), where formerly subdivided residences are renovated back to single-family houses, new zoning laws prevent apartment buildings from easily being constructed, etc.

Abandonment in Detroit courtesy of desertchick.

The extreme end of this spiral is a situation like Detroit, where the mayor in late 2009 gave a startling admonition to his city: instead of pretending to still be the city of 2 million as designed, it should instead “focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be.” (New York Times, Sept. 25, 2009).  His practical argument: the city is wasting tax dollars, man power, and energy by cleaning, policing, fire-preventing, and generally maintaining city streets where a large number of houses are mainly abandoned. People have a hard time imagining being forced from their own neighborhoods to live in denser cores, with the old, underused neighborhoods being turned into green space–but this, in effect, is what the mayor suggested.

OK. We aren’t quite there yet, but unless we institute policies to combat the trend, we may get there. Already we have a strained police force and fire force whose jobs are much more difficult due to the spotty inhabitation of certain neighborhoods. It’s all inefficient in so many ways.
Lacking any density initiatives locally (see Vancouver’s density charter as an example), developers have been creating their own density mainly as a perception of market demand. A few years ago we designed the Southside Townhouses as an urban infill project right off Highland Avenue.
Southside Townhouses–possibly the only 5-story rowhouses in Ala.!

They are in an eclectic neighborhood at an intersection surrounded by buildings of many styles and types–historic old apartment buildings, a large mid-rise modern apartment block, and some new and old houses. There are many neighborhood activists who objected to the multi-family project, as well as the appearance, so I would describe the project as locally controversial, but in the end I stand by its scale, its materials, the way it addresses a very multi-layered intersection, and of course its replacement of a vacant lot with some density.
Another controversial project was later constructed just up the street, when the former Otto Marx mansion was torn down to make way for 2600 Highland, a condo tower. While bringing new residential density to its site, the loss of the historic house was painful to many. Thanks to dystopos for the shots below of the old mansion about to disappear, and a rather poignant shot of an older woman scrutinizing the marketing billboard for the new tower:
An example of new density that has thus far avoided the controversy of our own project and 2600 Highland is the CityVille Project put together byCorporate Realty: A half-block replacement of 1- and 2- story commercial and parking lots with a mid-rise, mixed-use development with apartments above and shops and restaurants below, with a parking deck buried in mid-project. Here’s a recent pic from the Cityville website showing the current state of construction:
We have big problems in this city with sprawl, and all the negative social, economic, and aesthetic issues that come with it. Re-densifying neighborhoods is one way to start solving these issues. And the denser a neighborhood, the more activity and amenities it supports, which in turn draws more people to enjoy these things, and we reverse the cycle that we’ve been in for decades here. And it can start with building a small, affordable, cool house on an empty lot in Norwood or College Hills. Or, bringing more housing to suburban centers such as downtown Homewood or Mountain Brook Village.
Coming soon…more infill inspirations from around town and around the country.

7 responses to “Mind the Gap (1)

  1. I particularly enjoy the lip service devoted to ‘mixed use development’ in Highland Park, but only between Western Market and 2600 on Highland and down on Clairmont. Otherwise it impugns the ‘residential character’ of the neighborhood.

    • Good point–that neighborhood was originally designed to accommodate large and small houses, apartments both economical and luxurious, and easy access to shops and markets for pedestrians and transit. It was never a purely “residential” neighborhood, current code for “single family, owner-occupied”.

      • I think the Snap Fitness place opening underneath the Greenbriar is a good first step, at the least, for establishing the mindset that business are there to serve residents.

        I know a lot of people complain about Rojo and parking (I live at 30th and Highland, never really been an issue for me) but if there was a restaurant open under Park Tower, or under 2600 or Hanover Park you’d see people not driving to Rojo from inside Highland Park, and the people visiting the neighborhood would be more spread out.

        Just pontificating.

  2. Great post – and I love the new blog.

    From the outside, it seems as though the political leadership in Birmingham has leaned more toward reinvention of the wheel and less toward research of precedents when trying to approach issues of city planning and growth. Why isn’t there more investigation into the ways other cities have dealt with similar issues? Portland, even Chattanooga have experienced rebirths over the last 20 years… Birmingham is not alone in its issues.

    • Indeed there has been a frustrating insularity about this city and its approach to solving issues. This insularity has been a long-standing attribute of our political and business leadership, at least since US Steel, as the major employer operating out of Pittsburgh and running Birmingham a bit like a colony, effectively quashed attempts to diversify and open up the local economy. Whether it was new industry (a Chrysler plant I believe), or a proposed air hub, US Steel didn’t want competition from “outsiders” driving up wages and forcing them to be more competitive. While US Steel is no longer dominant, that mindset has lingered. An over-simplification perhaps, but important nonetheless. The local political leadership often seems content with the status quo, and major corporations (Alabama Power) as well. Fresh ideas, models from other cities, or leaders not “born and raised” in Birmingham–all are looked at with suspicion and even contempt (witness the recent mayoral election).

      On another note, while Portland and Chattanooga years ago learned to consolidate over planning and growth efforts with a single, metro-wide voice, Birmingham consistently voted down attempts to unify our metro, and we are now so fractured, with so little trust between various local entities, it just makes it that much harder to develop consensus. I’m hopeful new organizations like the Birmingham Business Alliance will counter that trend.

  3. Hi Jeremy, I’m enjoying the blog. If you didn’t see it already, Tim Egan has an interesting piece in today’s NYT (his blog on life/politics in the West) that makes a similar point about the cities that have largely maintained successful housing being those that have rigorously maintained their boundaries and discouraged sprawl. All best, m.

    • Hey Marina, glad you’re enjoying it all the way from Glasgow! Great piece in the NYT–thanks for pointing that out. The situation with urban sprawl and vast subdivisions of empty Macmansions must feel (thankfully) very distant from the beautiful, dense streets of Glasgow, right?

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