School Dazed … and confused

The Lane School--languishing in the shadow of UAB

The News has reported (and editorialized ) the story of UAB offering Birmingham City Schools $3.13 million for the old, former Lane School building at the university campus. The School Board president made a statement that, instead of selling the school, the Board should consider building a new headquarters building there instead (the City School website lists the Lane School as a “surplus property” for sale) .

Rather than discuss politics or the woes of the Birmingham City Schools, this is an opportunity to discuss possible solutions: 1. We have a shrinking urban school system with underused or unused buildings, and 2. the system’s (outdated) headquarters occupies a piece of very prime real estate facing Linn Park at the corner of 20th Street.

What would an enlightened city do?

Let’s start with the current site of the School headquarters on Park Place. This building, never a true architectural gem to begin with, suffers most from a mismatched location. Not only is it a dated, 3-story office building occupying that prime corner site, but the majority of its facade along 20th Street is the mainly blank wall of the parking garage. Hardly a generator of activity on the sidewalk.

There was a plan in 2004 to build a 14-story Westin hotel here, but the Board has rejected this and all subsequent offers to buy this property (in part due to the perceived expense of building a new headquarters). What if the Board agreed to sell the lot to a developer, and in return a dynamic, mixed-use building including space for a new headquarters was constructed? Or, alternatively, a brand-new charter or magnet school, that could signal the system’s determination to turn things around? Or a combination of all of the above?

This idea has a parallel in Lower Manhattan right now. For years, neighborhood residents have been demanding a new school (K-8) but due to high land costs, it never materialized. In return for certain state and local incentives, a developer agreed to build the new school at the base of a 76-story luxury apartment tower (the Beekman, designed by Frank Gehry; under construction). In the picture here, you can see the brick school at the base of the tower:

Beekman School and Tower

(pic via jskrybe)

We are hardly in New York (but hey, like the new Beekman school, did you know the Advent Day School, a block from the Board HQ, has a rooftop playground?); but what if the current Board site was redeveloped into new board offices, an innovative charter school on the park, and private offices or condos/hotel above. And a great restaurant facing the park? What if?

But what about all the other outdated school structures, like the Lane School? These are dotted all over town–where changing demographics have forced school closures and realignments.  Old schools can make some really awesome living units.  When we looked at renovating the Phoenix Building some years ago, and thought about maintaining the best parts of a historic structure, we looked at various school rehabs across the country for inspiration.  Where else can you live in a basketball court? Check out the Union Square Condos in Grand Rapids, MI—a very innovative transformation of an obsolete neighborhood school.

Or closer to home, the old Crogman School in Atlanta was almost razed. Instead, it became reborn as the Crogman School Lofts, an affordable housing and community center that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

Old Schools can be turned into community assets.  Market rate or affordable housing;  art classes and community meeting spaces.

And prime corner lots facing major city parks need innovative, mixed-use approaches to help spur further growth and foot traffic. Here’s hoping the School Board can strategize thoughtfully and carefully about how it could help it’s own bottom line, while helping the communities surrounding its properties.

11 responses to “School Dazed … and confused

  1. Surplus city schools is a worthy topic of its own, but re-use of that key headquarters site fronting 20th and Linn Park needs to keep in mind height: Anything taller than Park Place across 20th would block winter sun angles for the park. Whatever the use, the envelope max is critical.

    • Excellent point. One would hope that any redevelopment of the HQ site would be extremely sensitive to the park as well as 20th Street. I didn’t mean to imply the Gehry tower in Manhattan was an appropriate scale for this location! Something a little lower than 76 stories, for sure.

    • Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

      @Philip Morris: BTW, I really appreciated your article in the June/July ’08 issue of THICKET magazine ( “Winning the Batle” ).

      When the RSA Battle House was first announced, it wasn’t the height that upset me, but rather the horrid design. I was so afraid Alabama would be stuck with that substandard design, not to mention being less-than-mediocre. Mobile is too special for that, too. I like what eventually got built. Oddly, it fits Mobile contextually. Your comments were taken to heart, so thanks.

  2. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    I couldn’t agree more!!!

    There is a large school building in the warehouse sector, between Elton B. Stephens and 41st Street, along 5th or 6th Avenue, I think. It’s called the “Davis” Administrative Building? Anyway, it’s ginormous, and would make fabulous lofts for the Lakeview District. It’s really a nice building, and a fantastic example of “School-as-Factory” 20th Century industrial/mass-production society. Lofts, apts. and performing arts spaces would be great there.

    Also… BANKS SCHOOL. This sprawling structure sits right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I have been told the auditorium is huge. Why not convert the auditorium into the East Lake Repertory Theatre, and redevelop the buildings into housing, or raze those parts and build new contextual housing? Also, ALL those empty athletic fields should be converted into Jones Valley Farms, to allow the people who live there to GROW THEIR OWN FOOD (given the distances to nearest groceries and the sinking income levels there). This was tried very successfully in South Central Los Angeles until a conglomerate came in to use their farm as garbage/landfill “waste management”.

    The current BOE Administration Building needs to go away, and make room for a mixed-use, mid-rise development… preferably a structure that would hold to the cornice lines of the Tutwiler Hotel… but emphatically opened up to 20th Street. I hate walking that blank, windswept stretch, and the “people of need” like to frequent that barren stretch, too. Yes, a structure or group of structures that relate happily to the Tutwiler, the Linn-Henley Research Library, and Linn Park itself is most needed, but not a hotel- I still hope the old First Alabama Tower is made into a hotel.

    The very idea of Administration relocating to Lane School is just silly. SILLY. There are better locales. Why not be an anchor to Fair Park? Then there is Century Plaza, Carraway, etc. etc. etc. etc.

  3. i think the immediate priority is to fill the circa 1975 First Alabama Bank bldg; the glorious Thomas Jefferson HoteL; the Brown Marx Bldg; the Red Cross Bldg; the former Jimmie Hale Mission site; and call up John Portman to convert the former Social Security Regional HQ into an atrium hotel.
    THEN & ONLY THEN talk about new architural monuments. As much as I want more 20 story towers & something at least 500 ft. tall, we need to preserve & renew the lovely, grand structures already here. What I adore most about Birmingham is its outstanding collection of big, older structures. Let other cities go glass & steel; I prefer the steel, brick, stone & historic detailing of the 1900-1929 period… and the 1980s boom, which mostly added thoughtful, zippy new structures with a local flair. Yes, I consider the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse & the Harbert Plaza as “zippy” & obviously indigenous to the Magic City.

    Finally, I would like to see more color on City Center bldgs. The Bristol & Live on Fifth are a good start. Let’s EMBRACE African-American sensibilities & aesthetics and jazz this place up! Let the corporate office parks be all serious & dour. I want some spicy in my downtown.

  4. An adendum: Let other cities go 100% glass & steel. I’m glad we have a few examples to add contrast to all the brick, but I would hate to see the City Center all glass & shiny. One or two bldgs. here and there like Sonat or Hugo Black go a long way, but many more would be banal.

    • Todd–all great points. Ideally I’d love to preserve and revitalize the historic buildings we have, and also build new, thoughtful, exciting projects on the under- or unused sites in strategic areas. One building you mention I take issue with–the Hugo Black courthouse. The building itself, with its banal reflective glass, and its arbitrary diagonal orientation, I find to be weak. And totally unrelated to its context. But much worse is the huge amount of surface parking surrounding it–this all used to be wonderful 4th Avenue business district commercial buildings. Tearing all that down for courthouse parking is just awful. It’s very hard for a street like 4th Avenue to be successful if one whole side is a fenced parking lot.

      That being said, this city tends to take too few risks with things like color, graphics, and architectural form generally. We definitely need more willingness to step outside the box.

  5. Enjoying the banter, gentlemen.

    Todd, I agree on the most clever point made…we need some spicy in our downtown…to compliment, of course the rich diversity in our city’s history/culture/architecture.

    If only…

  6. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    @LK Whitney:

    I have some thoughts (really? more? >groan<)
    about the failed Malaver project, at 18th Street & 4th Ave. N.

    I'm actually THRILLED and RELIEVED about it.
    I live in the Burger-Phillips, so I consider 3rd & 4th MY neighborhood. What I'd like to see on that corner (18th & 4th) instead of a high-rise hotel (save that for the First Alabama Bank Tower! the First Alabama Bank Tower!… and Harbert Plaza Phase II) is this:

    Something along the lines of Southside Station and Carriage Court (on 19th & 4th Ave. SOUTH), with the commercial bays fronting 4th Avenue North styled after the "Green Acres" mom-and-pop block up the street. Adjacent to those, between the new development and One Federal Place, there would be a lushly landscaped Southern-style courtyard, so as not to hem in and block the west-facing windows of One Federal Place.

    The apartment components would be set back from the street in such a way as to allow for rooftop patio terraces above the commercial store fronts. These would rise about 3 or 4 stories. Then, in the middle of the block butting up to the old Federal Reserve Building and that buff-brick addition, there would be a seven-story parking deck, with a five-story tower on top of that. The deck/tower would effectively be in the middle of the block (I'm guessing behind the 5th Ave. N. water wall), with the office space designed such as to minimize shadow-casting. Besides, downtown can't absorb much new office space right now, so 5 stories or a maximum of 60,000 square feet might make economical sense. But, another big parking deck in that area that would serve the apartments and 4th Avenue merchants would be swell, as long as it were cleverly disguised and faced off with pleasant store fronts, a-la Southside Station and the UAB 4th Avenue SOUTH parking deck.

    I think such a mixed-use program styled after Carver Theatre and the row of businesses already on 4th North would be a better use of the corner than another tower. Let's save all the new skyscrapers for west of the Innovation Depot, or at least over near Peck & Hills where all those vacant car lots are. Or better yet, let's go "Classic European" and forget new skyscrapers all together. We're Alabama, NOT Texas or Ohio.

  7. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    but what if the current Board site was redeveloped into new board offices, an innovative charter school on the park, and private offices or condos/hotel above. And a great restaurant facing the park? What if?

    Great Idea. This should be the starting point.

  8. Pingback: Again? | Bhamarchitect's Blog

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