All together, now.

This past week the News confirmed an open secret: IMS, a company specializing in surgical instrument management and consulting, is relocating from suburban Homewood to downtown Birmingham. 100 employees will populate the former Noland building and warehouse (2nd Avenue North and 33rd Street), with additional space to be built on adjacent property. The “Sloss Business Park” would involve an (initial?) investment of $7.4 million.  ONB, the BBA, and the City are all mentioned as having helped make this possible. It is a too rare example of a corporate headquarters moving into the city. Here’s hoping others will follow.

Wellmark anchors a downtown district in Des Moines

In the meantime, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is building a new headquarters in downtown Des Moines (thanks to jeremye2477 for the construction pic). It will house close to 2000 employees and represents a $250 million investment. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited as anyone about IMS (and hopeful that the architecture and planning of their new campus will be urban, forward-thinking, and inspirational). But, this comparison illustrates how far behind Birmingham is when compared to recruitment and retaining efforts in other cities, and the impact those efforts have in creating urban place.

As the New York Times pointed out in an article Feb. 17, Des Moines in recent years has thrived on cooperative efforts to improve and expand downtown. There are about 75,000 jobs downtown today, up 20,000 since the mid-1990’s. Birmingham has roughly 80,000 jobs downtown, but this number has been rising much more slowly in the same period. While we tend to have good plans for growth that sit gathering dust on shelves while factions squabble, there is a sense of common purpose in Des Moines–that a healthy downtown does not have to exist at the expense of a healthy metro. Instead, area leaders there see the health of the entire region depending on the health of downtown. They have cooperation. We, with some notable exceptions, do not.

Businesses want to invest in a downtown that’s embraced by the wider community. Instead of feeling like a pioneer, you feel like part of a plan for success. The plan in Des Moines includes a Regional Account, paid into by both city and suburbs, that helps provide stable funding to civic amenities like the art museum, symphony, botanical garden, etc. Here, these institutions often struggle year to year, depending on the whim or largesse of politicians and donors. The stability of Des Moines is part of what influences businesses like the Gateway Market to open downtown with confidence.

Gateway Market in downtown Des Moines

Main Street art in Chattaooga

Interestingly, Des Moines spends a set amount ($250,000) per year on public art. In Birmingham this would generally be frowned upon as frivolous. But just look a couple hours north to Chattanooga, where their public art fund has helped to revitalize the entire Main Street Area. In Birmingham, public art is the first aspect of a project to be chopped or deferred. In Chattanooga, it’s the opposite: art is used on the front end to attract attention and development. In this photo, you can see large, public art that was installed on an almost abandoned Main Street. 2 years later (when I snapped this pic), the neighborhood is thriving with shops, restaurants, and lofts. Oh, and a grocery just announced it’s arriving soon.

Western Gateway Park with sculpture

I love the idea of a human head/torso created with large, interconnected letters. Uplighting at night is beautiful.

One project in Birmingham that offers a contrast with Des Moines is the Railroad Park. In Des Moines, the new Western Gateway park was opened with unusual speed–2 1/2 years. Not only is it filled with large public sculpture, but it has already attracted new development such as the Des Moines Social Club, a multi-use art center with big ambitions. Thanks to Lukeh and regan76 for the full and detail pics of the Jaume Plensa sculpture in the park.

Back in Birmingham, the Railroad Park is indeed one of those rare examples of cooperation among many parties. In contrast to Western Gateway, it’s taken about 15 years since first conceived.

The public art component has been on again, off again, illustrating this community’s ambivalence to the real power of public art.  There have also been other cutbacks that some worry will dampen the final product.  But there remains a sense of optimism that, when this park opens later this year, it will become a catalyst for development. Let’s hope that our community doesn’t just sit back and nervously hope for the best, but instead focuses serious effort to making sure the park and its surrounding blocks are seen as a regional amenity that can help bring new corporate headquarters to Birmingham, inspire our own multi-use art spaces to crop up, and generate the interest of small business (and grocers) to the center city.

And maybe, just maybe,  even help reset our “cooperation” button. We need to unite to get things done. Hey, if they can do it in Des Moines…

5 responses to “All together, now.

  1. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    I think it’s time for a coup.

    Too much is simply at stake to allow business as usual.

    I can see how fear generates the stifling conservatism of this community (I’m not talking politics here… I mean conservative as in afraid to try new things), and I’m all too familiar with the racist feelings towards City Center in general, but this gridlock of ineffectual politicians and overly-cautious businessmen (almost Babbitt-like in their inertia) simply has to be expunged. I refuse to believe Birmingham is destined to be the next Buffalo or Detroit. Maybe that IS the ultimate fate, but I KNOW this community is better than that.

    • Todd–This community is indeed better than that. I just hope we’re not unwittingly going in the Buffalo/Detroit direction. I’m afraid the jury’s still out. When a city’s status quo is sub-par, conservatism becomes a real problem. That’s for sure. It just compounds what’s already bad. I still have fingers crossed about a cutting-edge public art program here. If the park opens without it, a benefactor may immediately see the need and help make it happen…

      • Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

        I agree.
        I try to think (I like to think) we’ve seen the worst there is, and are about to see a move towards a more vibrant downtown. My partner & I are committed to staying downtown (maybe not in the Burger-Phillips, but downtown nonetheless), and I feel as long as the pillars of downtown business stay in the center, we’ll avoid the Detroit model. We have this Deep South anti-city mentality to thank for the slowness of progress… but we also have Mountain Brook’s proximity to thank as well for the cultural venues. It’s such a paradox here, eh? It’s part of the unique charm, methinks.

  2. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    This is a new topic, and one born of simple curiosity:

    What is the building height limit for all of downtown Birmingham, not just the Financial District?

    In other words, if another Shepherd Centre were ever proposed again, where is the most likely site for such a tall complex of buildings?

    Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, this is just a simple question. I realize Birmingham is too prim and staid for more (and taller) skyscrapers- and it’s probably overbuilt as it is- and I realize these things don’t add to the overall urbanism of a place as much as they seem to be products of civic boosterism; I just want to know what part of downtown could accommodate buildings taller than Mobile’s RSA Battlehouse Tower.

  3. Todd–for building heights, you can check the City Zoning Code. You can also look at their online mapping program to see which zone is where. The central business district is zoned B4 with no height limits; B3 is community business and likewise has no height limits. In appropriate locations within other zones, obviously variances can be applied for as well.

    You are correct that super-tall buildings (like the RSA) are often more about boosterism than real urbanism. That being said, does it hurt that Mobile now has a taller tower? Of course it does.

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