Skin-deep Beauty

The good, the bad and the ugly

Last night at dinner, my friend K was ranting that she wished we could tear down all of downtown’s “bombed out” buildings…a heated argument ensued, but I get the gist.  The empty old buildings weigh more on your eyes than the renovated ones, the new ones.  So if we filled all these empty buildings with ground floor activities, that would go a long way to fixing her (and others’) perceptions — if all the buildings were fixed up, but still empty — that would look good, but not get to the goal.

A building in an urban setting serves multiple purposes: it shelters its inhabitants; it welcomes visitors; it facilitates commerce; and it defines the public space outside. It is this last item which concerns a building’s skin: where the surface of a building meets public space. You could argue that a building with an ugly skin could still have a positive effect on public space if this skin is permeable enough–both physically and visually–to encourage lots of human activity at the street (like this rather grim building above in Manchester, UK that nonetheless has continuous retail and restaurant storefronts at the street–thanks to deltrem for the pic). But if a building also has beauty, then it raises the public perception, and instills satisfaction within the viewer. Of course a building that neither encourages human activity, nor provides the casual viewer with a happy feeling–well, that building has problems — and that is what K and a lot of others see all too often.

Take for example the building at the corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue North downtown, the Webb Building (originally constructed 1871–and among the first brick 3-story buildings in the city).

Cri de coeur

Owned for years by Southtrust Bank, it has been vacant for a while, and is now privately owned after Southtrust’s successors sold both it and the entire half block it sits in. You would be hard-pressed to find such a prominent corner on the most prominent north-south street in town looking so darn tawdry. Although very small in size, the corner position of this forlorn building magnifies a message to those passing by: no one cares about this corner. Although nearby large office buildings may have occupancy rates averaging over 90%, often that occupancy is invisible, occurring on the inside. What’s visible is this peeling facade, desperate for renovation. This small building ends up speaking louder than an office tower that’s 90% full just a couple blocks away. It’s all about the bad skin.

Pizitiz selling with good graphics

Just a block down 2nd Avenue is the Pizitz Building, another distressed building that would radio the same depressing message, except for one fact: it’s entire skin, intricate terra cotta and masonry, is slated to be meticulously restored to the standards of the National Park Service in an imminent restoration (more on this project soon). Assuming this project goes through, we’ll get the best of all worlds–both a beautiful skin and lots of human activity in the form of retail and restaurant tenants at street level. People exiting the McWane Center or IMAX Theatre will no longer confront a major symbol of urban blight, but instead a thing of beauty.

And again, beauty makes people happy. Leaves ’em with a smile on their face. That’s what great urban environments do.

Phoenix Building pre-renovation

All of that facade restoration is often quite expensive, when you’re dealing with old buildings–especially those that have lots of decorative elements in disrepair. When we renovated the Phoenix Building, we were not required to restore the terra-cotta detailing, or remove the paint from the original copper transom frames. The federal Historic Tax Credit program let’s you choose to leave such things alone. But we just couldn’t imagine renovating the building without making it beautiful on the outside again. In the street shot taken before renovation, you can see the copper transom frames painted over, and dirty, chipping terra-cotta details. The detail  pic shows how artisans remolded shapes to match the original terra-cotta that had chipped off long ago, and a sample of the copper being burnished and restored.

Old skin on the left -- new on the right.

Back on 20th Street, the Watts Tower was renovated just 10 years ago into apartments, but the skin…not so much. This building, an Art Deco tower designed by local firm Warren Knight and Davis in 1927 (replacing a charming Commercial Second Empire style 1888 building of the same name), derived much of its original, streamlined, simple beauty through the contrast of its vertical brick spandrel/window stripes with terra-cotta at the corners. In 1977, the whole facade was “modernized” by painting everything a bland cream color. When the renovation occurred in 1999, this unfortunate situation was unremedied. Almost worse, certain windows were boarded up on each floor and ugly exhaust vents were unceremoniously stuck in their place.

sad skin

Add in the lack of a building standard for window treatments, and the lack of anything graphic telling you there’s something new in the building (except for some very off-the rack “for rent” and “for sale” signs)—-and you end up with a very sad looking skin. If I were a visitor looking up at this building, I would guess it was a low-rent apartment building redeveloped in the 1970s, not a high-rent condo building redeveloped just 10 years ago.

Watts Tower in better times, before the paint and the neglect--and the window vents

K can be tentative about her relationship to an urban environment. Sort of like a residential neighborhood where you see one house abandoned with windows out–it makes K want to keep driving to a better neighborhood. And when K sees one building downtown with bad skin, or several running down a street–this doesn’t make her want to linger. It makes her search for another, happier neighborhood.

OK K.  We will get right on it.  Better skin in Aisle 2.

15 responses to “Skin-deep Beauty

  1. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    Tell K I’m proud of her for voicing an opinion, and being passionate about aesthetics, even though I don’t agree with her solutions. I’ll take neglect over bulldozers any day.

    My personal wish for this decade is to see that whole block the Thomas Jefferson Hotel stands on redeveloped, and all the street people enablers around there moved to Ensley or someplace more useful. Until that’s addressed, and until we get aggressive local developers involved, 2nd Avenue revitalization is going to be a slow-go. With that said, I’m still amazed with what’s been preserved in one form or fashion on that thoroughfare.

    • The homeless are people too and pejoratively referring to the few organizations willing to help them as ‘street people enablers’ does nothing to improve our city.

      • Colm–good point. The City and those organizations that assist the homeless are stuck with a fairly chronic issue–and unfortunately downtown, being the HQ for these agencies, becomes the home base for the metro’s homeless population, unfairly burdening the downtown infrastructure. This is hardly unique to Birmingham.

        However, I feel that one example of a win-win for everyone is the Jimmie Hale Mission move–bigger, better facilities in Avondale, not directly adjacent to businesses and residents (avoiding potential conflict), allowing the former downtown HQ to be (hopefully) redeveloped, and giving the homeless more beds, services, etc.

  2. One of the issues is that local developers need to be both aggressive and well-financed in order to get things done. Around Birmingham, unfortunately we have very few who are both aggressive about downtown AND well-financed. A small firm like ours can only do so much, even though we’d love to do more. A bigger firm like Bayer could be doing more–but their real focus is suburban retail, not urban revitalization (Pizitz is a real departure for them). Other big companies like Colonial or Harbert are not focused on urban either. And our overall reputation for being developer-friendly is not great, so we’re not attracting the well-financed, experienced urban developers from bigger cities, either.

    But yes, like we’ve said before–thankfully we at least have what we have!

  3. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    Colm, I live downtown, and deal with the street people all day. They choose that liestyle, and I personally have no respect for the people who enable them, i.e., the folks who don’t live in Birmingham and feel some moral duty to feed anybody who happens to walk up to their BMW stationwagons.
    And in street people, I’m referring to the (mostly) men who refuse the legitimate help provided, create problems for the people who run the shelters, and the city shouldn’t coddle to such, then bemoan why downtown won’t “take off”. Jimmy Hale is an excellent institution, and a true model of a better approach. However, I’ll continue to refer pejoratively to the others until this situation changes. At least Miami’s government has voted to make it illegal to feed the homeless without a license, and Houston and Los Angeles are approaching this issue with seriousness as well.

    • Chose? Really? The people that got ousted from St. Elizabeth’s in DC when social programs got slashed during the Reagen administration chose to live on the street? Veterans who got no help dealing with the carnage they saw? Working poor?

      Working at soup kitchens and tutoring programs was a graduation requirement when I went to high school in Washington, DC and the looks on people’s faces when graduates from my high priced Catholic high school were relying on food-aid to live, even when some of them had jobs, were telling.

      A just society is predicated on the willingness of people to help those that cannot or will not help themselves.

  4. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    Anyway, in getting back to the whole point of the blog, re: the “Skin-deep Beauty” of the 1900 block of 2nd Avenue North, it would be nice if the Webb Building, original BTNB Building (the Neoclassical 1922 facade facing Cafe’ Dupont), Ideal Building and Empire Building could be tied together (with most everything else between 19th & 20th, and 1st & 2nd Aves.) being torn down to create a well-integrated, street-scaled “super-block” that would also incorporate a large, hidden parking deck that could serve the surrounding area, and help get a building like Brown-Marx rehabbed.
    I’ve been told a lack of substantial parking is a problem getting that area redeveloped.

  5. Expecting every project in an urban center to have plenty of parking is a bit much. I don’t know how we get to the point that people will actually walk two blocks to get their Chick Fil-A rather than drive out of their parking deck to a different Chick Fil-A with a drive-thru window across town and back, but somehow, if we’re ever to have a dense and vibrant downtown, people are going to have to learn the pleasures of walking.

  6. I’m so happy KPS Group (my former employers) have a high-profile, urban project in Downtown with the Pizitz Building. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

  7. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    I just drove around the block between 19th & 20th streets north, and 1st & 2nd avenues. It appears there are only three businesses in operation in the whole block: Pete’s Hot Dogs, a child daycare & a law firm.

    What a prime piece of City Center real estate just waiting for development.

  8. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce

    Re: 19th & 20th Streets, and 1st & 2nd Avenues North- the block where the Empire & Ideal Buildings stand:

    With the exception of a daycare, a law firm and Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, the whole block is empty. Since I’m a dreamer with no connections to capital or City Hall, it’s easy (for me) to imagine the entire block being redeveloped into a fully integrated mixed-use complex. I can see the Empire & Ideal Buildings transformed into luxury condos; the former BTNB Building (the Renaissance Revival structure facing Cafe’ Dupont) and Webb Building on the corner of 20th & 2nd, rehabbed into commercial space befitting 20th Street; I can see a seven-story parking deck built in the center of the block, to serve the Brown-Marx Tower, condos and McWane Center; and I can envision about five stories of Class-A, suburban-style office space (i.e. big floor plates) and market rate apartments floating above the deck, similar to the nearby Two North Twentieth & UAB’s Professional Office Building atop their 6th Avenue Parking Deck expansion. Southside Station is another precedent model.

    2nd Avenue North is evolving into THE premier residential/restaurant/shopping corridor downtown, and it seems to me those irreplaceable, highly historic buildings on the block I’m talking about (the Empire, the Ideal, the Webb, the circa 1922 BTNB and the buildings housing that daycare and law firm) could be carefully integrated into a whole complex that would serve to expand the 2nd Avenue evolution, and help anchor the fledgling entertainment venues around there.

    Of all the empty plots of land in the City Center, it seems to me that particular block has the most long-term potential. I can’t imagine what it would cost to buy all the vacant properties there, but I DO see that block, if carefully developed, becoming the lifestyle hub of the new downtown… the Center of the City Center. It’s ridiculous that a city of Greater Birmingham’s size (almost 1.2 million people) and vast suburban wealth has such valuable real estate sitting vacant, right in the literal heart of everything.

    As an artist selling paintings, I’ve been to Charlotte, Jacksonville, Richmond and just about every other great Southern city, and I refuse to believe our “city leaders” are any more corrupt, stupid or myopic than anywhere else. As long as they are shown something flashy and “gee whiz”, they’ll usually sign off on just about anything. OK, so we’re not exactly setting records for population growth, and downtown still has an unwarranted reputation for danger. However, there’s a lot to be said for stable, steady increases in population, and thoughtful, strategic development with an eye towards the future. Transforming that whole city block into the crown jewel of downtown properties (playing off the proximity of UAB, St. Vincent’s Hospital, The Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children & the Railroad Reservation Park) would kick-start Birmingham’s entry into a much brighter 21st Century. It would also make a huge difference in social ways as well, since more upwardly mobile people, more density and 24/7 activities geared exclusively towards the new urban middle class (well.. at least in the rest of America) can’t help but cement downtown’s slow but determined trend towards gentrification.

    Gentrification is this context can help to stabilize the municipal budget, and help bring needed income streams to Birmingham’s increasingly overburdened and underfunded social services sector (yes, including the food banks and homeless shelters). Gentrification in this context means taking abandoned commercial properties and rehabilitating them into tax revenue generators- TRG’s that do not displace poor people- since that block has never ever been used for housing, and is vacant.

    • Todd–A lot of the property along that block is owned by individuals notorious for not selling or improving their property. Your point about increasing the tax base (which, at least in theory, could also help ease the city’s burden for homeless services) is a good one; ironically, it’s the incredibly low property tax rate we have that provides owners with an incentive to just “hang on” to their unproductive properties. In other cities, the much higher property tax (often coupled with more positive incentives) induces owners to either sell or redevelop.

  9. Speaking of the Webb building’s skin, there is another building on the corner of 2nd Ave and 18th Street that is in desperate need of attention. It is the NEW IDEAL building. What a disgrace. For years it has stood empty. Parts of the facade and overhangs look much worse than the Webb building. In addition, you can see tons of trash inside the storefront windows. It sits across the street from McWane, and next to the Pizitz building. With the renewal that is happening in that area of town, including the renovation of the Hunter Furniture buildoing, lets hope that the owner of the NEW IDEAL building decides it is time to show some interest in doing something. At the very least, show some common courtesy and clean it up!

    • Hey Chuck–full disclosure: I am one of 6 owners of the New Ideal Building. We have been actively trying to renovate the building for a long time; we are as anxious as you are to see it, and the rest of the buildings along 2nd Avenue, restored to their former glory. Unlike some other cities, that either have better incentive programs, or more vibrant business relocation climates, we have been fighting a difficult fight on that building. Too big to “quickly” redo, too small a footprint for many larger users, and with no dedicated parking, it’s been tough. We’ve been through a fire, copper thieves, and homeless inhabitants breaking in through the roof hatch and totally trashing the interiors. We wish it were the size of Hunter Furniture–it would have been renovated by now. And without a City Redevelopment Authority helping direct investment and users, we (as any developer) are doing the best we can, pretty much alone.

      That being said, we are proud of having stabilized the historic sign at the corner (which to me is the most visible thing about the building, not the interior)–and are once again actively seeking to restore it, which will hopefully be easier if the Pizitz goes through. If that happens, and add that to what we accomplished with the Phoenix Building on the next block, then hopefully momentum will keep building.

  10. Jeremy, I agree that the sign is a significant, and beautiful part of the building. Thanks for maintaining it.

    It will be a great day when we can see the NEW IDEAL building brought back to life!


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