Suburban = Urban?

could it get worse?

Ah, the demise of the infamous Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the heart of Five Points South. Infamous because a banal, cookie-cutter shopping-mall out-parcel building was plopped down 16 years ago on one of the most historic and important corners in this city–where 20th Street meets Highland Avenue South. There had been a plan in the early 1990s to redevelop this lot (originally a fine mansion) as a 14 story, mixed-use building called Renaissance Plaza. Instead we got a cheap looking, generic box sitting on a parking lot.

Well, lo and behold, the restaurant has closed after 16 years. And last week’s Design Review Committee approved a new development with nary a comment or dissent. Is it a dense, mixed-use development bringing interesting new retail and restaurant tenants? Is it thoughtful, urban architecture suitable to this distinctive corner surrounded by the Shepherd-Sloss Building, Terrace Court Apartments? Unfortunately it is neither. It is a stand-alone Chick-Fil-A restaurant, complete with drive-through and surface parking. This plan sketched here is very approximate, but gets the idea across.

presenting for Chick-Fil-A

I don’t want to say Chick-Fil-A shouldn’t be in Five Points– but can we talk context?  Gorgeous terra cotta detailing and the first high-rise apartments in the South across the street.  Crumbling, perhaps, but at least special.

unique across the street

These older buildings speak of a particular place and style — “I am in Birmingham”, not at any newish strip mall.  The unique architectural fabric of this city is what make visitors say: what a beautiful town you have. Hard to say that about  most strip malls/outparcels since they all look alike. But I digress; this is not a commentary on the architectural integrity of the American strip mall. That’s another post.

But Five Points! An area that is a food mecca for the metro area…  I am not against fast food in the least — or a good Chick-Fil-A.  But where is the comprehensive plan for revitalizing this area? Let me dust off some shelves somewhere, because this can’t be part of it.  Why? Kudos on the outdoor seating — but that’s about all I can say positive about the current plan. Take a look at Portland.  As we’ve discussed before, urban areas succeed with density.  In Portland you see sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants, including a McDonald’s storefront. No drive-throughs. And 90% of the property is not a vast dead zone of car park and drive-through lanes.

fast-food, urban-style in Portland

One reason why this sort of totally inappropriate development still happens here? We have no Redevelopment Authority. A RA is an independent, public agency that can buy and sell property, solicit proposals from developers, and finance buildings and development. They can take a good plan and actually implement it. This site would be a prime example of the kind of place identified by a RA as important to a city and the urban environment. It deserves to be built out according to a good plan. Not just randomly selected by Chick-Fil-A. And their drive-through mentality.

Drive-throughs, while ubiquitous to the American landscape, are not appropriate in dense urban areas. They require additional curb cuts which make pedestrian sidewalk use hazardous; they are horrible for the environment (all those motors idling); they discourage people from getting out of their car and enjoying a walkable streetscape; and the land use is wasteful (lots of asphalt). Various cities have started banning new, urban drive-throughs for all of these reasons.

I want a thriving Five Points.  I want the opposite of a strip mall — non-chain boutiques, restaurants that use local produce, new loft mid-rises — a snobby, creative-class dream?  OK then. I will also take some chains and fast-food that may be necessary  — but with the caveat that they should fit in with a comprehensive, urban vision for this area. I want more more more. I know, I want too much.  But I can dream, right? (thanks to dystopos for the Ruby Tuesday pic; Birmingham Public Library for the 1972 pic of the Shepherd-Sloss building, and alexabboud for the pic in Portland.)

25 responses to “Suburban = Urban?

  1. Is there nothing that can be done to change these plans?

    • John–as far as I know, no. Now that it’s been passed by Design Review, it should be a green light. I don’t really fault Design Review for upholding city policy, or Chick-Fil-A for proposing this thing, in the absence of more enlightened policy. I do fault the City (and those of us engaged with it) for not having a better policy in place to guide development for sites like this.

      Design Review Committee meetings are open to the public, so at the very least having more members of the public present to comment/critique could be a start.

  2. That McDonald’s in Portland is a dead ringer for the one that used to be on the SE corner of 4th Avenue North and 20th Street.

    I’m expecting that the days of the Chick-Fil-A on 5th Ave N are numbered now that people who work on that block no longer have to take three steps outside their parking decks in order to get Chick-Fil-A. Now they can just hop in their SUVs, inch up 20th, wait in the drive-thru and follow traffic back downtown.

  3. Were any alternatives presented to a fast-food restaurant? One choice means either a yes or no vote, and I doubt the merchants would vote to have a vacant building (though a prime location like that should have many fighting for it).

    • No alternatives have been presented as far as I know. But the new fast-food venture was being presented even before the Ruby Tuesday announced its closing–it appeared to be a “done deal”. My wish is that we have plans on the books that either encourage or require mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development in certain key areas, and ban drive-through facilities in the same areas. Yes, most businesses are preferable to vacancies, but I’d rather not settle for the lowest use of a property above vacancy. We should set our sights higher.

      • No, most businesses are not preferable to vacancies. Plenty of neighborhoods in Birmingham have fought against strip clubs, liquor stores, pawn shops, bingo halls and less desirable businesses.

        Chick-Fil-A is an interesting choice. But what you’ve presented above, and what I’ve seen in other cities, makes for a much better option in terms of any business, chain or otherwise, blending in to the neighborhood.

  4. Todd "Urbanotter1" Pierce


    However, it’s exactly what I expect from Birmingham, Central Alabama and the powers-that-be.

    I’ve come to expect the banal here.

  5. So I googled the DRC and found no upfront link to its activities. Perhaps someone could provide a link. I would assume that since it’s somehow within the city-govt structure and since it’s decisions directly impact the daily lives of citizens, there would be some notice of and accessibility to its meetings. Obviously, it’s more of a closed-door agency.

    As much as most people like to indulge in Chick-fil-A quickie meals, I doubt that many people who actually live around Five Points would have given a thumbs-up on that proposal. In fact, had there been public notice, there would have been a big crowd protesting it. (Is it too late?) Of course people who work but don’t live in the city may not have the same concerns…

    It would appear that the city is desperate for tax revenue, and will push through anything short-term without thinking about long-term consequences. This has to change. (I need to start going to the neighborhood meetings. Surely Five Points leaders didn’t give their okay to this…)

    Jeremy, can you give some advice on getting involved?

    • Greg–The DRC has no website or link, as far as I know. In other cities, it’s easy for citizens to log on and view the meeting minutes, upcoming agendas, etc. I could be wrong, but I don’t think this exists here. And actually, I think a lot of Five Points merchants are as desperate as the City for short-term solutions, that a lot of them support the Chick-Fil-A. I think if there was a forum where the choice between a stand-alone, drive-through facility was contrasted to one that was part of a larger, urban, mixed-use building–of course most would prefer the latter. But that forum never occurred.

      As far as getting involved, right now the only options seem to be showing up at the Five Points Neighborhood Association meetings, the DRC meetings, and making your voice heard. You can call Kathy Puckett at City Hall (254-2558) and ask her to put you on the mailing list for the DRC notices. I’m going to ask her if there’s an easier way online for people to access the DRC–if so, I will post it.

    • Property owners do not require permission from the neighborhood or the city to conduct business. Business licenses can’t be denied prejudicially and the design review committee has limited powers to hold up permitting over cosmetic weaknesses. The neighborhood associations only get involved if the proposal involves a zoning change or a liquor or dance club license (and then only in an advisory capacity).

      Meetings of the design review committee are open to the public and held on a regular schedule if you are interested in attending. Like Jeremy said, though, the best hope for more progressive urban development is to establish a Redevelopment Authority.

      • John–right on. Attending meetings is about the only recourse we have now–and not only is that recourse a limited one, but the power of the DRC and the neighborhood committees are limited themselves. Ideally, if enough public pressure was felt at these meetings, then the neighborhood and DRC officers would help lobby the city for new regulations.

        But this is too cumbersome and scatter-shot a process to make the idea of change more than remote. If we had a Redevelopment Authority, a lot of the regulations/initiatives/progressive development ideas that are currently cobbled (or un-cobbled) throughout the opaque civic body, would be joined together in a single agency with power to plan, inform, develop, and communicate. And have a website and public hearings!

  6. I will say, on the upside, that Chick-Fil-A will draw more people into Five Points, but that, I’m afraid, has to be weighed against the car lines, exhaust pollution, dangers to pedestrians, AND the fact that their food, with the exception of a few items on the menu, is a major contributor to the national obesity epidemic.

  7. Thanks for all the info, everyone. It sounds as though it’s a matter of a group of concerned citizens/professionals organizing and lobbying the mayor & city council for the creation of an R.A. Or would they be required to go through the legislature in Montgomery and seek a statewide referendum? I mean that only slightly tongue in cheek ; )

    • Greg–It’s my understanding that the legislature has already approved the creation of a RA, and that on paper, and legally, it actually exists–it just has no funding, no staff, no power, no “reality” yet. I would like to make sure I’m right about this.

  8. Wow. So it was something that had to be approved by the state legislature! At least it’s on the books, then. The foundation is there. Sounds hopeful. Thanks, Jeremy.

  9. Oh, holy crap. Couldn’t this corner support more? If we must have fast food, can’t we have fast food, condos, and new retail space? Can’t we deck the parking and hide it in back?

    This would not have been approved under the form-based code written for the city by KPS Group a year or two ago but never adopted by the city. A form-based code provides another option, other than an RA (which in this case may have been bypassed anyway – sounds like a deal between the property owners themselves).

    • Patrick–excellent point–a well-written form-based code would be helpful here as well. And yes, an RA would have to purchase the property first either through the market or through eminent domain. In any particular situation, that could be easy or difficult.

      The former city administration was notoriously hostile to urban planning–or plans, period. Do you know the current status of the KPS code, and if it has a chance at resurrection?

  10. I want to be involved where you can use me to benefit YOUR ideas Jeremy…
    I established optical shop in 5pointsS in 1994…
    I chose my location for the same emotions all of your words express.
    …..930.9394: we are inside your efforts. Call Kris.

  11. Thanks to Bob Moody for sending an excellent letter to the Bham News (and thanks to the News for printing it) very articulately airing all our concerns about the proposed Chick-fil-A project! I hope everyone saw it.

  12. second letter down:

    Drive-through restaurant not compatible
    I’m convinced a drive-through, fast-food restaurant as proposed for Five Points South is a serious threat to our nationally recognized pedestrian-friendly restaurant district.
    Five Points South is unlike any other neighborhood we have in Birmingham, acting as a pedestrian focal point in the center of a busy, outdoor dining district. To have, as proposed, a continuous stream of cars pouring through a drive-through is not in character with the neighborhood, would present a serious safety problem for pedestrian traffic on Highland Avenue, 20th Street and 11th Avenue South, and would be a serious detriment to the outdoor dining we’ve all worked so hard to achieve in this area.
    Many may recall that Five Points South is an historic district, nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. More than 15 years ago, a drive-through restaurant was rejected as a “detriment to the fabric of the community.”
    Let’s not go back. Other historic districts around the country have fast-food restaurants, but the restaurants have been required to be compatible with the neighborhood. A fast-food restaurant that is pedestrian-friendly, with outdoor dining, would be welcomed by all and, I think, very successful in Five Points South.

    Bob Moody
    Mountain Brook

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