It takes a village

A pioneering twist on the past

Today we’re travelling over the mountain to one of the metro’s most interesting assets: Mountain Brook Village. Designed in 1929 to complement the new Mountain Brook Estates residential section, it was (like the rest of the new neighborhood) modeled after traditional English architecture and landscape, to convey an aura of timeless, old-moneyed, leisure-class privilege. Of course, such design is also just plain pretty to look at. Unfortunately, the Depression killed most of the planned development both residentially and commercially, and the Village we know today is part 1920’s English Tudor, part 1940’s commercial storefronts, part 1950’s shopping center, and part neo-Tudor from the 1980’s and beyond (thanks to Dystopos for the pic above of one of the original buildings).

The Village has had its ups and downs (I highly recommend the Birmingham Historical Society‘s recent publication Mountain Brook Then & Now for learning more). When Bromberg’s jeweler became the first major downtown retailer to open a suburban branch in 1959, they chose the Village. This opened the floodgates, and soon the Village was home to branches of numerous downtown retailers, along with neighborhood shops. However, this trend soon turned against the Village, as new shopping malls were built; Brookwood Mall, less than a mile away, poached many stores. In recent years, despite some success stories,  the Village continues to not live up to its potential and is struggling with some empty storefronts and under-producing spaces.

Controversial expansion

Enter the proposal for Lane Parke, a preliminary rendering of which is shown here (courtesy Birmingham News). The developer originally built the Mountain Brook Shopping Center in the 1950s, as well as the Park Lane Apartments. Considered part of the Village, these properties lie a block from the historic core. Under the proposal these are replaced with a new, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development with housing, shops, boutique hotel, parking garage, and retail.

Just as cities must be open to new ideas (and newcomers) in order to survive, so do commercial centers like the Village. Mountain Brook Village is filled with charm–why not take the architecturally undistinguished post-war apartments and shopping center, and extend the charm into a vibrant new development that’s dense, friendlier to pedestrians, and helps create the type of “buzz” that would attract retailers, restaurants, and residents to enliven the streets at night?

Modern was fine in 1955

The black and white shot here illustrates the original shopping center in 1955 (courtesy Birmingham Historical Society), which has since suffered a dismal renovation. The auto-oriented strip mall would be replaced with multi-story buildings in a “traditional” style of architecture, with streets, sidewalks, and hidden parking garages.

The development plan has spurred a lot of local protest, and the zoning change necessary to implement the plan has been put on hold while the designers retool their plan.  A lot of the opposition comes from residents who do not want the Village to either expand or change in character. A group called Friends of  Mountain Brook Village has helped mobilize the protest. In essence, the group argues that the Village is indeed in need of rejuvenation, but the proposed development is too big, too tall, too dense, and too out-of-keeping with the existing historic Village.

In my view, there must be a compromise. Not only does Mountain Brook need new tax revenue and new energy in the village, but the strip mall–and Lane Park apartments behind it–offer very little to the Village in terms of ambience, architectural beauty, or attraction to retailers. They should be redeveloped. And a mix of residences, hotel, and shops–if done properly–could be a natural extension to the original plan for the Village. This extension could in turn breathe new life into the older core of the Village. Looking at downtown Homewood, another older suburban center a few minutes’ bike-ride from the Village,  SoHo Square serves as an interesting precedent. Unlike the Village, downtown Homewood is not known for landmark historic structures, but the new, mixed-use development of city hall, condos, retail, and restaurants is still a huge change to the urban fabric. Its scale (especially City Hall and its plaza) often seems a little arbitrary; its retail mix has been, well, a mixed bag; its design intent hurt by downgraded materials and details. On the other hand, its creation has made downtown Homewood a destination in a way it never was, and the original core seems to have thrived adjacent to the new development. This example shows us the positive side of this type of development, while also showing there’s room for improvement. And room for very thoughtful planning.

Mixed-use in Dallas is OK

The Village was one of the nation’s first planned suburban shopping districts–similar to Highland Park Village in Dallas, built at the same time (and unlike Mountain Brook, completely finished out, Depression not withstanding).  Rather than English Tudor, it’s designed in a Spanish Revival style. It has a lively mix of shops, restaurants, local and national boutiques, and a movie theater. It is incredibly successful, demanding rental rates higher than just about anywhere in North Texas. Two advantages: 1. it was completely built out to begin with, so no strip malls were shoehorned in the 1950’s, and 2. it is owned and managed by a single entity (similar to a shopping mall), which allows for coordinated marketing, retail strategies, etc. etc. (thanks to Ray Rafidi for the picture of the beautiful Highland Park Village Theatre).

This city–and I mean metro Birmingham–is excellent at opposing things. It’s much worse at promoting good plans and implementing them. I have no doubt that, done right, an extension to Mountain Brook Village could be a plus for all involved. A parking lot, strip mall, and undistinguished low-density apartments are worth re-visioning. Yes, the developers should be sensitive to the historic core, traffic, and architectural integrity. We don’t want some generic district that could be anywhere. But don’t oppose progress just for the sake of opposing it either–because in the end, even a village dies if it doesn’t adapt itself to change.

One last thought–lurking beneath the surface of any discussion of the new development is the fantasy that, if we extend the Village, we should extend it in the original English Tudor style. Unfortunately the cost of replicating the details that craftsmen assembled in the 1920’s would be astronomical on such a scale, unless perhaps we lived in China. How do we design an extension that complements the original without replicating it? It’s always a tough question.

Discuss amongst yourselves. And then post your thoughts!

24 responses to “It takes a village

  1. Hey,

    I’m finally in Birmingham. (Im the guy from LA who moved here and commented about life in downtown LA a few weeks back) This is very thought provoking. I am generally not a fan of the Village’s Tudor style, but I agree with you that any additions must be heavily informed by this style, or risk looking absurd. My fear is that absurdity will only be seen by those with an appreciation of architecture and its relevance in society — a notion seemingly lost on Birmingham, at least from my perspective.

    On a side note, my uncle has owned and operated the Mt. Brook Flower Shop for going on 50 years. He’a weatlh of knowledge on the Village, its history, permutations, people and prospects. Happy to introduce you if you ever want to get his take.

  2. Welcome to Birmingham! The Tudor architecture does create a challenge, more so than the Spanish Revival of Dallas (which is less detailed. You can’t do a cheap half-timbering and make it look good, but you can do a cheap stucco and it can pass.) There are so many issues involved–how do you create an extension without damaging the core? How do you respect Tudor without copying it necessarily? Even if you do copy it, is that authentic? Is it appropriate to 2010? What should a “Village” be, and for whom, in 2010? Because the days are long gone when you rode your horse in from the MB Riding Academy.

    Your uncle would indeed be fascinating to meet. Would definitely love to do that sometime. Thanks.

  3. Agree with all those points. Now, on to a more pressing topic — WHERE ARE THE MODERN HOMES IN THIS TOWN?? I haven’t seen one yet, let alone, one for sale!

    • Hey–have you tried Crestwood? Or Crestline Park? Or Vestavia Hills? While not exactly LA, and mostly banal ranch architecture, these neighborhoods have high concentrations of mid-century modern architecture. Or at least late ’60s ranches with enough modern that you can easily visualize the renovation. Until the recent past they were hard to sell. But a mini-boomlet of interest in modernism here means there may not be many for sale now. Mountain Brook and Cahaba Heights also have a smattering of decent modernist architecture. My recommendation is find a good real estate agent to look for you, since they may be hard to find. But don’t despair–they’re out there!

  4. Great post. The inevitable fact underlying all of this is that Birmingham is constantly growing. Unfortunately much of the growth in the past 15 – 20 years (and likely long before that) has been out. Not only will more density in the Villages be a boon to livability for the residents, but it will increase the desirability of the neighborhood (and the “city”).

    More likely than not, the same folks protesting this (or similar) development will ultimately benefit from increased property values and access to new retail. Birmingham, like every other city in the world, is constantly changing, whether certain vocal residents of the Village want to admit it or not. Better that we have more density in current commercial areas and neighborhoods close to the city core rather than build another strip mall down 280.

    • Thanks Marc. And you make a good point that increasing density in close-in, developed areas (like downtown Homewood) is preferable in just about every respect to building new on farmland–and increasing sprawl. I do hope calm heads can prevail here and something really innovative and beautiful could be created.

  5. The Summit is mostly dryvit, but boasts a lot of beautiful detail and landscaping. It seems Tudor could be done in a similar manner. The condo tower in English Village is Tudor, and of modern construction.

    In a response to David re: “Where are the modern homes?” Well, I think they’re forbidden. You have to remember folks around here still think Bauhaus and Richard Neutra are way too avant garde for tasteful sensibilities, and don’t even try to bring up the International Style. Frank Gehry is Satan himself, I’ve heard on more than one occasion, and a majority of the UAB secretarial staff claim to despise the Kirklin Clinic and its waste of interior space and “Battlestar Galactica” facade.

    • Hey Todd–we’re sorry you’re moving to LA, but can’t blame you from the modern architecture standpoint! I can’t say the Summit is really architecture–it’s more glitzy stage set with some vaguely Mediterranean details attached. Landscaping is nice though. And to me the condo tower in English Village (full disclosure–I worked on this project a little bit before I opened my own firm) illustrates the challenge of trying to graft Tudor onto a modern building type–it feels forced. I mean, unless you are copying a full-blown castle tower or a cathedral, there is nothing over 4 stories that looks “Tudor” no matter how much fake half-timbering you throw at it. Make sure you send a pic of your new neighborhood once you move!

  6. Oh, David, you moved here from L. A.?
    My partner & I are planning to move TO L. A.!
    Hopefully by the end of this year.

    We’re looking at Montecito Heights, downtown, Westwood and Silver Lake. Century City seems intriguing, since to us all that 1960s architecture is a novelty.

  7. So if I were to build a modern home, where is most accepting?

    As for LA, my wife literally drove into town this past weekend, so yeah, we’re fresh to town. I’m happy to give you guys all I know about LA over drinks if you want. Silver lake is where we lived prior to moving downtown for the past year. The biggest peice of advice I can give you about where to live is to know first where you’re going to work. If you lived in Century City, for example, which I don’t recommend, and work in East LA or south pasadena, you’d spend literally an hour and a half just on one leg of your commute daily. I can’t stress that point enough. When I lived in Silver Lake, I worked in Beverly Hills. It’s all surface streets — only 9.8 miles — door to door, but took me an hour and 15 minutes. 2.5 hours a day in the car, in stop and go traffic. Downtown is the new hip, happening area, but in my opinion, it doesnt quite yet have the services necessary to make it a great living area. Also, its just so much concrete. At least in downtowns like Chicago and NYC, there are parks. There are 0 in downtown LA. Our dog didn’t know what grass was when we moved here…

  8. Sounds good. Lets grab a drink downtown after work next week. email me: fd5000 at gmail dot com

  9. philip morris

    Jeremy: I agree with your perspective on this. The new interior street will help tie this together and link to the existing village. Hope there will be a variety of architects doing buildings, but within a strong form-based code (e.g. no horizonal windows) that creates an ensemble. Real buildings, not facades pasted on boxes.

    • Philip–as I answered another reader earlier, there are so many issues to this project and I only hit a few. Your point about different architects doing the different buildings, all under a form-based code, is worthy of an entire post of its own–in general it’s difficult for any one designer to simulate the diversity of an urban block, much less several. You usually end up with facades pasted on boxes (i.e. Brookwood Village) or unconvincing modulation of materials and mass (University House). Thanks for your reply!

  10. David, BhamArchitect – I’ll need to be present for that meeting/drink. Yes, I just invited myself. Or, if it feels better, just let me know where and when you’ll be mingling and I’ll just happen to show up!
    Welcome, David! There’s a house next door to ours that just came on the market. Needs a total renov, but it’s a steal of a deal!

  11. I agree with you Jeremy. If it can be done right then it would be a wonderful addition. I know where the all the protest is coming from but gave you ever heard such riot over tearing down one of the ugliest strip centers and apartments that they are about to collapse on their own. You would think they talking about tearing down Vulcan. But I will say the back and forth that is going on around this is a good thing. It will lead to more thought out plan. And it’s nice to see the spirit of a community actually care about their environment and have opinions. So many times people don’t care and that’s when the massive, over sized, out of place, generic developements take place. So with that said my vote is for both sides to work together.

    • Jane–yes, you would think they’re talking about tearing down Vulcan indeed! But you’re right, if some of the knee-jerk protest can evolve into dialogue, and the eventual plan is better for it, then all the fuss will be a good thing. Can we please just work together people?? 🙂

  12. First, some of those powerful neighbors are cynical enough to suspect (rightly or wrongly) that anything of a scale worth developing will be “out of character” with the existing district. The owners will need to give some serious thought to finding a way to make the project work at a smaller scale to have any hope of popular support.

    Second, I don’t think anything not giving a strong nod to the Tudor has much hope, and it’s a real challenge to adapt that to large scale uses. As an illustration of the difficulty, see the Emmett O’Neal Public Library in Crestline Village. That was a actually a fairly serious attempt at contextualism that falls short in a lot of ways (and from a lot of sightlines)

    I think the historical precedents worth looking at would be English squares of the Neoclassical period, for the urbanity of the detailing and the proportions of facades to open space. I think people could buy into the idea of a well-planned civic space as the heart of denser development surrounding it.

    • John–I agree that cynicism runs rampant, and the owners are indeed going to have to scale back regardless. On the other hand, I do feel there is an immense amount of pressure on the city of MB to be innovative and bring more revenue in; I think this will force a compromise. It just needs to be the right sort.

      That’s a really interesting concept–of course there plenty of English towns that have medieval “old cities” connected to 18th century neo-classical “new towns”. The larger point is that even the English towns that the original Village imitated are not static–they have beautiful extensions in different, more (relatively) contemporary styles. This could be a great model here.

    • Oh–and ditto on Emmet O’Neal library–what a missed opportunity architecturally.

  13. David, check out this blog: http://1133sc.wordpress.com/.

    Some friends of mine built a modern house on a vacant lot in Bluff Park (older part of Hoover). I haven’t heard about any complaints from the neighbors.

  14. Hey Jeremy! I found your blog on Facebook. I have been visiting my grandmother every few months and have seen all of these signs around the Village and have been trying to get more info on exactly what is being proposed and why there is so much opposition. I think Mountain Brook Village could definitely use some updating and noticed Easter weekend that a lot of storefronts in the village are vacant. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more. Will your firm be involved with the new proposal?

    • Hi Kathy–thanks for finding the blog! As far as I know we will not be involved, although ideally it would be great if the developers put together smart design guidelines, and then let various architects design different pieces within those guidelines. You almost always get a better, more authentic result this way, rather than expecting one designer to simulate diversity across many buildings/blocks.

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