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.
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?
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.
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!