4-Alarm Shock

An architectural gem

Just when we had our hands full with a proposed drive-through Chick-Fil-A in Five Points, along comes this punch in the jaw at Design Review this morning: the historic Fire Station No. 22, recently vacated, is on the table for demolition. It would be replaced with a Walgreen’s drugstore and parking lot. And a drive-through. On yet another important, gateway corner (Clairmont Avenue and 32nd Street).

Except this time the owner isn’t proposing tearing down a Ruby Tuesday’s built in the 1990s, but a wonderful Spanish-style fire station built in the 1920s. And the owner just happens to be the City of Birmingham, which is perhaps the most shocking part of this. Hasn’t this City learned enough about tearing down historic structures and what that does to a neighborhood fabric? And to a sense of place?

A dismal idea

To their credit, the Design Review Committee refused to approve this conceptual site plan, and insisted Walgreen’s return with exterior elevations suitable for an urban environment, including pedestrian-friendly storefront and sidewalk entries (no exteriors were presented today). Alison Glascock, Highland Park neighborhood president, stood to commend the Committee for its stance.

City of Birmingham–you need to be actively seeking creative redevelopment of the historic fire station, not tearing down another piece of our history to replace with banal, suburban-style architecture! And if you need an architect to help figure that out, I know where to find one.

(thanks to Birmingham Firefighters Local 117 for the historic photo, and to LAI engineering for the Walgreen’s plan)


Not that there is one right way to go here, but I feel strongly about the historic structure and the accessible nature of its scale.  Just a few pieces of eye candy to get the creative juices flowing here:

Let’s think outdoor seating — bridging Lakeview and Forest Park:

stopping in for pizza...

Love this restaurant concept in an old fire house in LA:

Firehouse themed restaurant!

And this is just for fun but to live in a firehouse!!

note the fire pole hole!

(thanks to Engine Co. No. 28, insidetheperimeter, and designpublic for the above images)


The Walgreen’s plan would not just take out the neighboring service station, but also Bogue’s Restaurant, an historic fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for many decades.

The end of an era?

69 responses to “4-Alarm Shock

  1. Not to mention that’s another horrible area to add that kind of traffic to — people are always doing crazy driving maneuvers as University turns into Clairmont — and as they come off of Highland at the golf course. A Walgreen’s with or without a drive-through in that area is a bad idea. Wonder if there’s a way to complain to Walgreen’s and let them know they need to pick a better spot.

  2. Ummm…there’s already a CVS like two blocks from this.

  3. Can you hear me kicking and screaming?! What gives, City of Birmingham? Where is your head stuck so far and so tight that you would even consider the demise of yet another historical structure. Rip us of all integrity…bet we won’t go down without a fight.

  4. This is very distressing. Let us hope that the demolision of this fire house, as well as old fire house #10 in Avondale will not happen.

  5. This is lame. But what else would you propose here? To be fair, this intersection isn’t exactly really active, with an auto repair shop, the fire station, and that terrible waste of a corner by the Compass office building. It’s possible that Walgreens could come back with something good and urban and really activate the intersection.

    So, how could we activate the intersection while saving the fire station?

    • Patrick–I updated the post with a few ideas if you’d like to take a look. Yes, Walgreens could come back with something really urban and good–but I still feel ideally the best way to activate the corner would be a creative reuse of the historic structure. This could in turn inspire the huge blank corner across the street to be reinvented as well: I think that Compass is vacating their property soon by the way.

      • If that’s the case, then a big chunk of lunchtime traffic disappears with it. Brasfield & Gorrie can’t keep all these restaurants in business by themselves.

      • The Compass would need to be filled with a new company. If I’m correct about their leaving, let’s hope the BBA and the City have been working actively to recruit a new user.

  6. Patrick, I’m sure we could form a gathering of just those people who have commented on this alarming post thus far and we might be able brainstorm a slew of great alternatives that would be a smart and effective repurposing of this historic structure. Sure, financing and support are components, but really – Walgreens? Sure wish the City had good incentives in place for local business and entrepreneurs who would kill to have a central spot like this, who would preserve the integrity of the neighborhood and structure, and who might further foster economic growth in the area.

  7. That’s a good point! Could that be another purpose of a redevelopment authority – figuring out the best way to reuse unneeded city-owner property? We certainly seem to be coming up with plenty of arguments for a redevelopment authority.

    • Absolutely. Yet another example of how an RA could be useful. A form-based code would be useful too, as it could have saved Walgreens from ever appearing with such a plan as they did this morning. They would have had more guidance.

  8. I’ve always thought Los Amigos would be smart to consider moving from the Piggly-Wiggly Shopping Center to this more visible and stylish location.

    That said, the proposal is understandable. It’s not that City Hall hoped and prayed for a Walgreen’s there. Without a redevelopment authority, the city just puts out a request for proposals for available properties. Our community of unimaginative small developers and risk-averse lenders prefers the most reliable tenants (i.e. proven national chains). So when that’s the response the city gets from the developers, that’s where the process starts.

    The fast lane out of this dilemma is for potential developers to start showing a little more creativity and love (and for that love to be reciprocated by City Hall). The better route, which Jeremy has mentioned several times, is for the people of Birmingham to express their desires through vision plans and redevelopment plans executed under a redevelopment authority.

    • John, I agree its understandable how this proposal got to the table, given the mechanism the City has right now (or relative lack of mechanisms). This seems a bit of a special case since the property is already owned by the City, and is a known and loved old building; their RFP could have stipulated reuse of the existing building. Now, whether they would have gotten any response or not is another issue.

  9. I usually don’t say this, but “what the f— you stupid bastards?”

  10. From the size of that site plan, it looks like some of the neighboring businesses might be booted as well. Is that correct?

    And Compass might be vacating their building? Wow–that’s a lot of space to fill.

    • Yes, the site plan takes in the neighboring service station as well. And I’ve just verified that Bogue’s would be torn down as well–that had not been made clear this morning, but is very clear from studying the map. I will add this fact to the post–thanks!

      • So a fire station *and* a great old neon sign are slated to go. The city is chipping away at the neighborhood’s character.

        I would be interested to hear what Bogue’s thinks of this. Are they on city-owned property, or are they selling it to the city? Were they planning on closing anyway?

    • I have not been in Bogue’s recently, but I know it’s changed hands a couple times, and probably not up to the same standard as some of us remember (or imagine?). So while I doubt its owned by the City, it could be very willing to sell. That sign alone would be a huge blow to the neighborhood if it left.

  11. Oh, I did some measuirng, and it looks like this plan takes out Bogue’s as well. Which is a bummer, man.

    • Yes–cbuchanan alerted me to this as well–and it clearly takes in Bogue’s. I have added this fact at the end of the original post. Though it probably deserves a post all its own.

  12. Okay, the Bogue’s property is owned by RUTTLE MARIA HONTZAS, of Paradise City, AZ; the auto shop is owned by CHAPIN CLARENCE EUGENE of Birmingham; there’s a small parcel owner by Palmer and Lawrence Inc., who sell HVAC parts (http://www.palmer-lawrence.com/); then there’s the city’s fire station.

    So I guess Walgreens saw the RFP and then put together the rest of these properties themselves?

  13. This really saddens me! On top of fact that there is a CVS less than a block away, I hardly think a Walgreens is going to create some massive boom to the intersection. I’d love to see something interesting down with the fire station, not in place of it.

  14. Figures.
    It just figures.
    One more reason we’re moving to Los Angeles.
    Don’t have the energy to fight the established mindset here anymore.

  15. p.s.

    The idea of Los Amigos moving to the Spanish-style firehouse is tremendous! I’m “sure” the city could find a minority loan to give the restaurant owners, to make that happen.

    I remember Aldridge Gunn pitching a fit over the 2000 Census, railing against the fact District 3 keeps growing while other city districts keep shrinking. I know adjoining districts keep taking parts of District 3. Personally, I really think the city doesn’t like the nice neighborhoods left, and will do what it can to make Southside, Highland & Forest Parks like West End. That’s my cynical 2 cents worth, and my final jaded comments. 😦

  16. How much would it cost to purchase the firehouse?

  17. Can we have them demolish City Hall instead and build a BINGO HALL & Casino? Maybe then they will begin to understand how their decisions impact the integrity of a neighborhood, whether it’s residential or business.

  18. This is sad news. That building (as others have said) would make a great restaurant. I would have considered putting Forest Perk if I could have. The building would make a great space for Los Amigos, the only issue is parking. They use a great amount of the parking lot in front of our shopping center. I fear something of that nature would clog the intersection.

    Does anyone know when Compass is vacating? This is news to me.

    As for Bogue’s, the owner of the building met me one day to discuss other properties in Birmingham. He does live in Az, and has little interest in what happens in the area (just as long as he gets paid).
    I will get involved, just let me know how.

    • I had only heard a rumor about Compass. Not sure of the timing. I am going to try to understand what other offers were submitted; this may have been the only one, you never know. Which still doesn’t make it right. That may give is a better clue as to the most effective protest route.

    • Parking is always an issue, until it isn’t.

      The Walgreen’s proposal shows a 63-space lot on the area covered by the existing restaurant and service station, so if you assume that those properties are in play, you could probably keep the 1927 station and have a 60 car surface lot as well as the stylish corner anchor with outdoor dining on a front patio and covered semi-outdoor dining in the truck bays. (And of course, you could budget for new neon signage)

      There is on-street parking available on 8th Avenue and 32nd Street. The BBVA Compass operations center has hundreds of spaces, so if that building is in use, that’s a good 1,000 people who could easily walk across the street (much more easily than they can walk all the way around the security fence to get to Los Amigos or Forest Perk now). Add B&G and the apartments, businesses and bus and shuttle stops in the immediate vicinity and you could potentially compromise on on-site parking (subject to zoning approvals)

      If the BBVA site needs to be redeveloped, it would be interesting to see its historic status as the site of the first Iron Bowl played up. Or maybe a large water feature in place of some of that asphalt to remind us of old Lakeview and provide an anchor for a growing entertainment district with better sidewalks along Clairmont?

      • John–I was told last night by a local property owner who is close to BBVA execs that the BBVA site is safe for now–no plans to evacuate it. So the 1000 people working there (plus an agreement to share their parking lot at night?) could be perfect for the use you suggest.

        Of course it would be fantastic to redevelop the BBVA site in a more progressive way, with mixed-use that connects to the 29th street Lakeview area with better sidewalks, etc. as you mention.

  19. super-rotting-disgusting!!!

  20. Todd, we just might be right behind you.

  21. This was a curious remark: “And the owner just happens to be the City of Birmingham, which is perhaps the most shocking part of this.”

    We know who runs this city, and who has done so for the past two decades. Look at the major decision makers at City Hall during that time. Consider how they talk, their values, education, the clothes they wear, the events and places in town that they admire, and observe the manner in which these “leaders” conduct themselves. Consider also the kinds of neighborhoods where many of them grew up.
    No foolish, corrupt, or wasteful thing they do can be regarded as shocking. Look at the track record. The ONLY means of persuading the City to act positively on this matter is by making them afraid not to. That is precisely how we got a dog park recently. Good luck.

    • David, excellent points. You are correct that I should be more cynically habituated to such situations. But the idealist in me still manages to be taken aback upon occasions like this. We shall see how this particular item plays out. Question: in your opinion, what finally scared the city into allowing the dog park?

      • David Pelfrey

        The organization working to establish dog parks in our various nearby municipalities began sharing with the media many of their email communications with the City of Birmingham. It was a journal of ineptitude, to put it mildly. I even wrote an article about the matter. Before matters got more embarrassing, Larry Langford had to act. Granted, he was doing all he could to gain positive publicity that month, for reasons now all too clear.

      • David, thanks. There’s a good lesson in that strategy I think.

  22. It is time for the city (and the citizens) to make a decision with our voices and wallets that we don’t want another corporate entity coming into a neighborhood.
    What if the city could give incentives for a fresh air market or store for farmers and food providers to sell direct to consumers? Investments in the neighborhood and community are what are needed in Birmingham, and another large chain store (which sends our money out of state) is not doing that.
    Parking is an issue as long as Birmingham is auto-centric. As soon as we decide the car is not king and start making changes to have a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly community parking will no longer be an issue. It is only a problem as long as we decide cars are that important.
    (Climbing off my soapbox now)

    • Thanks Elisa. I agree we need to insist on better options for our neighborhoods. It’s just so odd that Economic Development would solicit and select this development without any input from citizens.

    • Elisa,

      I think it’s a little close to Pepper Place and the Pepper Place Market for the fresh air market idea to work. But it does seem like a better location than Pepper Place for something that’s open every day, so maybe it could work.

      That said, I don’t think Walgreen’s will work either. Even if the Walgreen’s were opened and successful–it would put the CVS across the street out of business. Which leaves us as a neighborhood and city with a much less attractive empty building and no beautiful firehouse. 😥

      I like the idea of the building being sold to Los Amigos or used as a restaurant space–though I’m not sure that they’re ready to buy a space.

      Maybe someone will step up with a proposal to open something in that beautiful building!

      • Los Amigos wouldn’t need to buy the building if someone was willing to develop the site, renovate the building, and lease it to them (or another restaurant or suitable tenant)

  23. I am thinking something more like a much smaller version of Finley Ave that is open every day and year round with fresh foods and local food vendors, maybe that accepts EBT so that folks in lower income brackets (who can’t afford V Richards for example) could buy local, fresh goods. A complement to Pepper Place. (This is my dream anyway!) Or anything that keeps money in our city, where it is needed most.

  24. I think it would make a great architect’s office — no joke — or similar use for a creative type interested in restoring and converting it. It’s probably far too small and there is too little parking for a restaurant or similar commercial use. But, we have to do something to save this place and Bogue’s, if possible. The latter isn’t publically owned, so that’s iffy, but the surrounding neighborhoods have made enough noise to save other sites over the years, when we know where to yell.

  25. Please~! Please let the city listen to the people who live and work in the area and let us keep the fire station. The Bogues building has a charm. The building that was similar to the Bogues building across from the Rare Martini was torn down and look at the lovely, vacant, weed choked lot that that we have to enjoy today!

  26. I’ve heard from a couple of people that the fire station is full of black mold. If that’s the case, could that building be saved? Would the place have to be completely gutted to make it usable for another purpose?

    • c–given that the fire station is surely “fire-proof” construction–which in the 1920’s meant masonry or concrete exterior walls, columns, and terra-cotta interior walls–if there is a mold problem it’s most likely in the plaster finishes and this can be addressed–it shouldn’t be anything structural. All old buildings tend to have some environmental issues, which are often exaggerated by those who have no interest in preserving them. So we’d have to really understand the extent of the mold first. At the most it should mean replacing finishes, not rebuilding structure though.

  27. This was a curious remark: “And the owner just happens to be the City of Birmingham, which is perhaps the most shocking part of this.”

    We know who runs this city, and who has done so for the past two decades. Look at the major decision makers at City Hall during that time. Consider how they talk, their values, education, the clothes they wear, the events and places in town that they admire, and observe the manner in which these “leaders” conduct themselves. Consider also the kinds of neighborhoods where many of them grew up.
    No foolish, corrupt, or wasteful thing they do can be regarded as shocking. Look at the track record. The ONLY means of persuading the City to act positively on this matter is by making them afraid not to. Sports BlogThat is precisely how we got a dog park recently. Good luck.

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  29. So, there are soooo many great architectural sites in bham that are just rotting away. I hate that the city of bham doesnt see this and want to change it. Stop tearing down historic buildings in this city. If we allow them to keep doing this, what will be left?? Walgreens/CVS on every other corner, dotted with fast food chains, and the occasional wal-mart or another architectural eyesore?? Get a grip bham city! Lets preserve the dignity that we MAY still have….

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  31. Wow. I had always thought a brewpub, with vats in tower would be perfect & garage doors opening to patio. I have done this before.

  32. I am absolutely disgusted at the idea of a Walgreen’s going in that spot. CVS is right around the bend for pete’s sake! We don’t need another pharmacy.

    I agree that it would be a great place for Los Amigos or hey maybe another Frank Stitt restaurant (I can’t help it, I am a fan). It would be great to have a little hardware store in the neighborhood (unless there is one that I am unaware of and then please correct me). I have also thought it would be great to have a completely green store to go to where all they sold was green, fair trade, or organic products.

    Bottomline, whatever goes into that spot, PLEASE think outside of the box and be creative so that even more people will be drawn to the area. Afterall the area is known to be, “The Design Community”.

    I would love to be a part of this and help out in anyway I can, just let me know!

  33. Two more ideas for the firehouse: Gelato/Ice cream shop or a pet store. There are so many pets in the area and I am sure every pet owner would support the store.

  34. Are there any meetings scheduled with the city that folks might be able to attend? I would hate to see the firehouse torn down. That would be a big mistake. How can we help?

    • Cecil–I am working on figuring out the best way for people to get involved–I will post something soon on my thoughts. Thanks so much for your interest.

      • The absolute most effective cure for this problem would be for someone to submit a much better proposal for redevelopment. So if you know anyone with some ready financing, start pitching the opportunity.

        Barring that, I would think it’s always a good time to let your council representative know your thoughts on city issues. Since the fire station is owned by the city, the council will have to approve any sale. Even if they didn’t see the issue the same way some of us do, I can imagine that they’d be happy to harp on Walgreen’s for not investing in neighborhoods that aren’t already overserved.

        Mayor Bell has also been seeking participation from the public and would probably have some interest in hearing opinions about the proposal. He’s not everything, but he is pretty savvy and has demonstrated concern and some spark of leadership. The council seems inclined to trust him more than recent administrations.

        Design Review is going to have their hands tied. They can hold up permitting for the proposed structure by requiring design changes, but can’t by themselves prevent demolition of what’s there if the city sells the property. A vacant lot and another horror story about the city’s perceived anti-business climate isn’t what we need.

        In the bigger picture, we need to start lobbying for better tools and better plans, and more consensus around positive visions. The railroad park project is a great example. Not so much the park itself, but the way city and business leaders have rallied stakeholders around visions for a denser, vibrant midtown neighborhood anchored by the park. Some good tools could be put into effect in the short term. Some would require cooperation in the state legislature (barring a new constitution).

        I’m encouraged by this conversation and look forward to hearing all of these intelligent and concerned voices in the public arena.

  35. Barbara Edmonson

    Surely some historical society can get busy and block these plans. This city has already lost too much history to “progress” — more drugstores, duplicate shops, etc. Visitors to our fair city do not come to view drugstores. Many have come to dine at Bogue’s.

  36. Julianna hunter

    What?! Wasn’t tearing down the train terminal downtown to put in 280/31 enough for this city. Must we continue to tear down all of our architectual heritage?

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  41. Patrick (going way back into these blogs), you mention development of the Compass land at the corner of 32nd. The first Auburn-Alabama game was played here in 1893. Auburn won. I have heard (but seen nothing on paper) that Compass agreed to maintain that playing field area, undeveloped, as a part of their application to locate there. I’d guess there are enough Auburn/Alabama fans in Birmingham to give one more than a bad heartburn should there be a proposal to develop that land as anything other than a recognition of its historic place and purpose. And I’m not thinking of a sports bar.

    • Does a parking lot count as “undeveloped”? Not in my book. The irregularly shaped green space there now is barely 3/4 of an acre (or roughly half of a football field). I don’t see how the existing conditions do any respect at all to what is certainly an historic location. If new development brought pedestrians, at least people would read the marker.

      People might raise a stink. But they’d be wrong to complain that new development would do less justice to the site than a fenced off parking lot. New development might actually allow them to access the site – something they certainly can’t do now.

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