Anticipation (on a positive note)

Nature comes into the city

On a cool, cloudy Monday, Katherine Billmeier of the Railroad Park Foundation gave me a tour of the soon-to-be-completed park (Katherine says July). As many times as I’ve seen the plans, and biked past the park to view progress from the street, entering the park itself was an entirely different experience. It felt bigger than I had thought, and more diverse. The details, whether salvaged cobbles and train tracks from the site transformed into paths and ledges, or the light standards and bridges—it all felt first class. It’s all too rare in this city to see a major public project done right. This feels like that sort of project.

The quality shows

Katherine explained the concessions service: it will be contracted out (they don’t know to whom yet); it will be “upscale” sandwiches and snacks, but at an affordable price point so students can comfortably eat here. There will also be beer and wine on sale–the very idea seems so New Orleans and so not Birmingham, it seems too good to be true. The concessions and other amenities will be housed in boxy pavillions designed to recall old-fashioned box cars, as seen in the below rendering:

Superior design

One item that may interest readers: a small area is being designed for skate boarding (you can read our earlier post on this subject here). I was told that not only this area, but any paved area of the park would be open to skaters–as long as they share the space responsibly. Peter Karvonen, our friend at Faith Skate Supply, is cautiously optimistic that the park’s embrace of skaters will endure. He also realizes that it will be up to the skaters to coexist peacefully with joggers, pick-nickers, walkers, bikers, and all the others we hope use this park. We really think that this mini-skate area could demonstrate to area leaders that a full-size skate park is vital to this metro area.

Preparing for skaters

Finally, this last shot I think starts to capture how this new public space can transform how we see the City: we are all familiar with the Daniel Building, and some of us with Cityville housing whose construction is finishing in the next months. Both are a couple blocks away from the park, but just seeing an office building and apartments glimpsed from across undulating hills and trees helps us imagine the new projects that could line the park. There is really no other place in Birmingham that has this sort of potential private-public synergy. This could be the big win we all really need right now.

Seeing the city in a whole new way

PS–Katherine is already looking ahead, beyond the park just connecting UAB to the northside; it will also connect with new bike trails and green space from Sloss to I-65, and from there on to the new Red Mountain Park and beyond. Now that’s thinking big, and then thinking even bigger. After the recent gut-punches of Chick-Fil-A and Walgreens, I hope this post let’s us all hang in there and realize we do have some things to be proud of here. Keep it coming!

12 responses to “Anticipation (on a positive note)

  1. !! YAY !!
    Let me be the first to applaud this, the photos and the general “FINALLY”-ness of this.

    (I really DO get tired of my usual rants, and sounding like Andy Rooney. I really DO).

  2. Good report and images. It’s moved along well since I toured April 10, and no water was visible then. Your view of the skate plaza also shows off the genuine brick pavers (not tinted concrete) they sought out that are close to the originals (recycled in walls). Another element of authenticity. Especially like the last shot evoking how the park might be edged with urban life. Let’s hope the city musters the nerve to shape it well.

    • Philip–yes, the city needs to muster a response equal to the quality of the park–and that means all of us: government, developers, citizens. I’m excited by the potential. I wanted to include an update on graphics in this post too, but I wasn’t able to obtain any “authorized” examples. So we’ll have to wait a bit–but I know people will be interested to see the final package, which again will be many steps up from what we’re used to in public places here.

  3. It’s exciting to hear that the park is bigger than it seems when you’re standing on 1st Ave. S. I’ve often wondered how they were going to fit everything in the plans into a space that’s basically one block deep. I have always loved the plans for hills and a creek and the elevated train-watching trail and incorporating found materials into the park–I can’t wait to explore it all! I also love the “new” skyline views that the park will provide.

    Hopefully the park will prove to people that B’ham can pull off some great things, do them well, and do them in a way that reflects the city’s personality/aesthetics/etc. I would say the current version of Vulcan Park is another example of that–and I think Red Mountain Park will be yet another.

  4. I was driving around this area a few days ago and saw that the skaters had set up across the avenue from the construction area. Making that more permanent would provide a breakwater in case it’s getting too crowded in the park itself for the skaters and non-skaters.

    Either way, it looks great.

    • Yes–my understanding is that skate site is temporary and will go away soon (especially since all that property facing the park is slated for redevelopment). In the meantime, it’s refreshing to see such an outlet for skaters in the shadow of the park with the skyline just beyond. It will indeed be interesting to see how skaters interact with other visitors, and vice-versa. One important component is security (and this doesn’t apply just to skaters). There will be a full-time ranger on site at all time, as well as CAP patrol, and at least 20 high-tech security cameras with direct feeds to the monitor station at the Police precinct. Whether its that occasional “bad egg” of a skater spoiling things for people, or any other visitor harassing or pickpocketing or what have you, the security in the park should go a long way towards ensuring all types using the park can coexist in harmony.

  5. I noticed the amazing progress yesterday when I drove around the site. Agree that it is much richer in person than I had imagined from the drawings. Birmingham is about to receive an incredible gift with the opening of the park. Prediction: we will be collectively blown away by the park.
    Enjoying your blog!

    • BB–I have the same prediction. I don’t want this gift to be treated like McWane Center–totally un-leveraged and left to soldier on in urban isolation. Perhaps the very open quality of a park will go some way towards preventing that. Thanks for reading!

  6. March to the Sea

    I agree with the general tenor of optimism apropos of the park, but I have some misgivings as well. Firstly, many visitors to the park will undoubtedly drive there. Secondly, the park is quarantined by urban blight on all sides, except for the Cityville development, which is two blocks away. I’ve visited the park systems of nearly every major city in America, and I’ve never seen a new park construction project of this magnitude surrounded by so much blight, greyspace and wasteland. At a diagonal from the park, across the street from the Hotel on 18th street, there’s an empty building envelope of what used to be beauty salons and other stores whose proprietors and clients are now gone. That building served as an anchor for the African-American community in the area, similar in function, though not extent, to the 4th Ave. North district. Now that those stores are gone, the park is surrounded by an empty building envelope that is slowly becoming a model of broken windows theory.

    The park’s proximity to the central bus station is another point of concern, since the station often more closely resembles a medieval leper hospital than a bus station. However, if the image of the bus station were rehabilitated the park’s proximity to the bus station could also be its greatest asset. The problem is just getting people to use the buses. Because of that proximity, I am sure the park will have surveillance and security at all hours, as noted by a previous commenter.

    The real test of the park’s success will be in its ability to endure the protracted period of redeveloping the adjacent blocks, which could take years, even decades, while also simultaneously preserving its viability as a park without degenerating into squalor. Fortunately, the B&A Warehouse is a pretty solid anchor. Also, its proximity to the Cityville development would supply the park with a base of regular users day and night.

    That said, I do hope the park turns into a massive success story for the city of Birmingham, and not a boondoggle. Birmingham spent nearly forty years to get this project off the ground, so let’s hope it flourishes despite my doomsday predictions (haha). This is certainly one case in which I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    • March–your observations are astute. I had mentioned earlier, but it’s worth repeating: the promise of this park will not be realized if the surrounding area isn’t developed in a thoughtful, coordinated fashion up to the standards of the park itself. I think what you see right now is a neighborhood very much in transition, as landlords have not renewed leases in anticipation of selling high to new users, or are considering redeveloping their own properties. Particularly dismaying is the building you mention on 18th Street, one of my favorite buildings in that neighborhood full of small businesses, and then seemingly overnight not just empty, but horribly gutted and sitting there open to the elements with no one seeming to care.

      I will add one more note of hope to Cityville–University Place, home to hundreds of UAB students, is located just a block from the other side of the park. That, and the newly landscaped/renovated 14th Street sidewalks will hopefully provide a steady influx of students using the park.

      The proximity to UAB and central downtown somewhat mollifies the immediate condition of the surrounding blocks–and makes me optimistic that positive pressure from the campus and CBD will prove stronger than the negative pressure of the immediate blocks. But hovering behind all of this is the City’s history of delay, deferral, and status quo–which in my opinion must be overcome if the surrounding blocks of the park are to realize their potential. Thanks for your comments.

      PS–The Central Station is supposed to be joined soon by a new train station, inter-city bus terminal, shops, parking deck, etc. If we are lucky, that (along with of course a solution to our terrible transit system) may help transform what is today, as you say, less than a wonderful asset right there a block from the park.

  7. March to the Sea

    You’re absolutely right about the landlords in that area. I used to rent space in the two-storey brick warehouse on 18th street (the building directly across the street from the gutted building envelope), and my suspicion, at that time, was that the landlord was just waiting for the park construction to begin so her property value would appreciate and she could sell the building off for demolition. A few months ago the building had a “for sale” sign posted on the exterior, but that has since been removed. After spending over a year in that building, and investing a considerable amount of time in trying to fix it, I won’t be surprised if it is demolished.

    I had actually forgotten about University Place, even though I’ve walked by it a thousand times – thanks for the reminder. The students in University Place will be more apt to use the Railroad Park precisely because of its proximity, whereas the UAB green is much further away.

    I know that it is only a pipedream at the moment, but if the city ever does connect the Railroad Park in a linear greenbelt to Sloss Furnace, that could be brilliant.

    A new train station would be a boon. That area isn’t the warmest welcome to the Magic City for those using rail transit.

    I hate to be the cynical naysayer, but copious amounts of reading on Birmingham’s history as well urbanism in general have led me to the conclusion that massive infrastructure projects like this are difficult to do right even in healthy cities. That said, I’ll be at the park on opening day, hypocrite that I am.

  8. Pingback: What Will Save Birmingham? Pride | freeThinkBham

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