Dead customers can’t buy a lot of chicken

At yesterday’s working session of a subcommittee of the Design Review Committee, Chick-Fil-A came back once again with a revised proposal for the heavily trafficked NE corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Historic Five Points South.

A move in the right direction, but not enough

A summary of the session can be found in the News here, or over at Second Front here. Suffice it to say that while the site layout–and the drive-through’s impact on the layout–is still a serious concern of the subcommittee, the design of the building itself has undergone a sea-change from earlier versions. Local firm Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds has been hired by Chick-Fil-A to try to win over hearts and minds. What exactly is at issue with the design of the building?

The quick sketch above roughly illustrates the difference between earlier schemes–which showed a typically suburban “outparcel” site strategy (#1 above)–and the current scheme presented yesterday (#2 below). Whereas before the building mass was dwarfed by the relative sea of surrounding asphalt parking (and drive-through), now the building has been elongated to take up over 80% of the street frontage on both streets. The parking and drive-through are now fairly well hidden from either street. (Please note these sketches are not to scale.)

From an urban standpoint, this is a good thing. Urban neighborhoods depend on density for their success as dynamic environments. It’s pretty intuitive: how many of us have visited a dense environment like Manhattan and walked a mile without noticing? Whereas in a less dense environment, like most of Birmingham, most of us really notice–and avoid it–if we have to walk more than 1/2 block to a destination. When we don’t have a dense, vibrant, interesting wall of buildings fronting the street to hold our interest and make us feel secure, we don’t want to keep walking. Brightly lit storefronts keep us walking; big parking lots don’t.

How did the architects stretch out this new, 291 feet of facade? While actual floor plans were not presented, it appears that a lot more seating was added–both interior and exterior, some under a covered pergola. And how did they respond to the Appeals Board’s decision to deny Chick-Fil-A in part because the building previously presented was clearly purpose-built for Chick-Fil-A, rather than as an adaptable commercial structure more typical to the area?

The response was to offer several possible versions of how the building could look. In each one, the building was imagined as a simulation of organic growth over time, dividing up one facade into 3 parts, with each part resembling a somewhat different building. While this sounds reasonable in concept, it is very hard to pull off, especially if the same architect is designing the entire project. Simulating architectural diversity that normally occurs organically, and over time, often results in a “Disney Effect”, where the street ends up looking like a stage set.

A simulacrum of the real thing

Take the outdoor street and commercial “facades” at Brookwood Mall, pictured above. While the design has certainly improved the mall from a planning standpoint–opening shops onto an outdoor sidewalk, facing new restaurants, with parallel parking and street trees mimicking an actual urban street–the architecture itself is disappointing. Because despite the effort to modulate the elevations, with different heights, setbacks, and architectural “styles”, the whole thing still looks like it’s one big mega-project that came from the same hand. Why? The level of detail is consistent; while from facade to facade the brick may differ from the stucco, and the impressed tiles differ from the cornice, overall there is a similarity in both material and design quality that makes the experience more homogeneous than diverse. If the developer had one master plan, and hired multiple architects to create the facades using certain guidelines, then the results would have had much more potential. Of course large-scale commercial development rarely goes that way.

Rather than simulate 3 buildings, I think it would be more fruitful to consider one consistent building, and vary the scale along the facade to achieve a certain diversity and rhythm.

A post-modern infill down the street

Interestingly, the Committee towards the end (with Cheryl Morgan leading the discussion) urged the architect to not depend on historic precedent to such an extent that the buildings look like imitations of Spanish Revival or Art Deco, two common styles of the Five Points area. “Contextual” and “Compatible” do not mean “Imitation”; Morgan pushed for a “21st century solution” that, while clearly new and  of this time, responds in a respectful way to the scale, rhythm, and massing of the eclectic neighboring buildings. Too often when new buildings are designed to be “Tudor” or “Spanish Revival”, modern budgets and available craftsmen make the details very disappointing compared to the models of 100 years ago. Above you see an example at Pickwick Place a couple blocks north of the proposed site, where an infill project in the early 1980’s gave us stucco facades with end piers and grooved details meant to evoke the 1930’s Art Deco of the Pickwick Hotel to the south–but while the massing feels right, the paucity of detail, the banal storefronts, and the cheap looking light standards, clumsy railings,  and ugly metal coping all say “1980’s on a budget.”

21st century contextual

This residential project at 48 Bond Street (designed by Deborah Burke) in New York is an example of a confidently modern infill structure that manages to respect and respond to its neighbors without imitating them. It matches the parapet heights of its neighbors, recessing its additional stories back from the street line; it uses proportion and material to relate without copying. And frankly, even with New York budgets, copying historic elements is almost bound to disappoint once you start designing details. And details can make or break a project–as Committee member Mark Fugnitto stated, the details will determine whether the proposal is a good or bad building. And, as this is still a work in progress, we  don’t have the details yet.

Another example of sensitive modern infill architecture that doesn’t try to imitate the past is the Portland Harbor Hotel annex below in Portland, ME. Designed by Archetype, this project proves you don’t have to build a corporate template, or imitate the past, or simulate diversity, in order to create something both substantial and adaptable to other uses in the future.

Elegant and substantial

Now, what still remains–and what the architect can’t fix no matter how hard she tries–is that Chick-Fil-A is still hell-bent on a drive-through, on a single-use for the entire site, and of course on their no-Sundays policy. I think all 3 of these represent big flaws to the development of the site.

First, a drive-through is incompatible in this neighborhood.  Chick-Fil-A’s traffic engineer stumbled a bit yesterday when he finally acknowledged that the famous “47 second” average drive-through wait–“the best in the business”– was actually 47 seconds from placement of order to receiving that order. You can wait much longer to get to the box and ramble through the order itself. So at peak times, it is all too easy to imagine the stack of cars spilling out into the parking area and creating traffic hell all around the site, which is already hellish enough. Couple this with the fact that people are not getting out of their cars like everyone else in the neighborhood and walking to their destination makes me–and most of the committee–still skeptical that the drive-through can be proven compatible with the neighborhood. [A friend of mine just timed his drive through experience today at the Eastwood Village CFA location and clocked 374 seconds total from entry to exit–and this was a good 20 minutes before CFA’s stated “peak time” of 12:15 to 12:45.]

Second, while it’s admirable that the company is now willing to reduce total number of parking spaces, and simulate multiple storefronts across a wider street frontage, this is no substitute for true urban diversity, with multiple businesses located adjacent to each other. This prominent site is much better suited for mixed-use than for single-use, and while CFA admits they have “more property than they need”, they refuse to entertain the idea of subleasing out a portion to another business. Hardly surprising, but still disappointing (and disappointingly beyond the purview of the Design Review Committee).

Finally, while somewhat unspoken (and again beyond the DRC purview), it is truly a shame that, because of CFA’s policy of not opening Sundays, this important intersection in one of the most popular urban destinations for locals and tourists alike would be completely dead for a full half of every weekend. Not the schedule you want in one of the few dense, around-the-clock neighborhoods we have in this city [Pancake House: you need to open for dinner!]. And speaking of the Sunday closing: CFA is known for hiring only clean-cut workers with proven “family values”; its corporate office financially supports such groups as Focus on the Family, a controversial organization that campaigns against gay rights among other things. The fact that the Five Points neighborhood is one of the most demographically diverse and accepting in the entire state at the very least lends an irony to CFA’s desperation to be there.

When the traffic engineer was grilled on vehicle counts and flows, one objection was conflict with pedestrians at various points around the site. His reply was that of course CFA wants to avoid pedestrian accidents: “Dead customers can’t buy a lot of chicken.” Oddly enough, that quote seems like a good way to sum up this entire effort thus far. Stay tuned.

[thanks to KMGough for the Portland infill; Deborah Berke for 48 Bond Street]

9 responses to “Dead customers can’t buy a lot of chicken

  1. Once again, thank you for a cogent description of events. I could not make this meeting. I do not know if others from my neighborhood or FPS managed to attend.

    Like you, I wonder why CFA is so “bent” on coming into this neighborhood in such a fashion. Following the money might provide enlightening answers. Who is paying whom, and what happens if CFAs option runs out. Because surely this is an option, not a done deal sale.

  2. Pingback: can’t. get. enough. « Magic City Manifesto

  3. Thanks for another great post. Speaking of modern infill, did you follow the arguments for the Apple Store in Georgetown, DC? They proposed an uber-modern design that broke the street wall, followed by a more contextual but very odd building (it looked like an iPod) proposal. They were finally approved when they incorporated more historic elements, essentially imitating the old buildings. See:

    You know, the issue of a drive-thru brings up much larger issues of transit downtown. Adding a drive-thru is no doubt intended to encourage people at UAB to get in their cars and swing by for lunch, a silly idea considering how much is available to them in walking distance. But the CFA isn’t particularly accessible to them without a car. It is slightly more than 0.5 miles away (more or less the maximum distance you’d walk for lunch) and uphill.

    When I worked on 1st ave north, I found it easy to walk anywhere downtown for lunch, but getting to restaurants in Southside (say, Lucy’s) or Five Points was extremely difficult, involving a long walk through an unpleasantly underdeveloped area. And the DART shuttles, which seem useful, have an infuriating tendency to bunch together, often leaving me stranded in Five Points well past the limits of my lunch hour.

    All this is to say that adequate transit would be especially useful at connecting Five Points and Downtown at lunch time. The DART is useless, but the In-Town Transit Partnership ( shows promise if it can come up with funding (TIGER 2, anyone?). Thoughts?

  4. Not that I am a fan of dull fast-food joints, but is the traffic really so awful at 12th Avenue and 20th Street? Surely, automobile drivers regularly try to run me over there…while I am in a crosswalk…with a walk signal…but I rarely see traffic backups.

    Would consistently bad traffic encourage more people to walk or take alternate routes? So said Jane Jacobs 50 years ago, but she was talking about an urban environment already far more densely populated than Five Points South.

    Patrick, there’s already a Chik-fil-A on UAB’s campus inside the Hill University Center. Although it may seem too student-oriented for most employees, it is at least a level walk. A level walk along what amounts to a 6-lane divided highway, but, at least, level. Very few people I’ve met here would consider walking from 19th Street to 14th Street, though.

    I have only taken the DART a couple times, but I did find it useful. Downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., had a similar service called the LINK, and each stop had a digital display showing the number of minutes until the next bus would arrive–a helpful (although not always precise) feature. Ann Arbor stopped running the service this past year, though.

    • Yeah, DART can be useful, but I have been burned by it WAY to many times. For example, the day I waited forty five minutes for one and rode it one block before it died, leaving me to walk home. Or the time I rode it to Five Points for lunch, waited 15 minutes to ride back, and never saw a DART going either direction on 20th Street until 1st Ave S – where there were two going the same direction in one block.

      But you’re right – arrival time clocks would be extremly helpful. In fact, I think they’d have a dramatic increase on DART ridership, since the DART doesn’t run on a timetable. I also think those things are a great way to add an understanding of transit to the way people envision the city in their minds.

      I think the point of opposing the drive-thru isn’t that it’ll inconvenience cars — the intersection could probably handle the traffic. It backs up during rush hour, but not much otherwise. The point is that there would be a huge number of cars crossing the sidewalk, maybe backed out on to the street. This, of course, would add to the number of times you get nearly run over by people chowing down on nuggets, trying to rush back to UAB.

      And, though it is completely irrelevant to the conversation, kiosk Chick-fil-a (like the ones in colleges) are SO bad. I’d happily ride an express bus up 18th Street to a full-service CFA (like the In-town transit partnership) rather than walk to some closer kiosk.

  5. Pingback: Still hell-bent on a drive-through: Chick Fil-A’s latest design proposal | The Red Mountain Post

  6. Thank you, Jeremy, for, as usual, very cogent analysis and a very eloquent presentation of ideas. I think a book lies ahead of you…

    It’s almost amusing to see CFA inching along, snail-like, to impress the city-dwellers. They must be impressed with their own efforts, since they keep coming back for more. Perhaps they have even learned something, including that surburbia no longer holds the grip on the American population that it once held. Maybe if they keep bringing proposals for the next 3 years, they will be completely up-to-speed…

    Anyhow, I love your examples of authentically “contextual” projects, which implies contrast and originality as well as similarity. I think an interpolation of modern 21st century design in our city would be very complementary to the existing, basically 19th-early 20th-cen, styles. Steel, of course, has always been a natural part of our Birmingham building tradition, and glass provides a wonderful aspect of transparency, space and lilght that complements the opaque, penumbral and imposing brick facades that are found in all our “heaviest corner” historic architecture. I liked someone’s idea of an Apple store as one possibility for the CFA site. Not, of course, if it’s going to look like an i-Phone, but maybe the glass box that they recently constructed in the middle of Manhattan.

    I don’t know, that may be far-fetched and not really a suitable use of that site, but apart from the loveably bohemian and slightly grungy aspect of Five Points, there is definitely the tech-savvy, artistic & creative aspect. I’m still confounded by the fact that there’s no truly local coffee shop, bookstore or newsstand in the whole Five Points/UAB area. Well, Lucy’s, but it’s Medical Center really and not very accessible to most local Southsiders. (I’m trying to convince my friend Tina Tatum in Auburn to open up something here similar to her shop in Auburn, the Gnu’s Room. It would be perfect for Southside. They roast their own coffee, sell loads of really great used books — something that Highland Booksmith stopped doing over a decade ago — and host local musicians, poets & artists for special functions. A little intellectual oasis, really..) Her facebook site:!/group.php?gid=35658108009&ref=ts

  7. Greg, there is a truly local coffee shop, although I have a feeling most Birmingham residents would feel rather out-of-place at Beans, Books, and Candles MS (that’s “Metaphysical Shoppe”) up the hill on 20th Street.

    Nomad Supply’s storefront adjacent to Southtown has closed, but they provided a relaxing atmosphere with (free!) brewed coffee and a shelf full of assorted books.

    I think both are marvelous examples of what local really means–that it reveals the character (and characters!) of the place. People don’t tend to embrace locally-owned when it’s unusual — they prefer Starbucks with a local name slapped over it.

  8. I’m late replying but am so thankful to have your perspective and opinions out in the world…. And ESP in Bham.

    Tonight I walked through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor East for the first time since moving away. An area filled with vacant warehouses or empty lots only 15 years ago has been transformed into a community of architectural design that integrates the historic with the modern beautifully in just the way you describe. I would love to see this happen all over Bham — and especially at 20th and Highland if CFA is hellbent on going In there. ( I won’t even address the drive thru issue in this post – the arguement against it is painfully obvious to everyone but CFA).

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