It has been over a year since the Barber Companies (the successor to the Elyton Land Company which platted and developed the initial city of Birmingham, and a significant landowner across the City) offered “free land” downtown to the most qualified applicant. Why is this land still on offer? And how does this offer compare to the Community Foundation‘s recently announced “Next Big Thing“, an idea competition for the vacant lot due east of the Railroad Park?
When the Barber Companies offered their 40′ x 100′ lot in the 200 block of Richard Arrington Blvd. North for “free” to the user of their choice (you can see their selection rules here), what was seldom mentioned was that just months before their announcement, Barber quietly tore down a lovely, Moderne-style building (itself a successor to the old Lunsford Hotel and Birmingham Medical College, the predecessor to UAB) pictured above in a Google Map screenshot from 2008. In my opinion, this handsome structure, clad in stone with storefront windows, had no reason to come down except Barber wasn’t interested in maintaining the older building (note: Barber’s historic downtown headquarters was vacated earlier last decade and moved out to Inverness, in an office park past I-459).
The now empty lot is engulfed by a surface parking lot–hardly an attractive neighbor, even less so since the parking does not come with the lot. The cost of building a new structure on a very small plot like this downtown is considerable, no matter how you structure it; I would imagine more viable businesses would be considering this “free” offer if the building were still there. Starting from scratch can be fresh and exciting–but harder to visualize and to pay for. Was this really an act of altruism, or a public relations stunt to detract attention from the loss of another historic building (Barber is not exactly known for historic preservation interests–beleaguered or demolished structures are common across Barber’s vast Birmingham holdings).
In contrast, the parking lot across from Railroad Park is a very different situation (a portion of the property is visible on the lower right of the photo above). The City owns this lot; the Community Foundation and City have organized an international idea competition (The Next Big Thing) to determine its use. No historic building was torn down here, at least not recently; and rather than expecting the winner to also develop/finance the winning proposal, the $50,000 prize money is awarded for the idea, only. Then, the Foundation’s new Catalyst Funds will commit at least $1 million of seed money towards implementing the plan (presumably by others, whether private or public, depending on the idea). Here’s a thoughtfully laid out contest, with lots of energy and excitement, that feels natural coming so soon after the great success of Railroad Park’s opening. It feels well-considered and thoroughly planned, in stark contrast to the somewhat bizarre Barber offer a few blocks north.
If only I felt less cynical about the Barber offer. Now that the beautiful old building is torn down, our hope should be that someone can overcome the challenges of the small site and constrained location, and construct a great piece of infill architecture with an engaging street presence. Because there’s little worse than a vacant lot sitting next to a big, unlandscaped parking lot. Which can feel worse than vacant sometimes…
P.S. Spread the word about Birmingham’s Next Big Thing contest–and enter an idea yourself!