It's happening

On Wednesday, the Design Review Committee gave final approval to the new Westin Hotel and “Marketplace” entertainment district adjacent to the Convention Center downtown. While earlier renderings of the hotel had been made public, this was the first public unveiling of the Marketplace. Does it meet expectations?

Making a case

Above are the two principal architects of this project, Joe Rabun of Rabun Rasche Rector Reese from Atlanta (Hotel) and Fred Keith of Keith Design from Birmingham (Marketplace) presenting to the DRC. The buildings are designed in a modest “contemporary” style familiar from corporate-type projects across the US; a palette of red and iron-spot brick, gray metal panels, and dark bronze storefront members are put together as one may expect. The architecture itself is not the question of the day, but the urbanity of the plan, and whether it helps the BJCC overcome its current isolation and lack of connectivity.

Solid block building? Or urban strip mall?

Above is the plan layout of the site: the Westin and Marketplace are towards the top; the existing parking deck to the lower left; and a proposed surface lot to the lower right. Keep in mind that over the last decade or so, the BJCC has acquired an enormous amount of property, so at this point there is no surrounding context except the BJCC itself–all else has been demolished. Note that 23rd Street, moving North-South through the middle, has been blocked off by the Marketplace; a new East-West street (called Main Street we hope temporarily) has been created to bisect the Marketplace. This new street curves around at one end past the Westin, and at the other past a site for a future second hotel.

This new street will be “private”, owned by the BJCC. Private streets are typically the domain of gated subdivisions or shopping malls, not downtowns. And this is the first element that gives one pause: a part of the public domain (23rd Street) has been eliminated, and a private street laid out instead. The way this street is totally self-contained, as opposed to the typical open-ended gridded street downtown, is again a reminder of suburban planning with its cul-de-sacs and limited-access roads.

Controlling the image

The view above is on this new private street, looking west towards the hotel. There are some basic urban elements that are good–the storefronts (with clear, not tinted, glass for maximum visibility and synergy between indoor and outdoor activity) fronting on sidewalks, cafe tables on these sidewalks, canopies, thoughtful street furnishings. But the overall impression is less that of a vibrant city block, and more a vibrant suburban strip mall. Why? Because downtown blocks are messy, varied, and full of surprises. This is part of what makes the public realm fascinating and vital (but also frustrating on certain levels). Suburban strip malls are clean, homogeneous, and predictable. This is part of what makes the privatized-quasi-public realm fascinating and vital (but again frustrating on different levels). Anytime you take a single owner (mall developer or BJCC) and ask a single architect to design a place, it’s a very, very hard trick to pull off a simulation of the urban variation you get in a true city. Paris is wonderful in part because yes, there was a very, very heavy master hand guiding its development in the 19th century–but many different architects designed the buildings which conformed to the plan with individual flair and detailing. Birmingham is a starker example, where downtown (and to a lesser extent downtown Homewood, or even Mountain Brook Village) contains numerous styles and periods, some good, some not so, but overall giving a pleasantly varied aspect. In this instance, the BJCC could have come up with a master plan and then allowed multiple architects to create individual buildings–but that choice would be an unusual one.

So what's it really going to look like?

Which brings us to the Richard Arrington Blvd. elevation shown above (and seen at the top of the plan). The very small blocks created by the new “Main Street” allow only 60-70 feet of depth for the buildings. Yet the buildings are rendered with full public storefronts and cafe seating not just facing Main Street, but facing Richard Arrington to the north and the surface parking to the south. When questioned about how a restaurant could have two public storefronts with such a small depth, the answer was that, well, in reality there would probably not be two “fronts”–the (as-yet unsigned) tenants would typically want to face Main Street, and the storefront on the other end would be “modified” in some way. As in eliminated. Maybe not altogether–yes maybe it’s possible–but I share the concern of the Committee that this is another element which will make the project turn inward, focused only on the private street, rather than also reaching outwards.

And take the clump of cafe tables and umbrellas you see on the corner in the rendering above: not only is it doubtful people will be clustering on both sides like this, but the sides of the buildings are actually  large trash enclosures. Another suburban-style element you’d rather not see facing a public street downtown. Or even a private street.

Is anyone learning from the past?

The shot above of the original courtyard in the BJCC, designed in the late 1960’s, has a caption that’s a bit unfair. On the one hand, the Marketplace and Westin do have restaurants facing the street and pedestrian scale; there are some solid “urban” elements in place in stark contrast to the “bunker” design of the original. But on the other hand the project’s insularity is reminiscent of that original design, at least in principle. Urbanistically it’s better, but is it better enough? I hope that this project is profitable for the BJCC and the City, that visitors have something to eat and entertain themselves with, and that perhaps over time the district will become more varied and feel more organic. I think it could succeed on a certain level: that of being competitive with other convention centers that have more hotel rooms and amenities at their doorsteps. For this reason alone, the project really had to happen in some way.

But the wish that this could become a new, vibrant neighborhood with linkages to Norwood and the CBD, seems remote. A long-term plan that illustrates how this first, uncertain piece could grow and extend and connect would be worthwhile. Decent contemporary detailing is good; LEED certification is good; amenities next to our convention center are good. A visionary place that rises above the merely practical would be even better.

It worked in Newark

A final note–at the end of the presentation, committee member Cheryl Morgan argued that the skywalk connecting the Westin to the parking deck (and thus to the Sheraton and BJCC) was anti-urban, anti-pedestrian, and unwise for the health of the Marketplace. If people at the hotel are to patronize shops and restaurants on the street, they should be walking down a sidewalk to get to their hotel, not going straight from their car into the building (tangential thought: many occupants of 4-star hotels probably valet anyway). The BJCC representative replied that while they wanted lots of pedestrian activity, to be competitive they had to allow people to walk from one end of the complex to the other completely out of the weather. Above is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, built in 1997, which at the time made the controversial decision to build the parking deck across the street, to force patrons (in downtown Newark no less) to walk on sidewalks. Rain or shine. Lo and behold, vacant storefronts across the street started filling with restaurants due to all the people walking on the streets. It’s too bad more of this mentality hasn’t infiltrated the thought process in this City generally. If we really want to be known as “green”, encouraging vibrancy that connects rather than insulates–we need to be thinking more like that. No one architect or “Marketplace” can solve the isolation issues of the BJCC. But a great master plan for the district could.

[thanks to Keith Design for the renderings, and kwatson0013 for the Newark pic]

31 responses to “Entertaining

  1. In fairness to Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, their renderings indicate that they fully expected clusters of café tables, piles of exuberant flowers, rows of fluttering banners, and crowds of happy folks with baby strollers carrying balloons and ice cream cones to fill the BJCC’s original internal courtyard.

    I remember visiting a rowhouse development in the Netherlands that was being built on what they called the “Belgian scheme”, meaning that all the utilities were stubbed up on a slab, but the buyers would hire their own architects to design the interior layout, front and rear facades, and finishes. It was a real break from the typical 20th century Dutch housing project in which the state was almost always the developer. I think “Belgian” in that context referred in a general way to the Dutch perception of Belgium as a chaotic nation of rebels, crackpots and goofballs.

  2. The clients and affected constitutencies seem clueless about the nature of urban environments. Betting few actually can site someplace to which they actually walk. Whole ethos of Bham environment is predicated on a suburban attitude. This complex takes something odious and doesn’t bother to address it. Absent political power with some actual taste and understanding of what urban means, this replication of the ’50’s and ’60’s plazas and concrete open spaces that don’t engage from street level will continue to replicate itself. Thanks for continuing to point out possibilities…nice reading someone willing to dream.

  3. I am excited by this project happening, but very disappointed in the lack of creative urban design elements. I am also very disappointed that our DRC did not demand MORE. While I am a proponent of the DRC, I question why they did not put forth the same effort as they did with the Chick fil A project at Five Points South.

    • This is an interesting question. I think occasionally when a project gets this big, this politically important, this wrapped up in public dollars–a delay or setback from DRC would have such a huge impact that you rarely see a denial from them. Grumbling, admonitions, but not a denial. Perhaps because the BJCC is not a historic district, but rather a commercial revitalization district also lowers the pressure: this district has been largely cleared of any other structures besides the BJCC itself, which means there aren’t any true “neighbors” who would protest in the mode of Five Points or Lakeview. I remain excited about the enhancement to the BJCC’s competitiveness this represents; just disappointed it couldn’t be something greater than just that.

  4. If the question is whether this plan helps the BJCC overcome its isolation and lack of connectivity, then the answer resoundingly no. For example, see this aerial image with the site plan attached. This place is sitting in the middle of a wasteland. It’s a full three blocks from any other restaurant, other than the BJCC subway.

    I’m pretty astonished that these guys don’t understand the concept of front and back. Restaurants need service space, and they’ve completely ignored that. The dumpsters are over on the east end of the site, but where will they unload trucks? Where will they take out their garbage? Even on the off chance that the tenants decide to keep both entrances open, one will always be minimized by these service activities. I’ve never seen a restaurant operate otherwise, although I’m open to suggestions.

    Furthermore, I’m having trouble imagining this working at all. I’m not sure what it takes to keep retail functional, but BJCC claims 1,000,000 attendance per year, which means about 20,000 per week. I certainly hope it works, but I have hard time imagining I’d ever go there.

    This part of Birmingham is beginning to look like Detroit. There are six completely barren block just north of this site (which is probably the reason for turning away from Arrington). It seems to me that the main design problem is how to connect with downtown. These architects are more interested in protecting this development from the outside world. They might succeed, but that won’t create a vibrant entertainment district.

    Do you know if the city is abandoning the ROW for the plaza that interrupts 23rd St?

    • The issue of loading/deliveries was brought up at committee; the answer was “similar to Brookwood Mall where loading occurs directly on the street in front of restaurants, from 6 AM to 10 AM.” Presumably because like the mall nothing is open until after 10, and also like the mall the street is not really a real street, but rather a private drive with no real traffic in the early hours to conflict with trucks. So….I guess that speaks for itself.

      What do you mean about abandoning ROW for the plaza? Sorry I don’t quite follow. Thanks for your comments.

      • Will the portion of 23rd Street’s Right of Way with the proposed plaza and private street be transferred from the city to the BJCC or whoever owns this project? Or will the 23rd street portion remain public?

      • Ah. Good question–I assume it’s being transferred over to the BJCC, but I don’t know for sure. It’s likely though–because only then would the BJCC be able to have complete control, have their own security in place, be able to keep “undesirable” elements like homeless people off the street, etc.

      • 23rd Street north of the alley up to Richard Arrington has been vacated by the city.

      • birminghamarchitect, you quote “undesirable” in a way that would indicate you think it is a bad thing to keep the homeless away. The fastest route to failure for this venture would be for it to become a homeless haven.

        The two sided entrance may not be an issue. Although suburban in nature, I know of several eateries with two sided entrances that are thriving. Mugshots in Vestavia and Panera Bread at Patton Creek both operate that way.

        I am a proponent for development, both urban and suburban. Both are needed for any metro area to survive.

        I just found the site. Good job!

      • Unfortunately the homeless are a problem in almost every urban center in the US; honestly I think panhandling is more “undesirable” then homeless people just walking down a street. The problem with private, suburban-style streets is they create a slippery slope: yes it makes it easier to keep out panhandlers. Also the homeless. Also “loiterers” however you want to define that. Also anyone protesting or exercising free speech. Etc. etc. It’s not a substitute for a true public space.

        That being said, yes I agree double-sided restaurants can of course thrive; but the designers admitted themselves that most are impractical that way, and likely would not be so here. I’d love nothing more for all of them to be that way, similar to the ones you mention; based on what I heard, though, I think it’s wishful thinking.

        Good development is crucial in both suburban and urban locations. I’m hopeful that this development will succeed on the terms designed for it, and help our convention business. Right now I just don’t see it as succeeding on greater terms than that, which I think is a missed opportunity.

        Finally, cities that don’t take chances and re-develop themselves tend to die. So I agree that we need to keep trying! Thanks for reading.

  5. DEvelopments like this are why it’s almost impossible (anymore) to feel hope for Birmingham. From my perspective, every single leader, developer, corporate entity and “vested interest” here is totally lacking in thoughtful, forward-thinking planning. No, I don’t think anybody in this region is learning from the past. I don’t think anyone in this region is learning from the present, or really cares about the future, either. Given the tremendous amount of visionary architecture available today, and the renewed interests in both the “City Beautiful” resurrection and New Urbanism (which is what, thirty years old now???), the fact that every single major player in the Birmingham market is stuck in the suburban cul-de-sac paradigm speeks volumes about the values of this community. We have Third World poverty shunted into Jones Valley encapsulated by rusting brownfields. We have a burgeoning, highly mobile and affluent suburban culture with a vice grip hold on the collective imagination. Stop worrying about the dead urban fabric downtown and be thankful anything relevant is happening there at all.

    I am officially jaded beyond measure.

  6. This looks a lot like the Bridge Street development in Huntsville, where there is another Westin Hotel. The only difference is that this plan is for downtown Birmingham and the Bridge Street development is a suburban mall.

    I am underwhelmed. Any chance the architects take some of the committee’s comments to heart and modify the plan, or is this pretty much a done deal? If it is, I guess our only hope is that this spurs additional (and more organic) growth in the adjacent empty parking lots. I guess we can also hope that they don’t fill the place entirely with chain restaurants, although given the design that seems to be the most likely outcome.

    When you contrast this project with the revitalization going on just 8 blocks south, the difference is really striking.

    • Great points. The architect of the Marketplace here, by the way, did the design of Brookwood Mall’s most recent renovation. Yes, if it’s wildly successful, then maybe demand for infill adjacent will be a new opportunity to make more of an urban “place”. But more than likely, it will be more of the same…

      • BHamNewcomer

        The lack of imagination in this proposal really makes me hope that they can find space for the baseball stadium near the RR park instead of trying to put it by the BJCC. That is unfortunate given what they could have done to change the BJCC area, but I would much rather spend time before and after a Barons game in the RR park, or in the restaurants and bars on 2nd Ave. N.

      • Everyone I’ve spoken too lately “in the know” has confirmed the RR Park site is where the park will go. And I totally agree with you–much preferable to the BJCC site.

  7. Isn’t this development facing away from Birmingham? Seems odd that the city would see its backside. And architecturally, this looks like the same hotel we already have 2 blocks over.

    To make a broader point, isn’t interrupting 23rd street a fundamentally terrible idea? Looks like a traffic nightmare, especially once you factor in pedestrian traffic.

  8. @BHamNewcomer: Agreed. I drove by the Bridge Street Westin last night, and it’s remarkably similar to this design. I have to say I appreciate the red brick (for once!) being introduced into the BJCC complex, and I like what appears to be grey reflective glass for the facade of the hotel. To me, both speak symbolically of Birmingham’s industrial heritage. Also, the toned-down conservative “Contemporary” design of the tower itself is befitting a buttoned-down conservative community. And, let’s be honest here- Birminghamians LOVE strip malls. As long as they are in a convenient location they’ll be embraced and supported no matter how banal or how ugly they are (the strip malls and the people).

    If you study the history of this region, however, you have to admit the fact anything gets built at all is a testament to… something… though I’m not sure what. To go from a heavily industrialized & segregated mill town with gulag-style “governance”, to a regional economic powerhouse and biotechnology mecca is the real magic this place holds. And the topography is magnificent. I’m trying really, really hard to be positive, I really am. 😉

    • You are right, people do love strip malls around here. Maybe on those grounds alone, this project will be more successful than we imagine. Even though it is not everything we hoped for, I think it will improve the attractiveness of the area around the BJCC, and hopefully spur new growth. That is not bad. Its also not a bad thing to have a nice brand new well respected hotel in the area, although I really hope the Tutwiler and Redmont can still survive.

      • It’s my understanding both the Redmont and Tutwiler have been urging the City to get a 4-star hotel for years–it helps everyone’s business, hopefully, when there are more choices downtown. And the Westin would not compete directly with either, in many ways.

      • BHamNewcomer

        That is good to hear – I would hate for hotels in historic buildings to be sacrificed at the hands of a new hotel.

      • Me too. Part of the theory is that the more conventions the BJCC can book due to increased hotel rooms, the more spill-over there is at the Tutwiler and Redmont. And, the more choices of hotels/restaurants there are downtown, the more all hotels benefit when people are choosing places to book out-of-town guests. Of course a poorly run hotel will suffer regardless of the success of its neighbors. I do wish the Redmont would re-illuminate it’s neon roof sign again by the way.

  9. Thoughtful report and interesting comments. The long-ago mistake was putting the BJCC in the wrong place. None of the expected organic redevelopment happened due largely to its isolation. Thus the need to force this. Hope it succeeds and, eventually, the I 20/59 put below grade allows the city and BJCC to merge. But don’t dismiss Birmingham urbanism: historic downtown, Loft District, 20th Street S. infill, Five Points South, Highland Ave. and Highland Park, downtown Homewood, Mountain Brook villages, even the Brookwood Village renovation — we have decent examples of pedestrian-oriented places, more than most Southern cities.

  10. @Philip: Good points too about our urban assets. We developed so early on, using the Chicago model, that I think other Southern cities are only now catching up and surpassing our built-up areas. We tend to forget just how amazingly dense Birmingham truly is for a Southern city… and to have been densely laid out 90 years ago is a testament in itself. Does anyone know what the total square footage of City Center property is? I know there was 6 million square feet of leasable space listed in the 80s. Factor in ALL structures, and it’s got to be on up there.
    Also, does anyone have an image to post of the massive rail yard that used to be where the BJCC is now? I’ve seen old aerial photos and it was heinous.

  11. If memory serves correct, the BJCC site (including I-20/59?) was similar to the Finley Yard in North Birmingham, or the Norris Yard in Irondale. Either way, “Logan’s Run” architecture is still preferable. I’m astonished John Portman didn’t get the original BJCC commission to start with. ;~D

  12. Looks like I missed quite the discussion. An important and necessary one at that. That said, the more I think about it, the more I’m concerned about this project’s impact and chance of success. No charm. Predictable. Measured optimism has given way to nervous hope.

    Perhaps, the better question to ask is “why.” And, if $20 million is what will be used for the entertainment portion, perhaps that offers a clue. I can’t think of a single, comparable (new) destination district that is memorable and constructed for such a low amount. Plus, this development will be built entirely from scratch.

    Even Elkington’s plan called for $40+ million. I don’t pretend to know how these things work but obviously, something’s changed… and it seems like less is being offered judging from an early rendering on the BJCC’s site.

    Click to access RFQ_BJCC_ED_Marketing_Leasing_Services.pdf

    And I still don’t see the point of closing that section of 23rd and replacing it with a, well… sidewalk. I suppose the heart of the issue at this point is whether any community/outside input can still be given and factored in before it’s too late.

  13. Bham Developer

    I hate to feel this way but I really hope there is some way that this project just falls apart and never comes to fruition. I am a huge believer in the urban movement but the city $$ need to be place in areas that can actually catch on and begin to progress on its own. Any thought that retail and restaurants can actually work around the bjcc at this point is just a pipe dream. These kind of develpments need nearby residents to be successful and No one lives near the BJCC. City focus needs to be on areas like southside where private investment is making headway. If this moves forward it will be another major mistake for the city and will delay progress in areas that actually show promise.

  14. Bham Developer

    To follow up what I just posted. Maybe city officials should consider why no private entities are willing to put up money to make this happen.

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