Good (urban) sense

Good signs

The above shot is taken on Central Avenue in Charlotte, NC, in the heart of the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. Founded in 1910 as a street-car suburb, the neighborhood is roughly comparable to Highland Park in Birmingham, both historically and in its close geographic relationship to downtown. Each neighborhood is now known for its eclectic, diverse environment.

Signs of a healthy urban place abound in the picture above: sidewalks with people; lots of projecting signs beckoning those people into shops and cafes, a well-branded transit sign announcing bus routes; crosswalk signals that tick down the seconds left to cross, easing pedestrian navigation. In the background, however, you see a strip center and suburban-style Family Dollar sign that are evidence of the decline the neighborhood underwent in the 1950s and 60s, with a familiar tale of suburban flight and increasingly auto-centric development.

Not holding the corner

The Harris Teeter supermarket above, an anchor in the business district, is an example of the poor site planning of an earlier era. Unappealing, blank walls face the street; parking and a random patch of grass are much more prominent than the building itself, whose entrance is off the parking lot rather than the sidewalk. Luckily, Harris Teeter is completely rebuilding the store, in a much more urban-friendly design, seen below:

Who says a chain supermarket can't be a great urban anchor

The market has been moved to the corner, with storefronts and entries opening off the sidewalks, and parking moved to the rear of the lot. Outdoor seating, a green roof, and an art-deco-inspired design have pleased neighborhood leaders, who have long been pressing for a renovation of this property.

A better plan

The plan above illustrates the new building hugging the corner, thus becoming a real anchor. It’s a cautionary note too: while “green space” at corners in urban areas is sometimes touted as perfect for “gathering” or “pocket parks” or what have you, it often ends up being unused and un-programmed–like the existing corner of Central and The Plaza in Charlotte. Not always, but often.

We'll try not to be jealous

Charlotte, as some know, already has a great Harris Teeter full-line supermarket right at the CBD (Uptown, in the ever-cheerful Charlotte-speak), pictured above. At another prime corner, this time it’s the base of a mixed-use development, and shows the chain’s confidence in Charlotte’s center city. I will argue that Birmingham, building-stock-wise, has it hands-down over Charlotte–we were a much, much bigger city than Charlotte in the 1910s and 20s, and our fabric shows it.

But in terms of downtown (Uptown) amenities, well, it would be nice if we had a version of the Harris Teeter. Charlotte, of course, has moved beyond that: behold their Uptown Dean and Deluca, a branch of the famous food emporium from New York, and dream:

Oh, I'm just strolling down the street to Dean and Deluca

[thanks to willamor media for the street pic; otherstream for Uptown Harris Teeter pic; charlotte observer online for the Plaza Midtown Harris Teeter rendering; yelp for the Dean and Deluca pic]

5 responses to “Good (urban) sense

  1. Nice blog as usual. As frustrated as I get with the whole Mountain Brook-Ensley dichotomy here, and the general culture, overall I think Birmingham is “funkier”. The Queen City boomed at the height of the suburban Sunbelt craze.
    It now has vast financial resources that the CEOs there aren’t afraid to call upon. It’s also a forward-focused metropolis. Considering Birmingham’s historic pedigree as a one-company mining town, it’s astounding our region has morphed as dramatically as it has. I’m not reading the same thing with our sister cities of East St. Louis, Flint, Rochester, Memphis, Toledo or Newark (these are fairer comparisons than Tampa, Raleigh or Atlanta).

    Let’s examine various population points for the two cities. I maintain that even though we’ve seemed to fall behind all the other Sunbelt cities over the last 50 years, we’re big enough that if we hit another boom period I think this region could easily eclipse all the nascent upstarts.

    1930
    Birmingham: 259,678
    Charlotte: 82,675

    1980
    Birmingham: 284,413
    Charlotte: 315,474

    2010
    Birmingham: 212,237
    Charlotte: 731,424

    See Hoover, there’s hope for you yet! (Hoover 2010: 81,619)

    It seems to me all the booming Sunbelt cities are places that had no identity or personality to start with. People seem to prefer moving to places they can invent, and then re-invent themselves at the same time. To me, this explains the phenomenal growth of Hoover. So, I think it behooves the BBA to re-imagine and rebrand this region without letting go of Birmingham’s special sense of place. In spite of Birmingham’s litany of socioeconomic woes, I would like to see the city’s historic amenities for entertainment, education and relaxation (parks & greenways) capitalized upon the way Orlando has capitalized on the saccharin confections of Disneyworld.

    I would like to see the Design Review Committee step out and boldly lead the way for redesigning Pratt City and the other devastated neighborhoods towards the goal of reimagining Birmingham as the authentic “Disneyworld” of Alabama. Education, relaxation, entertainment and tourism can and should be appropriate “green” jobs and industries for the Magic City.

    • Excellent points. It is true that Birmingham feels like it has a lot more “soul” than Charlotte, which in many ways feels glossy and slick. Which of course could describe Dean and Deluca–I think a lot of us would rather have a great V. Richard’s downtown than a D&D–but it points to, as you’ve mentioned, the forward-thinking “let’s get it done here” attitude of that city, which contrasts with this city traditionally.

      One more thing to add to the population points: Charlotte is basically a unified entity with Mecklenburg County, so if Birmingham merged with Jefferson County (and incorporated all the Mountain Brooks, etc.), our city population would be closer to Charlotte’s. Of course that forward-thinking regionalism is part of Charlotte’s success and why its metro now has 1.7 million compared to our 1.2 million.

    • Keep in mind, as wonderful and omniscient as the Design Review Committee is, their powers are delineated and limited to Commercial Revitalization Districts. The CRD that is in Pratt is mostly intact from the tornado and the DRC will probably be left out of the rebuilding efforts.

      There is internal talk as to how to turn this tragedy into a benefit for the city. While a Haussmann or Moses approach won’t happen in today’s political arena, the wheels are in motion to critically look at the rebuilding efforts.

  2. An addendum:

    Visualize the city as the go-to place for Education; Entertainment (shopping, dining, plays, concerts); Relaxation (via its creeks, lakes, parks and greenways); Tourism; and Escapism (Petula Clark said it best, but I’ll rephrase the sentiment here: “There ain’t nothin’ like downtown Birmingham in Dixie nowhere!”).
    ALL of these points are found within Disneyworld. That’s the comparison I’m trying to make. The great thing about Birmingham is that it’s the REAL DEAL, baby. ;~D

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