Fair Park gets a new look

Spatial indeterminacy writ large

Above is the new Birmingham Crossplex (an ostensibly temporary name until corporate name rights are purchased), a large sports facility housing swimming and track facilities at the Fair Park site in Five Points West, in Birmingham’s West End. This picture is taken from Bessemer Road looking southeast across a vast stretch of open land and surface parking; the new structure itself rises towards the middle of the property. Davis Architects of Birmingham did the design.

The core amenities appear top-notch

While the facility is not officially open yet, a special tour reveals everything mostly in place (the event bookings seem promising so far despite the fact the marketing department has yet to ramp up). The main pool (above) is suitable for regional and even national events, as is the indoor track (below).

There's nothing else like it in Alabama

While the size and cost of the facility are impressive ($46 million was spent), the site planning does not convey the excitement a facility like this could create. The building has no relationship whatsoever with the surrounding street grid; it’s car-oriented isolation does not encourage pedestrian access. Granted, much of the immediately surrounding context was “suburbanized” in the 1950’s with the advent of Five Points West Shopping Center and surrounding development; much of this context is now frayed and in great need of rethinking.

Across the street, ripe for a rethink

As seen above, the opposite side of Bessemer Road presents a dated existing condition:  more surface parking, underused buildings, a hodgepodge of fast-food outlets and drive-through lanes. The approximately 85 acres that remain around the Crossplex itself are to be developed as retail, hotels, and restaurants at an unspecified time–presumably when the market demands it. This should be a chance to use progressive urbanist principles that would redeem the Crossplex’s current siting, redesign the surrounding context, and develop a reinvigorated 3rd Avenue linking this sports facility to the new baseball park and Convention Center downtown. We received international-caliber design at Railroad Park. We should expect no less in West End.

Could be helped by thoughtfully designed surroundings

The main facade (above) has no major hint of the world-class sporty activities within. Some really innovative landscaping and super-graphics would be welcome to help project more vibrancy.

Do sports happen here?

Likewise the interior (main foyer pictured above) seems functional, and it feels like a very nice public high school might feel; but I was hoping it would rise to the level of a cutting edge sports facility in terms of its form and detailing.

OK so we don't have this budget, but we can still get creative

Perhaps we won’t be hosting the Olympics in Birmingham anytime soon, despite the former Mayor’s wish to do so. But if this City continues to develop a strong reputation for hosting and supporting sporting events, and invests significant dollars in facilities and promotion–there’s no reason why we can’t demand innovative designing as you see in the Aquatics Center in Beijing (above). And to best revitalize West End, we need a thoughtful master plan that replaces suburban-style principles with pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use planning.

We love the increased interest in sports and recreation in various recent projects around the City and the potential this brings for the local economy and tourism.

Bring us your A-game.

[thanks to alphafish for the Beijing pic]



16 responses to “Fair Park gets a new look

  1. One of the greatest advantages of such a ‘plain’ palette is that it CAN be adapted and enhanced as needs arise and dollars are available. The surfaces are spare and clean, and basic maintenance, daily and routine, should be easy and financially manageable. All to often architectural statements date quickly and are very expensive to maintain. This is, hopefully, just a first step in ongoing growth and development of the site and the area.

    • Good points–maintenance costs in a time of budget austerity are a valid concern. So are “statements” that date quickly. Of course there is a difference between trendiness and visionary thinking–any City needs less of the former, but at least some of the latter. Especially in projects we hope will be transformative. Overall, as you say, I hope this is just a first step, and that many additions can be made that would both enhance the building, and create a first-class urban context in the surroundings. Thanks for reading!

  2. Very apt assessment. Hard to respond to an urban context when there is none. I recently drove past the former Eastwood Mall site and was struck that, even only partly built, the KPS Group urban design plan establishes a more urban character than it had before. Need something similar here.

  3. Many moons ago, I had a seasonal job at the Five Points West Parisian. Back then, and especially at Christmas time, it seemed very urban to this country/suburban boy. Nothing in Huntsville or Vestavia Hills could prepare me for such an exciting “big city” experience.

    I hope the city recognizes West End as Alabama’s most densely populated area, and will begin the process to re-imagine it accordingly. Personally, I would like to see the Mayor & City Council take all the City Planning department heads to Harlem & Baltimore for a week, then come back and have a visioning retreat so as how to best adapt the successful elements from those exciting and vital urban environments for Birmingham consumption (I selected Baltimore because it, too, has a stunted skyline like Birmingham, and it, too, has a similar identity crisis).

    Let’s face it; Birmingham itself is about as Southern as Pita Bread & Humus. Let’s embrace our scruffy, densely textured “Rust Belt” heritage and run with it. By doing so, we’ll be creating something truly unique and indigenous, while (hopefully) preserving and enhancing the marvelous jewels already extant in the West End. Isn’t that the name of the game?

  4. Just wanted to say I enjoy reading your blog. Just moved here from Auburn where I studied Building Science.

  5. Jeremy, you are our jewel.

  6. You bring up a pet peeve of mine…Seems Birmingham (like many other cities) does not quite understand the need for maintenance beyond waxing and polishing floors, and as-fail make-do repairs. I speak from 25 years’ experience as a City employee. I fear that if the City remains true to its current philosophy, this new facility and many others will fall into disrepair and disrepute. Unless the Mayor and Council decide to save our existing facilities, we’ll be tearing them down and replacing them regularly at a tremendous taxpayer cost.
    The old adage “A stitch in time saves nine” seems to be lost to many local governments.

    • Thanks for these comments. Of course the same can be said of private companies not allowing enough budgets for maintenance. The issue is more acute when taxpayer money is involved, however.

  7. Pingback: Shape your future | Bhamarchitect's Blog

  8. they should have left the fairgrounds and the grandstand along .and just redone them. nobody from here will ever back this thing like they did the state fair .. its already a eye sore !!!

  9. Tim McConnell

    I’d like to see a museum dedicated to the history of the old Birmingham International Raceway built on this site. Is that a possibility?

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