A little history (2)

Design worth preserving

In an earlier post, we discussed the colorful history of the area around the current Regions Bank in the Lakeview District (3rd Avenue South and 32nd Street, above). At the time Barber Companies was regrading vacant land across the street into parking; they have since started construction on a new office building, a hopeful sign this urban neighborhood will continue to see investment and revitalization. The start of the new building is seen below, across 32nd Street from the bank.

Underway courtesy of Barber

This morning at the City’s Design Review Committee, Regions presented a request to demolish the existing drive-through canopy at the rear of their building, and replace it with a new one. The existing canopy is very visible, since it faces the bank parking lot which extends to the alley; in effect the rear facade is almost as important as the front given its high level of exposure. The Committee denied the request, and asked for Regions to return with a revised proposal. Why?

It's all about proportion

As seen above, the existing drive-through canopies (to the right) mimic the thin, light effect of other canopies on the building. You can observe this characteristic at the angled canopy to the right on the front facade, or at the back entrance to the left of the drive-through. That lightweight quality in projecting architectural elements is typical of this sort of “Miami Modern” architecture.

The proposal removed the existing staggered canopy system and replaced it with a singular, heavy-set canopy that’s identical to what one sees at a typical gas station. Instead of the perhaps 8-9 inch height of the current canopy, the new one was to be 36 inches high, ostensibly to hide the pneumatic tubes that are currently exposed. Committee member Mark Fugnitto eloquently defended the architectural merits of the building, and asked that Regions put some thought into designing a canopy that’s consistent with those merits.

Hard to win anyone over with this

The other issue with the presentation was the lack of basic presentation materials. Rather than a set of good, illustrative drawings and (preferably) a rendering, only a photo (similar to the above) was presented of a generic, gas-station-like canopy from some other location. The Regions building does not rise to the level of being iconic, but it still serves as a very good example of this period of commercial architectural history. The Committee was absolutely right to insist on a more professional, and thoughtful, effort from the bank.

[thanks to rocketdogphoto for the gas station canopy]

14 responses to “A little history (2)

  1. Since this property is in a “Commercial Revitalization District” rather than a historic district, what is the committee’s authority regarding design character? I could imagine a public interest in maintaining standards of quality across the district, or perhaps even in preserving some general “character” of commercial architecture district-wide.

    I’m not sure I see where maintaining the architectural character of a single building (which, though it may be of some historic interest, is not a contributing structure to a listed historic district) is within the committee’s purview. So though I agree with their opinion, I’d like to know exactly why it’s their business. It would seem that promoting commerce would be the primary goal for a “commercial revitalization district”, rather than requiring commercial investors to please the committee’s architecture critics.

    • Good question. My understanding is that the Committee has jurisdiction over both historic and commercial revitalization districts. Each district has its own set of guidelines (most of which are decades old and, as the Committee admits, need updating). I assume that the reason DRC has jurisdiction in commercial revitalization districts is the recognition that good design/urban principles are an important part of revitalizing a neighborhood; ensuring a good design standard would encourage quality revitalization, not just “any old” revitalization. As you point out, investors/businesses may beg to differ. Ideally, those would choose to locate outside the district and not be subject to DRC, while those that appreciated the value of locating in a district with higher standards would self-select. Achieving that balance is a tricky business, to be sure. Thanks.

  2. This Regions branch is a pretty little building and its function follows its form rather well. I like its spareness on the landscape, but its needs new trees and shrubs. Building this car shed onto it would ruin it.
    And this reminds me of the now gone SouthTrust bank at Eastwood Mall. That was a glorious structure and should never have been torn down. Jeremy, please tell us a little about it.

    • You are so right–with the right care and attention, including to landscape, this place could really shine. As to Eastwood, there was a collection of very interesting period architecture out there–same vintage as this Lakeview Regions–that were either renovated beyond recognition, or torn down. The SouthTrust bank is a great example, but I don’t know much about it. It would be interesting to research some of the original architecture out there and report back. Thanks.

    • I don’t know much about that Eastwood bank branch, either, except that it was built in 1969 and was one of my favorite buildings in the city. I hold a grudge against Wachovia for tearing it down in favor of the cheap little light-gauge metal-framed piece of trash at Eastwood Village.


  3. To answer John’s question: When each of the districts were established the merchants in the area wrote design guidelines that they wanted established in the district. What the Design Review Committee does is administer these guidelines to ensure compliance in the district. So, in essence the merchants granted this review power to the committee.

  4. It seems like sometimes businesses offer up the lamest piece of trash they can and then after it’s rejected they offer up something half decent knowing they can get it through because it is an improvement.

    • This is an interesting point–the Committee is only human, and thus subject to various forms of psychology. If they feel beaten down/overworked by poor presentations, they will sometimes be relieved at a mediocre solution– better than the original poor one, but still far below the excellent solution if you’d started out with mediocre and then been forced to work upwards. Thanks.

  5. Those guidelines are public record and I’m happy to get you a copy. Send me an email at matthew.churnock@birminghamal.gov and I’ll get you a copy of whatever district you want.

  6. oh, and you will be underwhelmed.

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