Sharpening the edge

Building a case for more amenities

Week before last, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees declined to include on their meeting agenda UAB‘s proposal for a new on-campus football stadium (shown schematically above at the corner of  13th Street and 6th Avenue South). It seems that despite a seemingly conservative business plan put forward by UAB, and good community support (all luxury skyboxes were rented for 5 years), the stadium, for the moment, won’t be built. While I personally hope the BOT will reconsider and move forward with the stadium, this is a good time to have a brief look at the UAB Master Plan, of which the stadium is a part.

The footprint says it all--big impact

UAB is the largest employer not just in Birmingham, but in the state; it’s impact is immense. All those employees, faculty, and students (as well as the health system complex) are on a Southside campus not much more than 40 years old. The recent Master Plan update (prepared by KPS Group, above)–which is part of a broader UAB strategic plan–shows proposed new construction and green space. The full master plan document states the following as a primary goal: “Encourage Midtown and Five Points town/gown mixed use development and foster interconnection of the campus with these areas.” My guess is this is the first time such a definitive statement has been officially included in a UAB master plan. The timing could not be better.

Critical mass, needs more permeability

Above is 19th Street looking north from 9th Avenue South. Historically, many UAB campus buildings have been impressive in terms of bulk, but are missing key links to the street; in place of welcoming entrances and transparencies, one often sees solid brick walls or immense mechanical vents. Or parking decks with no ground floor retail or contextual facades. The current administration, in part through the master plan, is making an effort to correct these issues by encouraging the “interconnection of the campus” with the surrounding neighborhoods. Rather than only considering buildings as discreet elements, serving  occupants and internal functions, UAB is committed to ensuring its buildings and green spaces tie into pedestrian/bike corridors, relate to existing/proposed neighborhood context, and otherwise weave into the surrounding city. The university’s plan is more extroverted than in the past, a needed quality given the nearby proposed private development around Railroad Park, in Midtown, and in Five Points. That edge–where campus buildings meet public streets and adjacent neighborhoods–is one of the keys to the plan’s success.

Mixed use for happy students

Several universities have taken on the “edge” of their urban campus in innovative ways. One example is Ohio State University (main campus at Columbus), which built the Campus Gateway project several years ago (above). This is a mixed-use complex where parking lots and other underused land at the fringe of campus were reformulated into a 4-block, mid-rise node including housing, office space, retail, restaurants, and a cinema. Extensive time was spent with many parties–from students, to employees, to neighborhood residents–before coming up with the desired mix, density, etc. The result? A rejuvenated neighborhood north of downtown Columbus (existing, adjacent historic commercial structures have also been renovated), a happier university community with dining and entertainment options right next to campus, and an improvement in the “town-gown” relations of Ohio State. In other words, a win-win for everyone. [note that Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm, was hired by Ohio State to design the Gateway project. This is the same firm leading the current Comprehensive Plan for the City of Birmingham].

Despite the football stadium’s current woes, there is much that UAB’s master plan could do to strengthen the existing Five Points commercial district and foster new growth in Midtown and at Railroad Park. With the right amount of smart thinking and strategic implementation, the university can create exciting urban places that improve life on campus–and in the City.

[thanks to intellidryad for the 19th Street pic; ifmuth for the Gateway pic]

25 responses to “Sharpening the edge

  1. Good to see this initiative of the new UAB master plan highlighted. The current leadership has inherited many unfortunate buildings in the Brutalist style (don’t blame the brick), the ‘gateway’ research building at 20th and University Blvd. a prime example. The Williams Blackstock opening up of the Cancer Center currently underway points toward this new direction.

    • That “opening up” at the cancer center is one example of trying to improve existing infrastructure while at the same time doing a better job of getting new construction right the first time. Thanks.

  2. Glad to hear a positive opinion on the future of UAB and Southside.

    • I’m truly optimistic that the UAB master plan can lead to good things for the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. We shouldn’t lose sight of an on-campus stadium, but at the same time there are many other opportunities for great place-making and urban design. Thanks.

  3. Really cool ideas about connecting the edge of UAB to other areas of the city. I drive down 10th Ave. S. between Five Points and UAB often and always thought that “edge” of campus could use some thoughtful development that would bridge UAB and Five Points. I wonder what UAB has in store for that area, if anything, which seems to be dominated by parking lots — roughly between 19th and 16th street.

    • Good observation. The neighborhood in Columbus, OH was lined with parking lots too. These are now filled with housing, shops, restaurants, and a cinema (and a hidden parking garage by the way). That 10th Avenue area has a lot of potential here for the same thinking.

  4. UAB is going to need to figure out how to move people around on its own. Almost every graduate student (I am one) I know covets the parking decks in the middle of the campus because no one wants to park on the fringes and walk 5 blocks to their building. If the city can’t/won’t provide any form of serious public transportation UAB needs to explore loop/spoke models for getting people around on campus buses.

    • That’s actually the plan. I’ve had a couple meetings with the Parking Director through my position on SGA and UAB will be creating a transit system hopefully in the near future. The plan is to move all parking to the exterior of campus and move people around through campus transit.

    • There are numerous examples out there of good, college-funded transit systems. I hope such a system (or a partnership with MAX) will be implemented as part of the master plan. Of course, if those 5 blocks are pleasant to walk, with coffee shops and bookstores along the way, more students would be willing to walk. Bike lanes are also key. Thanks.

      • Obviously that would be ideal, not deserted blocks lined with nothing but emergency phones and streetlights. My alma mater (Maryland) had a pretty extensive bus system and has recently let the city pay into it so residents can ride it for free as well. Could be a good way to jump start public transit around southside/northside.

      • Sounds like UAB is working on a campus transit system. This, coupled with street improvements and more careful attention to “street life” issues, could make a huge difference in quality of life. Thanks.

  5. UAB is no different than any other campus in regards to parking. In many cases, UAB parking is better than that on other campuses. I am sure that parking is being addressed as part of the master plan. The on campus stadium should be passed by the board of trustees because it is good for the university and the city. On the other side of 65, additional parking places were supposed to be created for the stadium.

  6. Jeremy, thanks for posting about this. It seems as if people, regionally, are warming to the idea that UAB and Birmingham’s future are mutually shared. And while the stadium is a large component in the university’s future, it’s encouraging to see that it’s growth and relationship with the surrounding environment are being explored in a larger context. Thanks again.

  7. UAB has come a long way, especially considering that the 40 blocks were acquired by demolishing low-income housing for the most part. This is a far better attitude, and things are looking up. Speaking of looking up, in your picture down 19th from 9th ave looking north the building on the NE corner is surrounded by scaffolding in response to the amazing number of bricks that have fallen off the facade. One might think that with more windows there would be less bricks to make the sidewalks, and alley, dangerous for students and the rest of us alike.

  8. That such a large part of any plan is banks of open air parking, however carefully located, is unfortunate – such a waste of space and already a cancer in so much of the city as a whole. I suppose it’s unrealistic (or idealistic) to expect any less a demand for parking, I’d just hope there was a more discreet, innovative way to handle it. More green, less grey.

    It’s also a shame that there’s not more of an accommodation for soccer, it’s certainly a college sport that has a potential for growth in a city squeezed between two football powerhouses, and facilities would be of more use to the wider community as I’d anticipate there’s far higher participation rate (as well as a lower physical barrier to entry), year-round demand and lower equipment and maintenance cost.

    • I agree, and hope that eventually open parking lots will become a thing of the past–not just on campus, but across the downtown area. A commitment to good urban design, along with improved transit and incentives to use alternative means of transport should help. As to soccer, that’s an interesting comment and worth consideration. Thanks.

  9. These are great points about needed more permeability for high density office space and retail space mixed used developments. This creates good critical mass and efficient use of land and an attractive development that does not look like a long cavernous valley of buildings with no light shining through. I live in Columbus Ohio and I get to see these great looking office buildings first hand and they really look very contemporary and fit in well with the surrounding environment.

  10. Pingback: Lessons from New Haven: Real Estate and Recovery | Tyler Davis, The Urban Dweller's Specialist

    • Thanks for the mention–and I enjoyed your piece about New Haven. Of course we have to remember that Yale has a massive endowment and all sorts of resources as a top-tier private university that can’t be matched by UAB–but the lessons are there and still relevant. I hope UAB can continue to forge greater relationships with local neighborhoods and developers to encourage a vibrant, mixed-use streetscape around its campus. Cheers.

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