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.
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.
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.
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.