Re-purposing an old neighborhood

Central Woodlawn — a few minutes’ drive (or future tram ride!) east of downtown Birmingham — is a superb example of urban place: well-scaled commercial storefronts, memorable historic architecture, a mixture of wider and narrower streets, and short blocks. This once-busy retail and business center has lost tenants and foot traffic over the years, but the fabric  largely remains. Main Street Birmingham, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods, has recently renovated a row of one-story storefronts into 55th Place Arts, with low rents targeted to artists (above, on 55th Place North). This city has been too slow to recognize the key role artists can play in urban revitalization; the Phoenix Building downtown (which we developed and designed), with its 74 live-work units of which 60 are subsidized and targeted to artists, is perhaps the only other comparable project in town.

It's all about the fabric

The corner of the project at 55th Place and First Avenue South is seen above, with the entrance to the new City Arts Boutique. Note the fine texture of the buildings along 55th Place, and the easy pedestrian scale of the environment.

Adding color can be literal too

Besides reactivating the street with new businesses and artistic energy, we really appreciate the paint job on the facade, illustrated above. Rather than the standard, conservative browns and grays painted evenly across a surface that you tend to see around town, playful angles and varied tones suit the reconstitution of these storefronts into artist workspace. Kudos to Main Street (and to the Design Review Committee, which today approved new signage and door treatments for the project) for allowing color to be used creatively here. It looks super.

If only the corner had been handled more sensitively

Just down the street (at First Avenue South and 55th Street North), Smiles for Keeps–a dental clinic for children and teens–is building a new facility on a prominent corner site, currently asphalt parking. Above is a rendering (architect: John Holmes), showing the new building with a landscaped area at the corner, and a proposed future building just beyond. A good deal of parking will remain at the rear. Clearly, reclaiming any piece of asphalt parking for a new building is a good thing; on a corner it’s even better. It’s good these buildings have relatively generous storefronts to allow transparency, and that they come to the sidewalk line along 55th Street. What’s less satisfactory is the resolution of the corner itself; while the intent was to mimic the corner entrance at the building currently leased by the clinic around the corner, in this case the “corner entrance” isn’t actually at the corner of the lot. The left-over green space feels just that–left over–and one wishes there were some way to extend the mass of the building out to that corner.

Back on First Avenue North, the corner feels resolved

Above is the historic Woodlawn building currently occupied by the clinic, with that original corner entrance that works seamlessly with the site. Despite this gripe, overall it’s great to see what Main Street Birmingham has been able to encourage in terms of neighborhood investment and even “buzz” about the cool factor represented by the potential in this neighborhood. Working with minimal staff and very tight budgets, this non-profit is on to something here. We wish them, and Woodlawn, much success in the future.

[thanks to John Holmes for the rendering]

16 responses to “Hopeful

  1. Tram? That’s awesome. When did that happen?

  2. Yes, it was nice of the committee to overlook the specific requirement in the “Architectural Guidelines for Commercial Properties in the Woodlawn Commercial Revitalization Area” recommending that unpainted masonry walls not be painted, and stipulating that, “Existing painted masonry walls shall …be painted a single color except for trim which may be another color.”

    Although, given that the purpose of the committee is “determining
    conformance with this article,” it’s interesting that they would allow themselves to undermine the expressly codified desires of the Woodlawn Merchants Association.

    • I’d thought these buildings were already painted before Main Street got them? Am I wrong? If so, you are correct that unpainted brick should rarely, rarely, get painted. I have seen that happen too often. Thanks.

      • See Google Streetview from June 2008 here: http://g.co/maps/cfy29

        (Just noticed there’s some nice new birds-eye aerial views of Woodlawn on Google Maps, too!)

      • Looks like some was already painted, and some was not. Interesting. Thanks for pointing this out. While I’d say the end result is pleasing, it’s important to know that an exception was made to the normally good rule of leaving original brick alone.

  3. Very nice, glad to see an organization like Main Street exist here. I have never been to Woodlawn, will have to check it out sometime. So what is the story behind the Phoenix Building?

    • The Phoenix Building was opened about 7 years ago, after about 5 years of development. Before the City Federal Building opened a few years later, it was the largest residential conversion project downtown. It is the first and only mixed-income, historic preservation housing project in Alabama. We worked hard to ensure that 80% of the units would be affordable rent, with artists as a chief demographic. Downtowns cannot be vibrant without a healthy mix of incomes and a diversity of people, so that was our concept behind the development. It is 100% full with a waiting list. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: 55th Place Arts and City Arts Boutique continue to attract attention - Main Street Birmingham

  5. Revitalizing what was once so great is important but what a shame that revitalization is required required.
    How nice it would be if we could move away for 20 or 30 years and upon a return visit everything is as we left it.

  6. you mention a “tram” and streetcars, but did you know there was once a wooden train station in Woodlawn? You can see the grassy location at 55th place just north of the mainline tracks. You can make out the former track siding on google satellite view.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. Woodlawn was an independent City (their City Hall still stands on First Avenue North) until being annexed into Birmingham in 1910. As a thriving industrial center it’s no surprise it had its own train station.

  7. We pushed the building as close to the corner as we could and still retain the three existing trees. We plan to retain one of these these trees (the other two are sick), improve the sidewalk and continue a row of urban trees and box hedge along the avenue This corner is a bus stop with existing trees and we thought a little breathing room was our best approach. If you will look at the property lines at this corner, you will find that the shape of the property is very acute here.

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