13 months and counting

This morning’s Design Review Committee unanimously approved building and landscape design for Regions Field, the new downtown home of the Birmingham Barons baseball team (above, Virginia Williams with the Mayor’s office introduces the project).  Looking closely at the colored plan on the easel above, you can see the baseball diamond oriented for optimum home plate and spectator comfort (shade will fall across the stands at almost all times). In pink are the ancillary elements along the 1st Avenue South edge up top and the 14th Street edge to the left; their character was the subject of most of the Committee’s discussion.

As interactive and porous as possible

The main floor plan is shown above (Lead architect HKS and local partner GA Studio). Again, 1st Avenue South is across the top (with Railroad Park directly across the street), and 14th Street to the left (west). 16th Street is to the right (east), and 3rd Avenue at the bottom (south). The project takes up 4 square blocks–15th Street and 2nd Avenue are consumed. The main entry plaza is the corner of 14th and 1st Avenue; along 1st Avenue are a ticket office, Barons merchandise store, and ice-cream shop as you walk east towards B&A Warehouse. Those 3 elements will be open daily to the public (and can be entered from the sidewalk as well as from the interior), regardless of whether the Barons are playing. Along 14th Street is a wide landscaped plaza with tables and chairs, that again will be open to the public regardless of the day. There is a connector of landscape walks, green berms, and children’s playground running on the east around the field which will likewise be open to the public at all times as a promenade connecting UAB campus to the Railroad Park.

Still in need of finesse

As we’ve noted previously, in an ideal world this project, or part of it, would be located at least 1/2 a block south of 1st Avenue, to allow a good, solid street wall of mid-rise development to take advantage of views and real estate premiums afforded by Railroad Park to the north and Regions Field to the south. Given the situation on the ground, while the designers have done a good job aligning several public elements at the street edge–to activate the public realm–there are still large swathes of one story elements, blank walls, and open space as you move from west to east across 1st Avenue (above, moving from right to left). The Committee asked that the details of the ice cream shop be worked on so that it could help continue the energy of the western part of the building in a more layered, vibrant way. Vacant land just behind B&A Warehouse (far left above) is reserved for future development–both a Negro League Museum and others–and hopefully those will go some way to helping densify that corner of the site.

An active public realm

The concern is that the energy of Railroad Park (above, at 15th Street Skate Plaza) won’t be fully leveraged by the edge of Regions Field across the street. Again, given the reality of the siting, the designers have done a pretty good job of incorporating as much as they could–but a ticket office, merchandise shop, and ice cream parlor don’t equate to the potential of continuous mixed-use development with restaurants, shops, and multi-story residences facing the park. The good news is that the baseball park moving downtown is a huge plus; hopefully the surrounding blocks and future development on the site itself will go a long way towards alleviating the current concerns about the edge condition.  We can’t wait for the first game in April 2013.

And just a dozen blocks north...

Which brings us briefly to the other big downtown project underway, also on a fast-track–the BJCC entertainment district and new Westin hotel, above. Unlike the construction site for Regions Field, which is even now surrounded by curious pedestrians, housing, Midtown offices and mixed-use, UAB, and Children’s Hospital (all elements which point to an exciting new Parkside neighborhood), the BJCC site has almost no pedestrian traffic, is bounded by interstate ramps, the convention center, and blocks of empty land cleared for future development to the north. It’s easy to visualize Regions Field integrating into the surrounding fabric; at BJCC, the fear is without integration into the rest of downtown and up to Norwood, the project can’t reach its potential. Hopefully the City is working on these connections. I want to go seamlessly from a baseball game, to a restaurant in Parkside, then to get a beer down at the entertainment district–but right now, its unclear how that would happen.

Bringing it down in scale

Speaking of beer, approval was also granted this morning to Pale Eddie’s Pour House on the 2300 block of Second Avenue North, to extend their existing rear patio (fenced, above) almost to the alley. We welcome more outdoor space to enjoy a drink downtown, and remind ourselves that while the Westin and Regions Field are exciting, we need to keep nurturing our small, entrepreneurial businesses and places like Pale Eddie’s that help keep our city center unique. Cheers.


30 responses to “13 months and counting

  1. Such exciting times in Birmingham! Thanks for all the good info you share with us Jeremy.

  2. Jeremy, could you tell from the plans if they are in fact going to keep the old, tall, narrow building as part of the park. I hope you know which building I speak of. Sorry to be so vaque.

  3. So the artist’s rendering that we’ve been seeing for a couple of months–the one with the giant “Birmingham”–is actually the 14th Street side of the baseball park and not the 1st Ave. side? I like that it will energize 14th Street, but that seems to be a lost opportunity for awareness/branding (for the Barons and the city) from the Railroad Park side. I’m surprised that it doesn’t look more like a landmark–and, frankly, more exciting–from that vantage point.

    • Correct. The artist’s rendering is of 14th Street, and while we’d been told originally it was “conceptual”, we were told today it is indeed “final”. The amount of attention and graphics on 14th Street does seem odd compared to 1st Ave, which almost reads as a “side” elevation…

      They will return with signage for approval, at which point perhaps we’ll get more info on graphics/signage along 1st.

  4. I was curious about the giant “Birmingham” sign as well – and whether or not it would be visible to travellers on I-65, but I’m not sure that it would be seen over the existing buildings.

    • That giant “Birmingham” sign on the 14th Street elevation is still there, and is actually formed by perforating the metal wall panels along that facade. Not sure if you can see it from interstate either, although that would be great if so.

  5. In their write-up today The Birmingham News indicates there will be retail/restaurants (separate from the ice cream shop/Barons merch. store) that open inside the park during games and out to the street at other times. Was this your impression from the presentation as well? If so, it seems like those elements would help enliven the street a bit around the site.

    • I’ve not read the News’ account, but the only elements that open to the public at non-game times are the ice cream shop, Barons store, and ticket counter (beyond the landscaped walks and kids’ play area). There are concession stands too, but they do not open to the street and are meant just for game-time. It’s too bad the concession stands couldn’t open to the street as well, at least. There’s also VIP lounge/dining on the upper level, but obviously that’s just for ticket holders.

  6. I just went to railroad park today, it’s looking good so far and I like the brewery and apartments nearby.
    Is there anything in the plans about the streets surrounding the stadium? The streets surrounding it are so wide and in disrepair, it doesn’t seem very pedestrian-friendly.
    Thanks for another great update.

    • Streets that will have work done are: 14th Street along the eastern edge from the RR tracks to 3rd Avenue South; 1st Avenue South from 14th to 18th on both the north and south, curb and gutter on 3rd Avenue South from 14th to 16th. The idea is to open a complete ‘venue’ next April.

      • Thanks for this info. Do you know if the sidewalks directly adjacent to RR Park will be paved by then as well? I believe state funding was held up for that?

      • You wouldn’t happen to know what kind of work, would you, churnock?
        Every time I roll through downtown I just feel like you could fit separate parks inside its streets (and there’s rarely enough traffic to fill them these days). I know that the new comprehensive plan calls for more on-street parking and bike lines, which is great, but it seems like the highway-sized roads are hurting the livelihood of the neighborhood. Is it possible to have certain new developments go out into the road lanes?
        If it breaks up the congruity of the grid then I think that would be a plus tbh, it gives the area some distinctiveness vs. the monotony of perfectly square grid layouts.
        Maybe it’s just me because I was in the UK a while ago and the American road sizes just really stand out to me.

      • San Francisco has been creating “micro parks” that are literally 10 feet wide–neighborhoods petition the city to allow them to take over a set of parallel parking spaces on a particular street and turn that small space into a park, extending the space of the sidewalk into the street. They all have different characters and designs. Of course this works in a city that has a sophisticated, variable parking rate strategy with capabilities like embedded street sensors to automatically adjust parking rates in real time based on current demand–this means that the micro-parks are part of a holistic parking plan. Still, we should be thinking along these lines along many of our streets. Thanks.

        —–Original Message—–

    • There is no master plan for the surrounding neighborhood (tentatively dubbed Parkside), which I’ve expressed concern about in earlier posts. In the absence of a plan, my guess is that there may be numerous private investments announced in the area in the coming year–and as a result, the City will agree to lay new sidewalks, and other streetscape improvements. Both UAB and Childrens are coordinating pedestrian-friendly street elements a bit further south which should help.

  7. I think we’ve missed an opportunity here to make the ballpark nestle in more as part of the neighborhood. I wanted to see home plate oriented on the yellow center stripe of Second Avenue South, giving you optimal views of both the north and south sides. By moving the park in maybe 50 feet from 14th Street, you could create a grand entrance at 2nd, but tuck the park behind the more human scale of retail shops and potentially housing at the corners of 1st and 3rd South. This would draw people up and down 1st Avenue and 14th Street. Instead, this plan shows two of the four corners of the new mega block is parking, all but killing street life.

    The 360-degree concourse of new stadiums invite people to enter and exit at all points. But I got the sense that the city and designers felt like 1st and 14th was the “anchor” corner and had to orient home plate there (not to mention the desire of UAB to orient the field facing south) and they didn’t take full advantage of the 360-degree concourse concept.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited baseball is returning to the city and downtown. I just think we should take a little more time and do this right so we will maximize private investment, street life, and tying into existing amenities such as Railroad Park, and we’ll have a ballpark people will want to come to 100 years from now.

    • It’s hard to disagree that in some ways the siting feels rushed, that the activation of the street edge is not ideal for this location, and that 3rd Avenue is getting very little attention indeed (some of that parking is planned future development, but still). Given the tight time schedule, and the poor track record we have in coordinating complex urban projects, it’s remarkable that it’s as good as it is. The cooperation between private businesses, the City, and UAB in acquiring the property; the willingness of the team owner to push forward; the commitment to downtown: all of these positives outweigh the negatives for me. Ideally we’d have another year, but we don’t due to sports scheduling…it’s kind of a case of accepting the good rather than insisting on the perfect, and getting nothing in return.

      The presentation oddly included no elevations along 3rd Avenue, so the focus of the Committee was elsewhere for that reason. But you are right about how important that street is for future, pedestrian-friendly activity, and right now it feels sub-par.

  8. The latest UAB master plan calls for a new concentration of residence halls starting at 4th Ave. S. and extending from 14th to 16th. It shows a mixed-use district immediately north of that. So there is an opportunity to make a ballpark/Railroad Park neighborhood. Also, I think the colossal “BIRMINGHAM” fronting 14th will make the ballpark easy to find for distant patrons coming via I-65. Much more traffic on 14th compared to 1st, so a graphic gateway makes sense there. UAB is working with the city and ALDOT to add service roads leading directly to local streets, taking pressure off University Blvd.

    • The new UAB expansion coupled with a re-think on pulling traffic off of University Blvd. will help create pressure for a great new neighborhood here, I agree. And the big graphic is a good idea facing 14th–hopefully the graphic and architectural expression facing the park will be equally compelling (if different). Thanks.

  9. Steven Driskell

    Great post. I think it’s most likely that the city didn’t fully take advantage of Railroad Park/Regions Field and how they’ll work together. I agree that separating them with a bit of potentially develop-able space would have been best; however, there is the potential that providing such a dense glob of amenities could provide a strong anchor. I guess we’ll find out, though, won’t we?

    • Indeed, we shall find out! Normally if you have two big attractions like that, you’d try to spread them out at least a block or so, to maximize spin-off development. However, the sheer fact that downtown has 2 new attractions like this in the same neighborhood bodes well, period. Thanks.

  10. Since the DRC gave approval for construction, when do you think the actual construction and foundational work will begin on the stadium?

    • My guess would be foundation work starts in 4-6 weeks? It’s a fast-track job, meaning that they can still be demolishing on part of the site while foundations are being poured on another. 13 months until opening day means a lot must happen very quickly indeed.

  11. I was wondering if the UAB baseball team will play their entire season at Regions Field or just a couple a of games. I keep hearing conflicting reports. I know that Brian Mackin (UAB athletic director) is on the PACE board, and he said they will play there. I just do not know if it would be the entire home schedule. Could you please clarify??

    • I do not know the answer, but will ask Brian the next time I see him. My guess is they don’t have an official announcement one way or the other quite yet…

      —–Original Message—–

  12. I’ve been waiting for a webcam showing the progress of Regions Field, but nothing has happened yet. Do you know if any movement has been made to get a webcam? I know the Barons post pictures of the progress on Facebook once a week, but that is about it.

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