North Birmingham (1)

Unfortunate

Just 20 blocks north of the BJCC’s new entertainment district is the commercial center of North Birmingham, an important early satellite city of the early industrial region, which was incorporated into Birmingham proper in 1910. This center has an incredible urban fabric, considering its economic woes–and considering the ill-advised attempt a few decades ago to “suburbanize” its downtown (above): an entire half-block was demolished for a parking lot, with existing and “modernized” storefronts facing it, with the whole venture branded as “North Birmingham Shopping Center.” Bunker-like landscape elements line 27th Street where buildings and businesses used to front.

Future potential

Above we see the former Kress Five and Dime, whose size and detailing is testament to the former importance of this commercial center. Despite the misguided demolition around the corner, much of the historic fabric is intact (the above shot is along 27th Street looking north towards 30th Avenue).

Even more beauty, and more potential

More testament to the fine urban fabric is the great neo-classical former North Birmingham Trust and Savings Bank (1926) and adjacent Art Deco former supermarket (above) which have been recently purchased by a young local design firm Regarding Architecture to renovate into a mixed-use development. The architects are planning a sensitive restoration of the exteriors (the former supermarket became a drive-through for the bank a while back!).

The way we were

The photo above is from perhaps the late 1930’s,  illustrating the same buildings. The fantastic building stock on these blocks is ripe for forward-thinking pioneers like RA, who are breathing new life into the district.

Keep it coming

Another recent investment is the Ecoscape garden that replaced a vacant lot (above). A project of the local neighborhood, Wells Fargo bank (which recently renovated their local bank branch), Birmingham Southern College, and Main Street Birmingham, it’s another example of a positive new direction for this place.

Not what one would hope for

A less positive note for the neighborhood are the proposed alterations to an historic building (above right), whose fake mansard and blocked-up storefronts puts it at odds with many of its better-preserved neighbors.  The Design Review Committee yesterday denied the business-owner’s request for a new neon sign–which has already been installed anyway (without approval). The owner also proposed stone infill to one side of the entrance–adding insult to injury on this facade. The business is a nightclub (The Mansion) that seems to have been operating without proper licenses, proceeding with interior renovations without a permit, etc. It also seems the owner has chopped down city trees on the sidewalk, an outrageous act in any neighborhood–but to this day has not replanted anything.

While a nightclub has a right to be in an urban district, wouldn’t it be great if it was a good neighbor–applying for permits properly, working to renovate its facade in a manner more in keeping with this place? My hope is that this neighborhood will see more of RA’s effort, and less of The Mansion’s.

[Historic photo courtesy Birmingham Public Library]

14 responses to “North Birmingham (1)

  1. I’ve still not visited the North Birmingham Ecoscape, and am now all the more inspired to do so. Can’t wait to see these structures – a gateway to our city’s past and great potential for it’s future.

    Another wonderful post, bhamarchitect!

    • Thanks for reading! And yes it is worth visiting, very inspirational. Birmingham is so fortunate to have all these historic dense “downtown” districts–that other cities would kill for. But the blessing is also a curse, given limited resources of many kinds…still, I’m hopeful!

  2. North Birmingham was a focus of the AIA RUDAT team visit that helped set up urban design as a process. If I remember the thinking, the team felt a grocery (with parking) was needed as an anchor to attract other retail. Nice to be reminded, though, of the surviving urban fabric.

    • Thanks for reminding us of this recent look at the neighborhood by a national community planning group. I don’t get to this neighborhood as often as I should, and when I return I continue to be amazed by how much great fabric has survived.

  3. North Birmingham was a good place to grow up in 1960s & 1970s. I remember the area before they built NB Shopping Center. The “Avenue” as the Downtown business district was called by some locals had everything that a family needed including doctors, lawyer, dentist, banks, etc. I am happy to see someone interested in the neighborhood.

  4. also a thanks to the Birmingham Chapter of the ASLA for the design work on the Ecoscape!

  5. Thanks for bringing some attention to the area. The Ecoscape park & the mural have both been a breath of fresh air & we are looking forward to more good things happening in the neighborhood. North Birmingham actually had 2 movie theaters. You can see one in the 1936 tax record photo of the bank building. Unfortunately it burned in the late 50s/ early 60s. It is now our parking lot & sits adjacent to the Ecoscape park. The foundations are still there & form the edges of our parking lot. The other theater was on 27th Street, across from the Kress building. There is a small 4 storefront development that sits where it used to be.

    • Thank YOU for investing in a beautiful old neighborhood and taking a leadership role in its redevelopment. Sorry the theaters are gone, but at least a lot of other things are still there.

  6. Michael Calvert

    The North Birmingham business district’s continued service to the residents of the surrounding low and moderate-income neighborhoods of North Birmingham represents a measure of success. Many neighborhoods have completely lost their supermarket, drug store and other retailers since the 1960s. I suggest the parking lot was a critical factor in the survival and ongoing viability of this commercial area.

    The modest renovation of the Kress store and other buildings and the retention of the bank are also measures of success. Without the parking lot, they might have been demolished.

    Kudos to the Design Review Committee for addressing the deplorable design of the night club. It’s questionable that it’s an appropriate use in a neighborhood shopping area.

    • Thanks for the perspective. Clearly today we’d try to find a different parking solution that wouldn’t involve demolishing a 1/2 block of fabric; but the point about the services that still remain is informative. Hopefully DRC can do as much as it can to prevent the club from becoming worse–at least visually–than it already is.—–Original Message—–

  7. Steven Driskell

    Good article. You’d think the owner of “The Mansion” would consider the possibilities of increased revenue if he somehow improved the exterior of his establishment… I’ve always been interested in the various urban satellite cores that Birmingham has within its city limits. Redeveloped properly, they could provide an easy path towards improving the whole of the city.

    • You would think…but even in central downtown you still have business owners who don’t see the value of improved exteriors, perhaps because there’s still not a consistent sense that every block is in an upward trajectory; owners are often still “wait and see” what neighbors will do first. Thanks.

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