Can we afford it?

Angled parking, streetcars, and rising hemlines

Recent reports in the Birmingham Business Journal have quoted the new owner of the historic Empire Building (First Avenue North and 20th Street) as wanting to redevelop the building into “low-income housing” as opposed to the boutique hotel he’d originally suggested. The reason stated was financing would be easier to come by. Two things are clear: one, the Empire is one of the City’s most recognizable and important buildings, due to its membership in the “Heaviest Corner on Earth” collection of early skyscrapers which formed the nexus of downtown for decades (seen above, first tall building on the left, in a photo ca. 1918). Two, this City has a huge need for more quality affordable housing. Does it necessarily follow that this project makes sense?

Disappearing act: first storefronts, then adjacent businesses

Affordable housing projects downtown have had mixed success. Older developments such as the conversion of the historic Bankhead Hotel into a Section 8 housing development for seniors (above, Fifth Avenue North between 23rd and 24th Streets) often have reputations for poor management, loitering and shady deal-making by the entrances, and reducing demand for adjacent development. On the other hand, the Phoenix Building–which we developed some 7 years ago with a mix of moderate-income and market-rate apartments–has provided affordable loft spaces for artists and others who want to live in an artistic environment. It’s known for photography studios, art shows/performances, and an eclectic vibe. Downtown could use more living units like that. Producing this means choosing the right financing program, marketing astutely, and managing effectively. The developer must have a clear intent at the outset: is it just to fill up a building with lower-income pesople? Or is it part of a greater vision for integration with the surroundings, and for harnessing a meaningful vibe? At Empire, the developer’s true intent remains a mystery.

Hell’s Kitchen, meet Midtown West

As urban areas redevelop, existing, poorer populations are often replaced by newer, wealthier ones in a process known as gentrificationThe Empire report strikes many as out of sync with the normal trajectory: low-income users will be injected into an already gentrifying neighborhood. In New York City, an example of the more familiar trajectory is seen above across the street from our apartment building where poorer residents on fixed incomes share the block with young professionals moving in (Harborview Section 8 housing ca. 1976 to the left, with our building ca. 2012 in the background, West 55th Street looking south between 10th and 11th Avenues). New York has a long history of affordable housing intertwined with market-rate housing in a variety of ways. Other cities in the US–at least in post-war period–not so much. Affordable housing needs to be integrated into any vibrant urban neighborhood–but all-to-often, it isn’t. With negative consequences for all.

Save it, but in the right way

Another out-of-town investor has recently explored turning the Thomas Jefferson Hotel (above, 17th Street North between First and Second Avenues) into low-income housing. This building, with its prominence on the skyline, and interior filled with high-ceilinged, ornate ballroom and restaurant space, is much better suited to a sensitive mixed-use plan (which may include restaurant, event space, housing, and hotel rooms) currently being explored by the local Thomas Jefferson Tower group. We need more investment from places outside of Birmingham. But in this case, the local group is much better attuned to how this building could integrate into the neighborhood.

In the end, we want to encourage all incomes groups to live downtown. But the appropriate way to situate the mix is complex, and needs to be thoughtfully planned. We’d love another Phoenix Building. But not another Bankhead Tower.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the Heaviest Corner pic; bamaboy for the Bankhead Hotel pic; caedan for the TJ Hotel pic]

11 responses to “Can we afford it?

  1. Excellent points. Still would rather see a more imaginative, productive re-use of this landmark.

  2. I think mixed income housing is very important, especially in light of Birmingham’s history. Unfortunately, being black here is almost synonymous with being poor, and the city is largely economically, and thus also racially, segregated. I hope that downtown can become a model of diversity for the rest of the city.

    • Absolutely. Downtown can be a model of diversity, at the same time that we are careful about what resources and programs are brought to which buildings…not everything is a perfect fit everywhere. Thanks.

  3. When the developer says “low income housing”, what does he mean? Are we talking about “mixed income housing” such as the Phoenix, or is this simply a private sector “project”? I am supportive of mixed income housing, where a small portion of a buildings units are subsidized. My cousin lives in such a building in New Orleans and it is a nice place, but if the whole building is going to be Section 8 then that is a terrible plan. It goes back to the same issue of mixed use vs separate use. You do not take all the poor people in city a put them in one area. A city (or apartment) should be diversified so that poorer and richer intermingle.

    • Exactly. Typically “ghettoizing” the poor, or the poor elderly, in a single property is not a good situation either for the residents or the surrounding neighborhood. Mixing–or integrating–is generally preferable. That’s why the building in New Orleans, or the Phoenix Building in Birmingham, or HOPE VI in Birmingham are good models. We are not sure what the developer is planning–the hope is it wouldn’t be all Section 8. Knowing more about the meaning of “low income” is essential for us to evaluate the project. Thanks.

      • Does the city government have any say in directing how the building is used?

      • It certainly could–through incentives, or restrictions, or through the powers of a redevelopment authority or other agency. Alas, Birmingham has none of these structures, so unless there’s a zoning change–which would appear unlikely–the developer really has no direction from the city, a master plan organization, or otherwise…

  4. I think that using the Empire Building for low-income housing is a really terrible idea. I do understand about mixed-use and mixed-income projects, but even one of those on this significant, historic and, one hopes, regenerating corner should not be done. I can see Mr. Welton’s face falling, up there on his medallion.

  5. When will the pedestrian bridge plan be release to the public?

    • The City Council will need to endorse the concept before the real design work begins. That will of course be a public presentation and vote. There’s no date for that yet, however. We’ll let everyone know as soon as we do. Thanks.

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