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?
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.
As urban areas redevelop, existing, poorer populations are often replaced by newer, wealthier ones in a process known as gentrification. The 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.
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.