Planning and its absence; Design Review November 14

A fresh start, much needed

An eagle-eyed reader pointed out that small signs have gone up in the two-story commercial building just east of the more elaborate Graves Building in the 1800 block of Third Avenue North (above) announcing a new development, k lofts. The owner (who also owns the Graves Building) plans two live/work spaces of about 2,200 SF each on the ground floor, and four loft residences on the upper floor of about 900 SF each. Design/build work is by Appleseed Workshop. Pre-leasing will begin in January for planned occupancy early 2014.

This project is particularly significant as the vacant Lyric Theatre–on the other end of this block–prepares for a fundraising campaign for renovation. Across the street are the massive McWane Science Center and Alabama Theatre, both in renovated historic buildings themselves. The other components of this block have had a disappointing trajectory until recently: When McWane opened back in 1998, all the commercial storefronts across Third Avenue were still filled with furniture and jewelry shops, as well as offices. It actually felt like one of the “fullest” blocks downtown. Now except for the long-standing Lyric Hot Dogs (since 1957) and the office of 2D Studio the buildings are all vacant.

A little planning can go a long way

Part of the difficulty in this former retail district (McWane Center was the original Loveman’s Department Store) has been the lack of good planning to capitalize on the popularity of McWane and the Alabama. In 1998 the City contemplated hiring a firm to develop a plan for attracting new users to the area around McWane but ultimately decided against it; this sort of planning has shown success in many urban areas (above, Nashville‘s downtown retail plan). As most retailers or restaurant owners will affirm, few want to go it alone: plans, with coordinated recruitment efforts, can steer investment wisely and create critical mass. It’s a shame this hasn’t happened here–or anywhere downtown. The only bright spot is that, as we’ve often pointed out in this blog, small building owners, developers, and businesses continue to “go it alone”  despite the lack of planning or coordination–sometimes with great success. Once k loft fills up, the owner plans more retail/restaurant space next door in the Graves Building. We could finally get the Theatre District this City deserves–the Alabama, Lyric, Carver, and RMTC Cabaret all supported by shops, restaurants and lounges within easy walking distance.

Urban voyeurism welcome

In the end, the market will dictate what fills buildings and storefronts. While we long for lots of ground floor retail activity everywhere, places like Nashville understand that’s not realistic–their market-savvy plan wisely targets a handful of key blocks and streets. Above we see another recent project designed by Appleseed, in the 2400 block of Second Avenue North, in  an historic storefront building down the street from Space One Eleven and Beta Pictoris art galleries. A large single-family residence, the unobstructed view is arresting (not everyone would be comfortable with this degree of transparency). It’s not a retailer or restaurant, but especially at night it adds a curiously intriguing perspective into the future of downtown. These investments are the sort of quirky, small-scale elements that keep Birmingham interesting, and we welcome them. Don’t forget about the need for better planning and strategy, though. A combination of individual charm and targeted planning would give us the truly 24/7 environment we dream of.

For more information on k loft, contact Kyle Kruse at

And now, tomorrow’s Design Review Committee agenda. Remember, the meetings are open to the public and take place at 7:30 AM at Auburn Urban Studio, 3rd Floor of Young and Vann Building, corner of 18th Street North and First Avenue downtown.

I.         Call to Order:  Minutes of the October 24, 2012 meeting.

II.        Name: Mr. Mike Gibson (Appleseed Workshop)

Site Address: 2023 Morris Avenue,Kinetic Communications

District: Morris

Requesting approval for: colors and window replacement

III.       Name:  Mr. Charles Russel

Site Address:  423 20th Street South

District:  Midtown / Birmingham Green South

Requesting approval for:  Paint, awning and sign

IV.       Name: Mr. Brant Beene (General Manager)

Site Address:  1817 Third Avenue North (Lyric Theater)

District:  19th Street (Theater & Arts District)

Requesting approval for:  Exterior Renovation (Phase I)

V.        Name: Mr. Daryl Williams

Site Address:  514 19th Street Ensley

District:  Ensley

Requesting approval for:  Exterior Renovation

VI.     Name: Mr. Robert Buddo

Site Address: 5529 1st Avenue South

District:  Woodlawn

Requesting approval for:  Exterior Renovation and Landscaping

VII.     Name: Mr. David Brandt (Fravert Services)

Site Address:  2815, 2817, 2819, and 2823 Highland Avenue

District:  Highland Park Local Historic

Requesting approval for:  Signage

VIII.    Name: Ms. Lara Watson (Reliable Signs)

Site Address: 301 19th Street, North (Wiggins, Childs, Quinn, Pantazis)

District:  19th Street

Requesting approval for: Temporary Holiday Banners

IX.       Name: Mr. Rakesh Patel

Site Address: 1016 20th Street, South 

District: 5 Points South

Requesting approval for:  Elevation revision approval and site plan & signage.

X.        Name: Mr. David Brandt (Fravert Services)

Site Address: 2520 3rd Avenue North (Iberia Bank)

District:  21st Street

Requesting approval for: Projecting sign and window graphics

[thanks to Nashville Downtown Partnership for the graphic]

12 responses to “Planning and its absence; Design Review November 14

  1. More good news. I am very happy to hear of these projects. Certainly hope new life comes to the Graves Building soon. Thanks.

  2. Jeremy, is there any news on the 2nd Ave. branding efforts?

  3. I noticed there are new “Homewood Suites, Coming Soon” signs across the windows of the old Five Points Music Hall and it appears the hotel developer is presenting to Design Review this week. I’m excited to see more and more positive activity in Five Points over the past few years. It’s very much starting to feel like they’re reaching a tipping point in making the district a popular entertainment destination. Also, it should be interesting to see what changes have been made, if any, to the hotel’s design in terms of fronting the street.

  4. Good to bring attention to the city’s lack of any strategic retail/entertainment plans. There are some excellent specialists in this field (like Gibbs Planning Group and Market Street), and they all emphasize –as you point out — these efforts need to be focused on a few locations to get critical mass.

    • If you don’t plan strategically for critical mass, it often doesn’t happen…hiring Gibbs or someone similar would be a terrific first step. Perhaps the new ONB/Main Street organization will have this on their list! Thanks.

  5. Living here in Nashville, if have to say yes, they do have a plan for everything, but the county-wide Metro government is way too powerful, and has in the past brushed community input to the side. In my opinion, Birmingham is a MUCH classier city than Nashville. It’s exciting to see how much development/preservation opportunity you have down there.

    • Thanks for this comment. You are correct that any city can be “over-planned” which could lead to an environment that feels too predictable, or homogeneous, or de-localized…that being said, I don’t consider Nashville to be in that category although I don’t know the city very well. When you say “classier” can you explain that opinion a bit more for us?

      • Just saw your post, sorry for not responding earlier. I just mean that Birmingham has a greater sense of history and place. Most of the really “hip” places in Nashville are in brand new purpose-built buildings. There is really only one full fledged walkable community (Hillsboro Village). Nashville was a much more compact city before the 50’s, when much of the urban core was demolished and the residential neighborhoods began to migrate out into the countryside. Nashville today is one of the most suburban cities in America. They’ve been working for about 15 years to re-establish the downtown area, but they’re sort of having to start from scratch. There’s a great book here,, that details what the city would like to do to reverse the trends of the past.

      • Thanks, this makes sense. Birmingham has a different situation, in that its historic core–and sub-centers–are larger and more intact than Nashville’s. However, renovating is often more costly/difficult than building from scratch; some of the more interesting older buildings are in tricky locations. And, Birmingham does not have the annual increase in population to support city center growth at the pace we’d like to see. So each city has pluses and minuses for sure. I appreciate the link you posted.

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