If you build it…

National brands move in

National brands move in

The new Parkside neighborhood taking shape around Railroad Park is promoted as a mixed-use urban neighborhood with plenty of retail, restaurant, and entertainment. It seems basic, but new projects must provide rentable ground floor space to sign up the retail, restaurant and entertainment that attract people to live, visit and stroll the streets. How are some current projects stacking up in this regard? Currently under construction, 20 Midtown is one of the most prominent, retail-wise, in the area (multi-sites along 20th Street South between Second and Fourth Avenues; architect: Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds). The first building’s Starbucks has recently opened (above); a Chipotle is on its way, and a Publix supermarket is coming in 2016. This lineup of national retailers is fairly unprecedented for a single project downtown or midtown. The supermarket alone promises to be a major anchor that will pull other developments into the area.

Density on 20th Street

Density in Midtown

The next phase of the project (above) has even more retail space along both frontages. According to the retail leasing site, about 110,000 SF of retail and commercial space will be provided in the completed project (ground floor retail appears to be approximately 85,000 SF). From a pedestrian-friendly planning perspective, the “urban drive-thrus” servicing Starbucks and other businesses aren’t ideal, and the curb cuts required between these and the other inner parking decks feel excessive–but at least the overall mass of the buildings are dominant, and these cuts are relatively minor breaks to the retail street frontage. In sum, 20 Midtown does an excellent job providing storefront space to the neighborhood.

The park deserved a bit better

The park deserved a bit better

The Liv Parkside mixed-use development (above, main elevation on First Avenue South between 18th and 17th Streets; architect: Charlan Brock & Associates) fills an entire half-block in a very prominent location directly across from Railroad Park. Due to its size (it will contain 228 rental apartments) and its location, it’s disappointing that it will offer only 4,000 SF of retail. And it’s not just the paucity of retail that’s a concern–the treatment of the storefront is architecturally weak, an odd combination of brick and punched openings that feels out of proportion with the major civic space it faces. In comparison, 20 Midtown’s more straight-forward storefront feels sophisticated and well-scaled to the streets. Overall Liv Parkside is a missed opportunity for invigorating the sidewalks fronting the park. On the bright side, local coffee house Red Cat will anchor the retail mix and plans a Sunday brunch that will no doubt prove popular for residents and visitors alike.

Uncertain at the street

Uncertain at the street

Just southwest of Liv Parkside is the Venue, providing 236 rental apartments (above, looking at the corner of Third Avenue South and 16th Street; architect: BOKA Powell). In a blow to potential adjacent street life, this development offers no retail storefronts whatsoever, with the lobby and leasing office providing the only ground floor activity. If Liv Parkside offers too little rentable storefront, the fact that Venue offers none is truly a letdown.

Maybe there's hope

Maybe there’s a little hope

As a consolation, the developers do state that, while no retail is being offered, there is ground floor space behind roll-up glass doors suitable for food trucks; perhaps this same space can be finished out for retail in the future. In the rendering above (along 16th Street) it’s possible to see these openings in the middle-to-far distance. For a mid-rise, dense urban project, the architectural massing and materials are better than some, but the street level leaves, unfortunately, much to be desired.

Unfit for urban life

Unfit for urban life

Along 18th Street South and Second Avenue, Healthcare Realty Trust, the REIT which owns a building directly north, is constructing a parking deck on a former surface parking lot (above, looking east along Second Avenue). There is not much to say here, except that there’s no attempt at an architectural fig leaf: we get a stark, block-long wall of brick, with smallish pierced openings looking directly into the garage. That this is being built a half block from Railroad Park is pretty devastating. Zoning laws in the City should be amended to require any parking deck constructed in prominent urban places to contain ground floor retail or other components to enhance the adjacent public space of the street, rather than cheapen it.

Filling up

Filling up

Headed back over to 20th Street, the good news is the large Station 121 building (completed 2010, seen above looking east at the corner of 20th Street South and First Avenue; architect: Niles Bolton and Associates) is rapidly filling its storefronts. Having been mainly vacant due to the recession generally as well as market hesitation at this location specifically, the 21,000 SF of retail is now succeeding due to its proximity to newer developments including the Publix supermarket, and the general growth of Midtown which 5 years ago was still hypothetical. This block of retail and restaurant should nicely complement 20 Midtown’s efforts directly south.

A lost opportunity

A lost opportunity

Which brings us to our final, cautionary image: Athens Flatts, seen above along Second Avenue North between 23rd and 22nd Streets (completed 2007; architect: Rob Walker Architects). The ground floor is a cousin to the new parking garage mentioned above–arched openings with metal security barriers look into a bleak parking garage which, especially at night, is completely at odds with the pedestrian character of this part of Second Avenue which is filled with bars and restaurants. Perhaps one day a portion of this garage will be carved away allowing these arches to open into shops and cafes. Until then, it serves to show us what happens when developments neglect the life on the streets that every urban structure has an obligation to engage. Let’s ensure future Parkside developments don’t fall into the same category.

[Thanks to Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds and BOKA Powell for the renderings]

8 responses to “If you build it…

  1. Any chance that some of the ground floor of Athens might be transformed into retail?

    • The answer relates to the larger role of parking in a dense urban environment. Until we have a combination of shared parking facilities and more viable transit, private parking remains mandatory for residential developments. At the very least in the short term, those arches could become shallow illuminated vitrines exhibiting art. Or at least plant vines to shield the view of that garage from the public!

  2. Since many urban theorists say mid-size cities like Birmingham can’t support retail uses along every street, they’ve suggested a hierarchy of A and B street grids where A streets are strongly pedestrian in character with active ground floor uses. B streets are less so, though still designed with continuous sidewalks. The A streets need to connect into a system. Might be good to see how that would play out in Birmingham city center.

    • Excellent point–not every block can be lined continuously with retail outside of the largest cities. Nodes, and hierarchies of streets become essential and it would indeed be fantastic to apply this thinking to Parkside.

  3. Do you know what the on-street parking situation is like for any of these developments under construction?
    I hope they get some on-street parking and trees but I can’t tell at this point. It’s gonna be a real crime if they don’t.
    Good post!

    • Good question–these projects all front city streets with existing on-street parking. Typically the City works with the development to help with tree planting, sidewalk refurbishment, etc. as well as occasionally adjusting the parking meter situation to benefit visitors/residents. We will see what happens in these cases. Thanks for reading!

      • The two phases of 20 Midtown currently underway will both have street parking. The Starbucks/Chipotle building will have street parking along both 3rd and 20th. Publix will have parking along on 3rd Avenue only.

  4. “Unfit for urban life” indeed. The last thing we need in downtown is brand new, shiny blight.

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