A ghostly reminder disappears

Almost gone

Almost gone

The above was the view from the morning bike commute along the Hudson River: the remains of Pier 54‘s steel entrance framework being dismantled and craned away, as new concrete piers cluster all around. Look closely and you’ll see faint lettering on the main cross beam spelling “Cunard White Star”, the world-renowned shipping line that still operates passenger service between New York and Southampton, UK. Manhattan’s waterfront was once packed with countless shipping piers, and Pier 54 in Chelsea was particularly well known: the Titanic was set to arrive just north of here at Pier 59 (but the Carpathia, loaded with survivors, came instead to 54), and the Lusitania set sail from here on her ill-fated voyage. This skeleton is all that’s left, but its silhouette is a powerful reminder of the past. Now, it appears, this small piece of history is leaving us.

The glory days

The glory days

Above is a shot of the Chelsea Piers in their heyday of 1920,  looking south along 11th Avenue with the Hudson River in the background. Designed by Warren and Whetmore, the architect of Grand Central Terminal, it opened in 1910 and the handsome granite facade stretched many blocks to accommodate the biggest passenger ships of the day. Note the large arched openings, of which the Pier 54 skeleton is a remnant.

Getting there was still half the fun

The days were already numbered

By 1930, however, the pier complex was already out of date and new, deeper piers were created further north for larger luxury ships such as the Queen Mary and the Normandie. The Chelsea complex still served smaller passenger ships and commercial craft, but its heyday had passed; the above shot shows how shabby Pier 54 had become by 1951. Within another couple decades, the complex would be abandoned and derelict as container shipping and jet travel made Manhattan piers almost obsolete.

Not the prettiest new facade

Not the prettiest new facade

In 1994 part of Chelsea Piers was renovated into a giant sports and entertainment complex; the granite facades were removed, and new colorful but cheap-feeling siding and signage went up (above). The old West Side Elevated Highway was torn down opposite, and by the early 2000’s replaced with the West Side Highway and Hudson River Park, with its miles of bike paths, promenades, and walking trails. All generally good things.

Park of the future

Park of the future

Now, construction is underway on a new Pier 55 park (rendering above–designed by Heatherwick Studio) which has been controversial due to lack of public input and lack of homage to the maritime history of the place (the entire cost of the new park is almost completely financed by the billiionaire Barry Diller). While the rendering does show the skeletal Pier 54 entrance remaining, it’s difficult to confirm this will actually happen.

The stevedores are long gone

The stevedores are long gone

On the one hand, the new park could build on the very park-like setting that would be totally unrecognizable even 20 years ago along the formerly rough-and-tumble waterfront (above). On the other hand, the Pier 54 entrance is an important piece of history that would be a real shame to lose. Every day on the bike commute it’s a reminder of earlier networks of trade, commerce and immigration that made this city–and country–what we are today. Let’s hope its current dismantling is a temporary one.

[thanks to Bowery Boys History for the historic photos,  Americasroof for the current Sports Complex exterior and Heatherwick Studio for the rendering]

Container creativity

Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box

An exciting new project in the Avondale neighborhood, just a short bike zyp ride from downtown, was announced in the Birmingham Business Journal yesterday (rendering above). The project is on 3rd Avenue South between 41st and 42nd Street and the architect is Design Initiative. The developer cites London’s Boxpark as an inspiration; Boxpark is created from shipping containers, and is intended to provide “pop-up” space for unique, low-cost, highly creative retail, restaurant and gallery space. Birmingham’s version–dubbed Box Row–will offer dozens of containers with simple, affordable pricing and the flexibility to join containers to create larger space. It’s high time the City embraces this type of concept, for many reasons.

If it works in Shoreditch...

If it works in Shoreditch…

We have argued in past posts that there would be a lot more retail downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods if available rental space were appropriately geared towards the young, the creative and the entrepreneurial. While a neighborhood like Avondale has land uses no longer compatible in the current marketplace (Box Row will occupy the former Anchor Motel site), central downtown has too many retail storefronts left over from an era of big department stores and the high-rent retail that clustered around them: they are too large, and rents too expensive, for contemporary urban retail. Charm  on Second Avenue North downtown would not be around if it weren’t for the oddball small space and corresponding lower rent. This could be the answer not just for Avondale, but for vacant lots downtown and in other locales.

Simple, sustainable, affordable

Simple, sustainable, affordable

The site layout (above) illustrates good urban design: rentable space lines the sidewalk, while parking is concealed to the rear. Terraces afford space for outdoor dining; the composition is a nice balance between the repetition of the individual containers and the contrasting masses of their groupings. At a reported $4.3 million investment, this is a leap forward in how we can re-imagine urban space.

Our own box concept

Our own box concept

We’re especially excited because back when the Community Foundation sponsored a 20111 competition for redeveloping a block just east of Railroad Park, our entry was a container box “pop-up” concept (above) that included retail, restaurant and gallery space (the site will now be a public plaza adjacent to the Steam Plant redevelopment). Creatively using container boxes is a proven solution all over the globe at this point; it’s very cool that developers are bringing Box Row to Birmingham. We wish them every success.

(thanks to Design Initiative and the BBJ for the rendering and site layout, and Boxpark for the London image)

The back yard is gentrifying

11th Avenue is no longer cheap rent

11th Avenue is no longer cheap rent

A routine Sunday errand in our Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City–to purchase a few indoor plants at the local nursery–became a lesson in the fast-moving gentrification of all parts of Manhattan. The nursery, Chelsea Garden Center (at 11th Avenue and West 44th Street looking north, above) got its start in 1984 about 20 blocks south of the current location; it has moved numerous times as rising rents and development pressure became too much for this type of small business. It had been located in Chelsea, East Village/Bowery, and the Meatpacking District; all of these had been bywords for affordable or even cheap living, but are now filled with luxury condos and boutique hotels. The far west side of Hell’s Kitchen would have seemed even 10 years ago to be fairly immune to the extreme gentrification seen in other neighborhoods, but no more. The nursery is finally giving up on Manhattan and is moving to Brooklyn; the landlord will not renew the lease and is instead selling to a developer which will result in another high-rise similar to the recently built one seen in the background of the above photo.

A new west side

A new west side

A lot of the development pressure is coming from the nearby, massive Hudson Yards project, where multiple towers, thousands of housing units, a park, and millions of square feet of office and retail are displacing rail yards, warehouses and old tenement apartments. The picture above shows the first pieces of Hudson Yards under construction in the background, with the MTA‘s new transit stop–the terminus of the 7 line–to the right in the foreground (New Yorkers, ever- vigilant about occupying public space, are holding a protest unrelated to the development).

Rent a 1-BR for $4500/MO

Rent a 1-BR for $4500/MO

The new subway stop is the City’s gift to the developers; the far west side has long been underserved by transit which has, until recently, kept rents low and discouraged major developments: the neighborhood was just too difficult to get to. But all that has changed in the last decade or so, with people being more and more willing to live or dine further from the center of town. Above is a new 71-story luxury rental tower (the Sky) underway across the street from the nursery. Its steep rents and plush amenities are the opposite of what the gritty neighborhood was known for a few short years ago.

Sky Pool

The new Hell’s Kitchen

Above, a rendering of the pool terrace at the new rental building. In Birmingham, most (though not all: see Park Place downtown) of our new residential and mixed-use developments are displacing underused warehouses, surface parking or filling long-empty historic buildings. Rarely are local, family-owned businesses extant in these locations, and new people moving in generally add to, rather than displace, existing populations. Not so in many areas of Manhattan; the musicians, artists, and working class that populated Hell’s Kitchen are hard to find anymore. It’s like a hyper-luxury veil is being draped across the entire island. Real estate has always been vicious and kinetic in this town, but the current pace feels historic as the average sales price for a Manhattan apartment has reached almost $2 million.

But how do we carry the plants from Brooklyn

But how do we carry the plants home from Brooklyn

With the nursery leaving Manhattan (above, the announcement posted at the counter), there will be no other true plant store within walking distance from our apartment. OK, not a huge deal–we can still travel another 20 blocks, but it begs the question: where are all the thousands of high-rent occupants coming to the neighborhood going to get houseplants? The employee ringing us up (also pictured above), when posed that question, smiled and said “Well, you can always go to Home Depot.” Of course he was being sarcastic, but the loss of small neighborhood businesses as bank branches and chain drug stores proliferate is causing Manhattan to be just a little duller, and a little less diverse, with each passing year.

Bikeshare!!

  
It was so exciting to receive Birmingham’s new bikeshare key fob and assorted swag in the mail tonight, we just had to post a pic. 400 bikes rolling into town imminently–and a step forward in providing more transportation options to the community. If you haven’t joined up yet, check out www.zypbikeshare.com. And kudos to the designer–terrific logo. The fob already looks great next to the CitiBike fob already on the keychain. Official rollout is October 14 so get ready BHM!

Retail Rising

IMG_2436

Retail Therapy

This week Alchemy, a new mens’ clothier, opened on 20th Street North between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in downtown Birmingham. Opened by owner Ace Graham, the store is one of the few outside of suburban locations to carry upscale brands which are marketed towards fashion-conscious men. As more and more people live in the greater City Center, “will retail follow?” has been a question on many minds. Thus far, bars and restaurants have been the principal retail outlets filling storefronts. We may be finally on the cusp of seeing a greater diversity of retail options joining food and beverage.

Lofty minimalism

Lofty minimalism

It’s clear from the interior concept (above), whose open, airy space contains a very carefully edited selection of clothing, shoes and accessories, that Graham has been inspired by fashion-forward shops in other cities. The brands– including Scotch and Soda, Puma Select, Nudie Jeans–are available at Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s in New York, but according to Graham only Saks Fifth Avenue here carries some, but not all of the lines. Many are certainly not sold elsewhere in Alabama.

Stylin' in BHM

Stylin’ in BHM

Is it a risk to carry $59 t-shirts and $200 jeans in the middle of downtown Birmingham? Sure. But it’s risk-takers like Graham who pave the way for others to follow. We hope this place is successful, and that it inspires other retailers of various stripes to consider downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods for new projects. Whether mass-market (the new downtown Publix supermarket and Chipotle restaurant), or high-end, or in-between, the urban core should support more retail as the City Center continues to expand its appeal to visitors and residents alike.

High and Low

High and Low

If you told even the most wildly optimistic developer a year ago that Tom Ford would be sold on 20th Street North, the news would be dismissed as a joke. Well, now it is (above), and it’s pretty cool.

The lost art

The lost art

Finally, fading from memory as the years go by is the fact that downtown Birmingham was at one time the principal shopping district for the entire metro. As in many other US cities, retailers stopped investing in downtown properties in the post-war years, favoring suburban locations instead. Bromberg’s, the local jewelry chain, was one of the first downtown retailers to open a suburban branch after the Second World War–but ironically was also one of the last to actually close its downtown location (2009). However, they still put considerable effort into dressing the original show windows (current layout of one of the windows on 2nd Avenue North, above). Who knows, with the prospect of retail returning to downtown, we may even shop at Bromberg’s again, rather than just gazing longingly at those show windows.  Until then, drop by Alchemy to meet Graham and check out something truly unique for this city.

Transforming Southtown

Southtown University

The Birmingham Business Journal reports this morning that Southtown Court, a public housing community administered by the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, may be transformed into a mixed-income development pending a Federal grant award (Google Streetview above, taken at University Blvd. and 24th Street looking east, with Southtown on the right and the new Veteran’s Administration parking deck to the left). Built in 1941 as temporary housing for working class families, like other similar developments all across the US it has in later years become considered as permanent housing for low-income people. Southtown in particular, with its proximity to wealthier and well-traveled precincts (UAB, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Highland Park), has long been discussed as needing renovation, or even  repurposing. In the past, HABD has resisted wholesale change; now they are leading the effort.

Park Place

Park Place, pictured above looking west from 26th Street and 7th Avenue North, is an example of HABD working with private developers in the mid-2000’s to totally transform the former Metropolitan Gardens housing community in the heart of the CBD. Credited with aiding perceptions of downtown (reduced crime, improved aesthetics) it was also controversial for its displacement of low-income people who could no longer afford to live in the new development, or for whom there was simply no room (fewer units emerged in the new project compared to the old one). With the disappointingly designed Veteran’s Administration Clinic about to finish construction on University–future post about that one–one can only hope that if a new Southtown emerges, it will be more thoughtfully designed (and include commercial/retail components which sadly Park Place did not).

Southtown SA

With all of the generic “urban developer style” projects going up around downtown, could this site pave the way for yet another one (above project in San Antonio, TX)? As the process unfolds, we’ll explore what needs to happen on the Southtown  site in more detail: with 25 acres in such a visible, high traffic area, the possibilities are pretty endless.

(thanks to Google MapsHABD and San Antonio Business Journal for the images)

Ripe for a rethink

Regions Tower Street

With a lot of new activity around downtown, a few older outdoor spaces could be updated and better integrated into the surrounding city fabric. One is the raised plaza outside the Regions Center (above). The design, an essentially anti-urban gesture typical of the times (1969-1972; architect Welton Beckett of Houston, TX), separates the building from the street and offers no retail or other stimulus to passerby. Preserving the architectural integrity of this space while engaging it with the street would be a fascinating challenge.

Downtown Charlotte-Tower Entrance Redo 9-15-15 (2)

A similar era building with a raised plaza in downtown Charlotte, NC–the Bank of America Plaza (1974) is slated to animate its own entrance with a new restaurant involving a canopy, outdoor seating and storefront glass (above). Not necessarily a solution for Regions, but the introduction of a human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly element that mediates between the building and the plaza is worth studying.

R-H Plaza Open Space Street

Just a block north on 20th Street is the long under-utilized outdoor space at the Regions-Harbert Plaza. Designed by HOK and finished in 1989, it is more accessible to pedestrians than its predecessor to the south–but there is little reason to enter. The wings flanking it belong to an interior shopping mall and food court; despite the proximity, no retail or restaurants open to the outdoors. Instead we get mainly blank walls, and some storefront glass looking into a corridor. If the inside could reorient to the outside, we’d go a long way towards establishing some vibrancy here.Maki Fresh There is a recent precedent for banks making their ground floors more accessible and interactive with the street–just stay on 20th Street and head back a couple blocks south to the Wells Fargo Tower where formerly austere, empty bank circulation space was converted into Maki Fresh (above), a branch of the popular local restaurant.  The bright green contrasting with the sober granite is terrific.

Pocket Park Street

Finally, there’s this lovely green space running between First and Morris Avenues between 20th and 19th Streets (above, looking south from First to Morris). The trees are mature, the shade is welcoming–but there is no way to really occupy this space between two buildings unless you’re walking along the narrow path to one side. Redesign the raised planter, add seating, and perhaps a water element and you’d have the makings of a great urban pocket park. With two new hotels including the Marriott Empire underway directly across the street, it’s a great time to reconsider this and other underused public spaces (additional view from across the street below).

Pocket Park Google Street View

(thanks to al.com for the Maki Fresh image and RBA Group for the Charlotte rendering)