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 for the Maki Fresh image and RBA Group for the Charlotte rendering)

Downtown getting greener

Design Review Sept. image 3

Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham has been the catalyst for numerous private investments in the surrounding area. This morning at Design Review Committee, plans for a new public space adjacent to the park were approved: the Powell Avenue Steam Plant Plaza (image above is the SW corner of the plaza looking NE from First Avenue South and 18th Street). This project will join Railroad Park and Rotary Trail as the latest major investment in public green space in the CBD.

This high-caliber, thoughtful design was praised by the Committee as complementing Railroad Park without mimicking it; its design language and planting palette will be unique. The landscape architect is Nelson Byrd Woltz, a firm with offices in Virginia and New York which has worked on projects around the world. Notably, they are currently designing the public square in New York City’s massive Hudson Yards development underway on the West Side of Manhattan.

Design review Sept. image 2

The image above shows a birds-eye of the planned plaza with Railroad Park to the west in the lower left corner, and the Steam Plant directly north. Alabama Power commissioned this project and hopes to pull permits for the first demolition phase within a few weeks. The Steam Plant itself–recently decommissioned– is still in the design phase, with nothing definite to announce yet. But if the historic structure receives the same creativity and care as the plaza, we’re excited about the possibilities.

Design Review Sept. image 4

Powell Avenue itself has already been vacated at this location to allow unimpeded pedestrian (and bicycle!) access through the plaza to the steam plant; the image above shows the reflecting pools that span the plaza’s north-south axis from First Avenue to the Steam Plant. Besides space for strolling and gathering, there will be a dedicated area for food trucks. [As a side note, some will remember this block being the subject of the Community Foundation’s Prize 2 the Future contest.]

Hats off to Alabama Power for conceiving this huge civic amenity–we’ll eagerly await more news on the Steam Plant itself!

[thanks to Alabama Power and Nelson Byrd Woltz for the images]

We’re back.

I’m excited to announce I’m reopening my design firm based in New York and Birmingham. Please look out for regular posts happening here in a few weeks, follow Erdreich Architecture on Instagram, and check out our updated website. Cheers everyone!
suburban transformation

Downtown Loft for Lease or Sale

2326 08 Photos 043Yes, we’re still up in New York and no, unfortunately I haven’t figured out a great way to continue the blog in a meaningful way from afar. Maybe eventually.

However, if you are still reading this, please know that our wonderful tenants in our downtown loft in the 2nd Row building (above) unfortunately must leave at the end of November. If you, or anyone you know, are interested in renting or perhaps buying this condo, contact Kim at

About 1500 SF, prime 2nd Ave location, private parking, private garden with bocce court. Thanks everyone.

UPDATE: here is a link, with photos of the space and more info, on Craigslist.

Art downtown

Essential to urban vibrancy

Essential to urban vibrancy

This Sunday, February 24, Ellen Cooper Erdreich will exhibit paintings and drawings at the Phoenix Building downtown (corner 2nd Avenue and 17th Street North) with an opening reception from 2-5 PM–loft 409. Please consider coming to view this show. Full disclosure: the artist is my mother. [image above from the show: “ex vulvere mori”]

Coming together

The walls await

As we’ve discussed many times, art and artists are essential to the vibrancy of any urban center. We are proud that the Phoenix Building we developed offers reduced rents in the majority of its lofts, most of which are rented by artists. Hopefully more similar projects will follow soon. Enjoy the art, and see you Sunday.

[thanks to Ellen Cooper Erdreich for the images]

A new chapter

Go west, young man

Go west, young man

In two days a new chapter starts: your author begins work with the New York design firm Sawyer/Berson. The commute to work will switch from a 15-second walk down Second Avenue North in Birmingham, to a roughly 35-minute walk and subway-ride on the BMT Broadway Line (the N, Q, R) from our apartment in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side over to the East Side office near Gramercy Park. The morning view from the apartment is shown above, with the Hudson River and New Jersey visible to the right.

We will continue to be involved in downtown Birmingham through planned  projects like the Jefferson Loft Building, as well as management of the existing Phoenix Building and 2nd Row; this work will be based out of our new development office at the Frank Nelson Building on 20th Street North. As for this blog, I’m not quite sure what it will become. I may be able to keep writing about Birmingham with the aid of a few trustworthy volunteers who could help from the ground. Regardless, for many years, Birmingham and New York have easily been my two favorite cities in the US, and I look forward to new opportunities to help the former–and enjoy the latter!

Many thanks to all my readers for your support and comments. I sincerely hope that 2013 will bring great things to Birmingham and all of you. Cheers.

Design Review Agenda January 9

Here’s the Design Review Committee agenda for Wednesday (January 9). 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 December 19, 2012 meeting.

II.        Name:  Mr. Dan Fritts (Live Design Group)

Site Address:  3100 Clairmont Ave. (St. Symeon Orthodox Church)

District: Highland Park Local Historic

Requesting approval for:  New church construction and renovations to existing church buildings

III.       Name: Mr. David Sanders (Champion Windows)

Site Address: 1243 23rd Street South (Condominium Unit)

District:  Highland Park Local Historic

Requesting approval for: Replacement windows

IV.       Name: Mr. Kyle Clark (Shield Properties)     DELETED (Rescheduled for 1/23/13)

Site Address: 2501 Aberdeen Road

District: Red Mountain Suburbs Local Historic

Requesting approval for:  Painting and landscaping for ADA-compliant handicap ramp

V.        Name:  Mr. Zach Jones (Design Team Sign Company)

Site Address:  611 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd, South (Newk’s Café)

District:  Midtown

Requesting approval for: Awning and sign

VI.       Name: Mr. Melvin Cooper

Site Address: 7524 1st Avenue, North (Wells Fargo)

District:  East Lake

Requesting approval for: New ATM

VII.     Name:  John Sexton (Black Design Architecture)

Site Address: 725 29th Street South (Slice Pizza)

District:  Lakeview

Requesting approval for:  Rear Building addition

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

Site Address: 2429 2nd Avenue, North

District:  2nd Avenue, North

Requesting approval for: Renovations

Mixed bag

Not up to its location

Not up to its location

Yesterday the state’s team which currently controls the City school system announced the system’s longtime administrative headquarters, at Park Place and 20th Street North facing Linn Park (20th Street elevation, above) will be put up for sale. The offices are slated to move to a humbler location in the 6300 block of First Avenue North, in Woodlawn. This is great news, as this prime corner which faces the park–with City Hall, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Tutwiler Hotel as neighbors–deserves a different use, and preferably a different building. The modest, mid-1960’s design (which was already dated upon completion) was never beautiful to begin with. We’d like to see a larger, mixed-use building that injects new energy into the underused park. Parks surrounded chiefly by daytime -use government bureaucracies tend to not be so vibrant, and Linn Park is no exception.

Out of context

Out of context

The above view illustrates how the current building is out of sync with its densely developed, valuable surroundings.

Wrong in so many ways

Wrong in so many ways

Perhaps most egregious is the parking deck connected to the rear, which extends along 20th Street around Sixth Avenue North. Clad with blank concrete panels, with small slits affording grim views into a fluorescent garage, this portion of the site also needs to be completely rethought.

A step backward

A step backward

Headed south on 20th Street to Five Points South, Design Review Committee yesterday approved a new paint job and storefront renovation to The Break pool hall, the former Emily Shop (above, corner of 20th Street South and 10th Avenue). This was a longtime women’s clothing store featuring large display windows along two facades, including a curved glass display at the prominent corner (it closed in the mid-1990’s). The current owner has taken out the corner glass, and replaced it with cheap, painted plywood. Oddly, the Committee approved this unfortunate change.

Thank you Regions

Thank you Regions

Directly across 10th Avenue, a Regions Bank branch sits in an historic bank building–perhaps 15-20 years older than the Emily Shop–which exhibits the period vogue for corner glass (in this case chamfered rather than curved, above). The relative integrity of this facade contrasts considerably with the cheapness of The Break.

The display says it all

The display says it all

A close up (above) illustrates all the elements conspiring against us: the strange paint colors, the boarded-up corner, the tinted glass, the huge stock-design Miller beer poster. We don’t expect pool halls to be paragons of good taste or even welcoming. But like the Board of Education building, this isn’t the best use of a great corner.



Finally, the Committee gave conditional approval to the above graphic concept for temporary signage at the new Entertainment District–now dubbed “Uptown”–adjacent to the BJCC and new Westin Hotel. The signage will go in empty storefronts, and will come down once leased.

If you build it...

If you build it…

Above, the completed district infrastructure awaits the hotel opening next month. The empty storefronts are visible to either side of the freshly paved street. With 2 restaurants and a coffee shop announced so far, we’re awaiting more announcements in the coming weeks. Now that it’s about to open, we can only wish it success. More to come on this in January.

[thanks to bhamwiki for the Board of Ed skyline pic, and BJCC for the graphic concept]




Design Review Agenda December 19

Here’s the Design Review Committee agenda for Wednesday (December 19). 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.

[Also, as anticipated, the Chicago-based developer of downtown’s recent Cityville mixed-use development has announced a new mixed-use development just south of the new baseball park, with 245 housing units and, we assume, ground-floor retail/restaurants. More details will follow once we see plans and renderings.]

I.         Call to Order:  Minutes of the November 28, 2012 meeting.

II.        Name: Ms. Mary McSpadden

Site Address: 5500 1st Avenue, South, Smiles For Keeps

District: Woodlawn

Requesting approval for: Signage

III.       Name: Mr. Ricky Armstrong (Modern Sign)

Site Address: 1200 4th Avenue, North (America’s First Credit Union)

District: Downtown Northwest

Requesting approval for: sign replacement

IV.       Name: Mr. Trevor Matchett  (Hendon & Huckestein Architects)

Site Address: 1924 11th Avenue, South,  Surin

District: 5 Points South

Requesting approval for: façade renovations

V.        Name: Mr. Jimmy Meeks (Owner)

Site Address:  1001 20th Street South (The Break)

District: Five Points South

Requesting approval for:  Paint and Awning

VI.       Name: Ms. Brenda Daniels (Daniels Signs)

Site Address:  9441 Parkway East (Tax Associates, Inc)

District:  Parkway East

Requesting approval for: Parapet sign and Pole sign reface

VII.     Name: Ms. Sheila Chaffin (UAB)

Site Address:  Block bounded by 12th & 13th Streets and 4th & 5th Avenues, South

District:  Midtown

Requesting approval for: Temporary parking

VIII.    Name:  Mr. Tim Hallman (Innerface Signs)

Site Address:  BJCC Market Place

District:  Cultural

Requesting approval for:  Storefront temporary signage

IX.       Name: Mr. Daryl Williams

Site Address: 514 19th Street, Ensley (Volcano)

District:  Ensley

Requesting approval for: Facade repairs

How English is English?

Tudor redux

Tudor redux

The small commercial center of English Village, in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, has seen a good deal of change in the last couple decades. Above is a new retail/office building on the east side of Cahaba Road (architect: Henry Sprott Long & Associates). A bit further down the street a new office structure is replacing a former pharmacy and later wine shop; this is thankful, not because we don’t miss the former businesses, but because the architecture is such an improvement over the last building which wasn’t much more than a blank brick box facing a parking pad. This new building is designed by Dungan Nequette and has familiar Arts-and-Crafts styling the firm specializes in (below):

More pleasing to the eye

More pleasing to the eye

English Village has a compact scale which goes some way to recalling actual English villages: the main spine, Cahaba Road, and a little more along a few cross streets, is most all there is. After the original buildings arrived in the 1920’s and 30’s, there was a general lack of interest in continuing the original “English” theme in a serious way until the mid-1990’s brought us the Townes (also Henry Sprott Long) which introduced a controversial scale and density to the place.

Mixed-use created an outcry

Mixed-use created an outcry

That project, joined later by a more abstract interpretation of English style in the National Bank of Commerce building built in the foreground (above, Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio, with Townes beyond), opened up the possibility of mid-rise, mixed-use condo living in the Village. It was a good move, although many would disagree due to the scale of the condo building.

Much better

Much better

Going back up Cahaba Road, Dungan Nequette took a bland, newer structure and transformed it into their own office with historically detailed elements–as well as better street presence with a new bay window and more welcoming entrance (above). As you can imagine, any architect is going to be challenged when faced with a project in English Village: how “English” does it need to be to fit in? Is a Flemish-inspired stepped gable OK? And what about aspects other than the actual style of the facade, like ground floor transparencies, proportions, massing, street edge? The City of Mountain Brook has done a better job of late guiding such principles, due to comprehensive planning guidelines produced for its Villages.

Charm without glitz

Charm without glitz

In actual English villages (Battle, East Sussex, above) we are often charmed less by the individual style of the buildings, which may be somewhat plain, and more by the scale of the street, the weathered materials, and the coziness of the tea shops and pubs. The entirety of the public street is enhanced by the deference of the structures.



The original English Village (storefronts on the west side of Cahaba Road, above) was modest in design, using good materials, large storefronts, and little in the way of eye-grabbing tricks. The collection of buildings along the street was more impressive than any individual gesture. America being America, we tend to value individual style over modest “background” designs, so it’s no surprise that developers today generally want their own structures to stand out, rather than blend in (witness the newer building at the corner, above right, from the mid-1990’s).

Disney goes English

Disney goes English

The danger of too much individualistic detail on every building is evident in the above shot, where the street is less an appealing public space, and more a disparate collection of “fancy” English-styles. Of course this is an “English” street at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. It’s an extreme example, but proves the point.

It works too

It works too

Overall, the construction in English Village over the last 15 years has improved the urbanity of the place. It is more mixed-use, and public space and public art have been enhanced. As far as we’re concerned, one of the best things that happened to the Village was the renovation last decade of a former service station into a mid-century-modern structure (above, architect: Bill Ingram), currently housing a restaurant and art gallery. Its scale and relation to the landscape feels totally appropriate: it shows that sometimes you don’t have to be “English” at all to fit into a village.

[thanks to Dungan Nequette for their office pic; electroguise for the Battle pic; and sfPhotocraft for the Epcot pic]