Tag Archives: 20th Street

Retail Rising


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.

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)

Sharpening the edge (2)

Transit as a positive image for the street

A reader alerted us to an interesting streetscape project, on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland, OH. This east-west spine is roughly similar to 20th Street in downtown Birmingham, in the sense that it connects the Central Business District at one end to a university (Cleveland State) district at the other end, before it continues into the eastern suburbs. A new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line (stop and dedicated lane pictured above on Euclid Avenue in the CBD) has been built as part of street improvements planned to better link the east and west sides of Cleveland’s downtown. This is similar in concept to a proposal prepared by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, whose In-Town Transit Partnership study envisioned BRT serving as a catalyst to downtown development and knitting together the north and south sides of the central city. It’s worth looking at just to drool over the highly inspirational video created as part of the study.

University edge gets urban

Opened for about 3-1/2 years, the $200 million transit redevelopment has ushered in over $3 billion in new/proposed redevelopment, including the University Lofts project shown above, a combination of restored historic buildings and new infill along Euclid adjacent to Cleveland State campus (architect: City Architecture).  The infill building is second from the left: restrained in tone and detailing, with proportions that align to its neighbors. This is a great example of how a well-done transit project, and urbane mixed-use development that accompanies it, can result in a vibrant edge for an urban campus.

Transit used to be part of the fabric

Above is 20th Street at Five Points South in the 1920’s–with prominent streetcar lines connecting the district to the north side. A potentially thriving edge of UAB‘s campus, it would benefit tremendously from better transit connections, and from university and private mixed-use development that adheres to solid tenets of urban design. Cleveland, and Cleveland State, seem to have gotten it right; let’s learn from their example!

[thanks to fitchdnld for the Euclid Avenue CBD pic; city architecture for the Euclid Avenue campus stop pic; photonut2 for the Five Points pic)

Suburban = Urban?

could it get worse?

Ah, the demise of the infamous Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the heart of Five Points South. Infamous because a banal, cookie-cutter shopping-mall out-parcel building was plopped down 16 years ago on one of the most historic and important corners in this city–where 20th Street meets Highland Avenue South. There had been a plan in the early 1990s to redevelop this lot (originally a fine mansion) as a 14 story, mixed-use building called Renaissance Plaza. Instead we got a cheap looking, generic box sitting on a parking lot.

Well, lo and behold, the restaurant has closed after 16 years. And last week’s Design Review Committee approved a new development with nary a comment or dissent. Is it a dense, mixed-use development bringing interesting new retail and restaurant tenants? Is it thoughtful, urban architecture suitable to this distinctive corner surrounded by the Shepherd-Sloss Building, Terrace Court Apartments? Unfortunately it is neither. It is a stand-alone Chick-Fil-A restaurant, complete with drive-through and surface parking. This plan sketched here is very approximate, but gets the idea across.

presenting for Chick-Fil-A

I don’t want to say Chick-Fil-A shouldn’t be in Five Points– but can we talk context?  Gorgeous terra cotta detailing and the first high-rise apartments in the South across the street.  Crumbling, perhaps, but at least special.

unique across the street

These older buildings speak of a particular place and style — “I am in Birmingham”, not at any newish strip mall.  The unique architectural fabric of this city is what make visitors say: what a beautiful town you have. Hard to say that about  most strip malls/outparcels since they all look alike. But I digress; this is not a commentary on the architectural integrity of the American strip mall. That’s another post.

But Five Points! An area that is a food mecca for the metro area…  I am not against fast food in the least — or a good Chick-Fil-A.  But where is the comprehensive plan for revitalizing this area? Let me dust off some shelves somewhere, because this can’t be part of it.  Why? Kudos on the outdoor seating — but that’s about all I can say positive about the current plan. Take a look at Portland.  As we’ve discussed before, urban areas succeed with density.  In Portland you see sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants, including a McDonald’s storefront. No drive-throughs. And 90% of the property is not a vast dead zone of car park and drive-through lanes.

fast-food, urban-style in Portland

One reason why this sort of totally inappropriate development still happens here? We have no Redevelopment Authority. A RA is an independent, public agency that can buy and sell property, solicit proposals from developers, and finance buildings and development. They can take a good plan and actually implement it. This site would be a prime example of the kind of place identified by a RA as important to a city and the urban environment. It deserves to be built out according to a good plan. Not just randomly selected by Chick-Fil-A. And their drive-through mentality.

Drive-throughs, while ubiquitous to the American landscape, are not appropriate in dense urban areas. They require additional curb cuts which make pedestrian sidewalk use hazardous; they are horrible for the environment (all those motors idling); they discourage people from getting out of their car and enjoying a walkable streetscape; and the land use is wasteful (lots of asphalt). Various cities have started banning new, urban drive-throughs for all of these reasons.

I want a thriving Five Points.  I want the opposite of a strip mall — non-chain boutiques, restaurants that use local produce, new loft mid-rises — a snobby, creative-class dream?  OK then. I will also take some chains and fast-food that may be necessary  — but with the caveat that they should fit in with a comprehensive, urban vision for this area. I want more more more. I know, I want too much.  But I can dream, right? (thanks to dystopos for the Ruby Tuesday pic; Birmingham Public Library for the 1972 pic of the Shepherd-Sloss building, and alexabboud for the pic in Portland.)

School Dazed … and confused

The Lane School--languishing in the shadow of UAB

The News has reported (and editorialized ) the story of UAB offering Birmingham City Schools $3.13 million for the old, former Lane School building at the university campus. The School Board president made a statement that, instead of selling the school, the Board should consider building a new headquarters building there instead (the City School website lists the Lane School as a “surplus property” for sale) .

Rather than discuss politics or the woes of the Birmingham City Schools, this is an opportunity to discuss possible solutions: 1. We have a shrinking urban school system with underused or unused buildings, and 2. the system’s (outdated) headquarters occupies a piece of very prime real estate facing Linn Park at the corner of 20th Street.

What would an enlightened city do?

Let’s start with the current site of the School headquarters on Park Place. This building, never a true architectural gem to begin with, suffers most from a mismatched location. Not only is it a dated, 3-story office building occupying that prime corner site, but the majority of its facade along 20th Street is the mainly blank wall of the parking garage. Hardly a generator of activity on the sidewalk.

There was a plan in 2004 to build a 14-story Westin hotel here, but the Board has rejected this and all subsequent offers to buy this property (in part due to the perceived expense of building a new headquarters). What if the Board agreed to sell the lot to a developer, and in return a dynamic, mixed-use building including space for a new headquarters was constructed? Or, alternatively, a brand-new charter or magnet school, that could signal the system’s determination to turn things around? Or a combination of all of the above?

This idea has a parallel in Lower Manhattan right now. For years, neighborhood residents have been demanding a new school (K-8) but due to high land costs, it never materialized. In return for certain state and local incentives, a developer agreed to build the new school at the base of a 76-story luxury apartment tower (the Beekman, designed by Frank Gehry; under construction). In the picture here, you can see the brick school at the base of the tower:

Beekman School and Tower

(pic via jskrybe)

We are hardly in New York (but hey, like the new Beekman school, did you know the Advent Day School, a block from the Board HQ, has a rooftop playground?); but what if the current Board site was redeveloped into new board offices, an innovative charter school on the park, and private offices or condos/hotel above. And a great restaurant facing the park? What if?

But what about all the other outdated school structures, like the Lane School? These are dotted all over town–where changing demographics have forced school closures and realignments.  Old schools can make some really awesome living units.  When we looked at renovating the Phoenix Building some years ago, and thought about maintaining the best parts of a historic structure, we looked at various school rehabs across the country for inspiration.  Where else can you live in a basketball court? Check out the Union Square Condos in Grand Rapids, MI—a very innovative transformation of an obsolete neighborhood school.

Or closer to home, the old Crogman School in Atlanta was almost razed. Instead, it became reborn as the Crogman School Lofts, an affordable housing and community center that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

Old Schools can be turned into community assets.  Market rate or affordable housing;  art classes and community meeting spaces.

And prime corner lots facing major city parks need innovative, mixed-use approaches to help spur further growth and foot traffic. Here’s hoping the School Board can strategize thoughtfully and carefully about how it could help it’s own bottom line, while helping the communities surrounding its properties.