Tag Archives: Appleseed Workshop

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 kloftson3rd@gmail.com

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]

Buen apetito

It's almost here

After much anticipation, the new restaurant in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North, El Barrio, is poised to open the first part of December. The owners of Trattoria Centrale, a few blocks east, plan an innovative, energetic, foodie type of a place with cuisine inspired by all regions of Mexico. Picture a younger Sol y Luna, but with a much bigger kitchen (and therefore a more diverse menu). We give you a sneak peek at the design of downtown’s newest culinary attraction.

More foot traffic coming

Above is the storefront, in the former Storkland store; you will notice the hostess stand (temporarily outside) made from leftover concrete from a core drill on site, with rebar twisting up to hold the “book”. Design was a collaboration between KDAG Designs and Appleseed Workshop, with Appleseed not just handling general construction, but also custom building many of the interior elements like the stand. Outdoor seating will be installed at the sidewalk.

Explosion of latin vibe

A visually arresting feature of the main room is local artist Shane B’s full-wall mural (above, with a half-built banquette underneath; Shane B can be found at Non Stop Art around the corner on 20th Street). A riff on urban street art, it should set the mood for botanas (Mexican street snacks that are part of the planned menu).

Not complete without a bar and a lounge

Opposite the mural is the long bar, seen left in the picture above. To either side of the storefront entrance is a small stand-up drinking area, and a larger lounge area with built-in banquette and kidney tables designed for the space (below). Reclaimed wood and original, historic materials mix with new steel and concrete accents in an eclectic, “vintage” way.

Made from scratch and awaiting it's glass inserts

El Barrio plans to open initially just serving lunch, while they await their liquor license to get final approval (expected early January). At that point, the restaurant will be open every day for lunch and dinner (until 9 on weeknights, midnight on the weekends), with happy hour bar specials as well. Owner Brian Somershield emphasized that he wants dinner to be a full experience, including Latin American wines picked especially for the cuisine, seasonal fresh fruit margaritas, etc. So while we’re eager for evening service, we’ll be happy to enjoy lunch until they’ve got the bar ready to go.

Ensuring every detail is correct

As anyone who’s eaten at Centrale can attest, these guys are serious about details (above foreground, owner Geoff Lockert inspects new kitchen equipment). While the food and drink should be fresh and innovative, they also want the atmosphere to feel warm and accessible. Servers and bartenders are being chosen as much for their demeanor and passion for food, as for their experience (a similar concept to Centrale).  The chef, Neville Baay, was chosen due to his culinary skills of course, but also because his philosophy matches that of the owners. It should make for a good combination.

And also coming soon?

And why does this restaurant matter–besides giving us another dining option, of course? First, it should extend foot traffic and street life east from the 2300 block, enlarging the nucleus of retail, restaurant, and bar activity there. Second, it should become an anchor for its block, encouraging others to follow. For instance, above (middle storefront) is a recently rented space which is planned as the District, a bar serving late-night tapas–directly across the street from El Barrio. We can’t report much more about it yet, but it’s an example of how most businesses like to congregate around other similar businesses. It takes some initial pioneers, and then hopefully–with the right conditions and context–others follow, and then you have a real district. In other words, we’re ready for tacos!

Demise of the corner drugstore

Not anymore at a corner near you

Chalk it up to the ubiquity of national chains such as Walgreen’s and CVS; to the low prices and convenience of in-store pharmacies at Walmart or Publix; to the poor economy; or to causes less obvious and more mysterious. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, MedTown Pharmacy closed its doors this week. As the sole surviving full-service drugstore on the northside of downtown (within the 200 block of 20th Street North), this comes as a blow to not only the daytime business population in the CBD, but to the many downtown residents (including this author) who chose MedTown as their drugstore of choice. MedTown joins the ranks of other downtown drugstores (such as Dewberry’s, at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and Richard Arrington Blvd., pictured above in 1939) which have closed over the last couple decades. As recently as 1998, there were still 4 independent drugstores operating within a few blocks of MedTown (itself formerly a Big B Drugstore). Now there are none.

Another blow for 20th Street

The closing of MedTown is sadly in sync with the generally haggard feeling of Birmingham’s “Main Street”. Despite some bright spots–Trattoria Centrale, Brick & Tin, Cafe Dupont, the private residence designed by Appleseed Workshop–recent years have seen the shuttering of the old First Alabama Bank building (and the failure of the proposed Marriott Renaissance Hotel there); the departure of SouthTrust/Wachovia from their 2nd Avenue Branch, leaving an entire half-block of empty buildings; thwarted redevelopments of both the Empire and Brown-Marx buildings; and of course the very, very tired and dated “Birmingham Green” of 1970’s era plantings, concrete benches, and low concrete walls that’s in desperate need of renovation.

Sign of the times?

It seems emblematic of Birmingham, in a way, that our “Main Street”, symbolic center of town, has been allowed to become so frayed. Other areas of downtown are brimming with promise and interest–but the energy dissipates where it instead should be united in full force on 20th. An encouraging sign: I heard members of the Mayor’s staff and the Horticulture department walked 20th Street last week discussing how to overhaul the landscaping to bring it in line with more modern, sophisticated efforts such as Railroad Park and the proposed streetscapes around the Pizitz project. And just seeing the crowds spill out of Trattoria for lunch, dinner, or brunch–no matter how desolate the immediate surroundings–also gives hope. Hope that other entrepreneurs will take initiative to renovate buildings and bring new businesses; hope that the Mayor will continue to search for ways to improve the City; hope that other nearby developments will exert pressure on 20th Street to revive.

Of course, some of us also hope that a drugstore will open up in the neighborhood again, and soon.

Wagging a tail


Yesterday, Dog Days of Birmingham–the new pet grooming/daycare facility was presented at Design Review. Housed in the former Hunter Furniture Building on 18th Street North, the business will occupy the first floor and the owner will live in a loft apartment to be constructed on the second floor.

Once the 1960’s false front was recently taken down (you can see what that looked like here) the original masonry facade and windows were revealed, pretty much intact.

Architect Michael Gibson with Appleseed Workshop presented the plan for exterior renovation, including a sketch of a proposed asymmetrically angled bay window extending over 3 of the historic second floor openings. I held my breath wondering if the Committee would approve such a “modern” intervention to the historic structure.

The Committee unanimously approved it–I think in part because the intervention was relatively modest, and didn’t damage the existing facade. I also think there is a growing understanding on the Committee that historic preservation can accommodate thoughtful, contemporary design as part of the plan. But judge for yourself: Michael’s rendering is below.

Another angle

[Thanks to Michael Gibson for the rendering]