Solving this problem becomes ever more urgent
The I-20/59 interstate connector that runs through downtown (above) has been mentioned in this blog and by many over the years as a real impediment to integrating the convention center (seen on the right, or north) with the rest of downtown (seen on the left, or south). The 2004 City Center Master Plan suggests submerging this portion of the interstate, creating bridges and plazas above that would re-link these two areas of the center city.
It's an improvement, but is it worth it?
Above is a rendering of the same view, with a suggestion of possible bridges, plazas, and landscaping. While preliminary engineering shows this can be accomplished, the price tag will certainly be greater than just replacing the existing connector with a similar elevated structure (which will have to be done anyway soon, as it nears the end of its useful life). Unless the highway is mostly covered over, allowing lots of green space and buildable area, will the effort be enough?
Over at Next American City, it’s worth reading this interview with John Norquist, current CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, where he discusses the success other cities have had in submerging or otherwise replacing similar downtown highways. If anyone comes up with another, less costly solution, we are all ears. But in order for the new BJCC entertainment district and the convention center itself to reach their potential, a solution does need to be found.
Beautiful in Boston, but the Big Dig was costly in many ways
The photo above is a new park located above a submerged highway in downtown Boston: a reminder of visible benefits this sort of project can bring to a city. The huge cost overruns and corruption associated with this Big Dig project are at the same time a cautionary tale. Birmingham’s plan is much smaller and less complex, to say the least. One way or another, we need to figure this one out. It’s too important not to.
[thanks to City of Birmingham, ONB and bhamwiki for the connector images and helveticafanatic for the Boston post-Big Dig pic]
Coming out of the 3-day Green Building Focus conference last week, I thought I’d post a few images of our local convention center, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, located just north of the I-20/I-59 connector from the CBD. An example of many maxims of 1960’s “urban renewal” thinking, this complex when completed in 1976 after 6 years construction was among the top 20 largest convention centers in the nation, and had a total price tag of almost $400 M in today’s money. Intended as a true “civic center”, with theatre, exhibition, sports, restaurant, and performance arranged around a courtyard, its design–one of 1966’s major national competitions–was pretty well received at the time. Bhamwiki has an excellent history of the competition here.
All pavers point to... a trash can
While the forms themselves may be described as somewhat “brutalist”, with their large, unrelieved masses, lack of human scale, and hostile attitude to the street and any existing fabric, at this point in history one can appreciate the sculptural quality of some of the massing and space-making. The actual concrete panels and other materials feel worn and somewhat cheap, however–and of course the silly retro-lamps and sad little planters recently placed around the courtyard to “soften” things need to be replaced with accessories more appropriate to the scale of the surroundings. The courtyard itself–cut off from the surrounding streets, almost unknown to visitors and citizens alike unless you have occasion to attend an event here–was never truly civic. It is too isolated, too closed from the day-to-day activity of a major city around it. Not to mention the terrible idea to locate the interstate connector between the historic downtown and the complex.
Waiting for a change
As many of us know, there have been major changes suggested for the BJCC in recent years, including the addition of a major domed stadium and an entertainment district, and the submerging of the interstate connector. While the complex would be well served by an expansion and general updating in my opinion, let’s take a little time to appreciate the earnest efforts of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, architects (now defunct) from Philadelphia, PA—which have given us a pretty unique urban environment, albeit it one with some serious flaws. It’s a little bit of Brasilia in Birmingham.
In the meantime, let’s order some new light posts and planters.