Tag Archives: Birmingham News


Surprisingly elegant

A couple days ago the Birmingham News reported that the Elyton School (above), just a few minutes’ drive out of downtown Birmingham at Tuscaloosa Avenue and Center Street, may be demolished as part of a development proposal for senior housing at the site. The former elementary school, closed for about 10 years, is the second-oldest in the City after Powell School. It was built in 1908 in what was then the independent town of Elyton (which would soon be merged into Birmingham).

While I was prepared to appreciate historic architecture, upon my visit I was struck not just by the solidity and high quality of the structure, but by the particularly fine level of architectural detail. Many of these older schools have more recent additions, and this one is no exception–although in this case the addition is a wonderful, 1920’s era wing that works well with the original.

Brimming with potential

One can see that later addition to the right above. Many of us are mildly perplexed that such an historic structure would be considered for demolition, right in the middle of ongoing efforts to save Powell School. Time after time, old school buildings in other cities have been renovated with great success for new uses (see this earlier post here). Unfortunately it would appear that Vantage Development, judging from their website, has had little if any experience with anything but suburban, stick-built senior housing.

Not good, and seemingly inexcusable

Back in 2005, there was indeed a proposal to renovate the existing building into senior housing–but the City and the Board of Education could not agree on the price for transfer, and the deal died. Since then, the building has not been properly secured (see above), and neighborhood residents are understandably upset about squatters, etc. While the situation is frustrating, it’s not a reason to abandon hopes of recycling this building.

And more potential

The surrounding neighborhood has challenges–more boarded up structures across the street, for instance–but also great assets, like the historic commercial structures a block south where First Avenue North meets Center Street (above), Arlington Antebellum Home a few blocks west, or the thriving Princeton-Baptist medical a few blocks past Arlington. Elyton School could become a shining jewel in a rejuvenated Arlington-West End neighborhood. Let’s hope the neighborhood, and City leaders, will do all in their power to explore the viability of saving the structure. Because folks, they don’t build it like this anymore. And our City is that much poorer with the loss of another piece of its history.


UPDATE: Here’s a rendering below, courtesy of Vantage Development, of the proposal (shown along Center Street):

Out with the old, and in with...

Home run?

Getting closer

The Birmingham News ran a story yesterday which pinpoints the proposed location of the new Barons Ballpark (see News graphic above). The facility itself would be entered from 14th Street or a 15th Street Plaza, with stands arranged on the SW corner of the site facing the downtown skyline. The outfield faces Railroad Park from across First Avenue South. Ancillary structures (assumedly patron and team amenities/facilities) and a Negro League Museum flank the ballpark along First Avenue; “future developments”, i.e. related private investments, are shown on property to the south.

It is rare to see a ballpark facing another public park like this. The reason is that typically a City will use a park like Railroad Park to encourage private investments in the immediate area; that same City will use a baseball park in a similar way. By putting the outfield right up against First Avenue, the City in effect gives up the ability to market each public frontage to private development.

From serving loading docks to serving urban consumers

Knowing how hard it’s been to assemble property (and two owners are still holding out at either corner of First Avenue), this siting may not have had much flexibility. If indeed the ballpark ends up as shown in the graphic, it’s essential that the design handles the outfield edge creatively, so that it animates that frontage even when the ballpark is dark and empty. Additionally, it would be wonderful if some of the old warehouses and alleyways in the adjacent “Parkside” district could be retained and rejuvenated (the Alley off Tallapoosa Street in downtown Montgomery, pictured above, is a direct result of private investment around their riverfront ballpark). A combination of historic restoration and new construction would be a great mix for the new district (which we also hope will have sharp, creative district branding–see our previous post on this).

It worked in Memphis

The downtown ballpark built in Memphis 8 years ago (above) has rejuvenated an 8-block area; once desolate and boarded up, it now sports restaurants, bars, and apartments. As this project develops in Birmingham, we’ll continue to advocate for the best possible architectural and urban design.  Because we want this project not just to compete with Montgomery or Memphis. We want it to be better. And to exude that quirky, undefinable quality that is the Magic City.

[thanks to the News for the graphic; larry miller for the Alley pic; dragonmistral for the Autozone pic]


Design time

Good graphics shape public perception

First, great news from City Hall: the same City team that has been rolling out the visually impressive Civil Rights Heritage Trail markers above (designer: Ford Wiles of Big Communications) is working on a complete wayfinding project for the City. As we’ve stressed in numerous posts, it’s long past time for a city our size to have a comprehensive plan for visual navigation through the urban environment. If the Civil Rights markers are any indication, we can expect high quality, thoughtful graphics and other environmental cues that will make our City more user-friendly for resident and tourist alike. We’re excited about this news, and look forward to a roll-out in 2012. We’ll report more when we have more details.

Second, not so great news from the  Design Review Committee: the Webb Building, whose initial renovation proposal we praised here, before the owner switched course and did something completely different which we lamented here. Before the holidays, the owner engaged a new architect, Herrington Architects, to present a “compromise” solution, which the DRC approved (below).

Disappointingly off-base

The above rendering shows the unevenly scored stucco (which had angered the Committee previously, and which was such a departure from the originally approved sleek metal banding) now being presented with contrasting paint colors, creating a “panel” effect. It is surprising that this blank/solid feel of this stucco portion, which continues to make the building top-heavy, was approved. There is an unfortunate parallel with these new panels and the ubiquitous applied panel schemes of the 1960’s, which were used to cover up historic facades across this downtown and others. Most likely, the new architect was given very little leeway to be creative, perhaps even constrained by the owner. The Committee itself does not have the power to force someone to return to the previously approved design; in this case, I sure wish they did.


Finally, a new business is planned for downtown as part of a renovation of an historic building. Look for details in the next few days in the Birmingham News. The pic above is a small teaser, hopefully whetting your appetite for more info.

[thanks to vizual2 for the Civil Rights Trail pic,  Herrington Architects for the Webb Building rendering, and wendy_tsang for the yogurt pic]

Sizing it up

What can we learn about Birmingham and its urban core after comparing it to Mobile’s, the third-largest city in the state (but second biggest metro, at about half the size of our 1.2 million)? On a recent trip I was able to get a quick glimpse of downtown Mobile, and observe some interesting things.

Pointing in the right direction

First, wayfinding. Central Birmingham has basically none–and we need it. Bad. For anyone visiting (whether from afar or just the ‘burbs), graphically clear signage which helps you navigate a city is essential. The above is an example of signage found throughout downtown Mobile–simple, to the point, and informative.

Good signage is good place-making

Second, good urban signage. Birmingham–thanks in part to enlightened members of the Design Review Committee, is more likely today to approve well-designed, projecting and/or illuminated signage for businesses in our urban areas. But the process can still feel like a struggle (one sign we designed for a project downtown took over 3 months to work its way through the City Legal Department after DRC approval). To the left you see some excellent signage at the hip Dauphin Street Taqueria ; in downtown Mobile, the city has a financial incentive to encourage owners to upgrade signage and illuminate it. Fantastic incentive, and the nice projecting signs across the core are a testimony to its success.

Third, Mobile’s older street grid means narrower dimensions–so instead of our wide avenues with 5 or 6 traffic, turn, and parking lanes–you get 4, or 3 total lanes which makes for a more pedestrian friendly environment (quicker to cross, and less traffic on the streets). Below is a shot looking towards the Battle House Hotel, Mobile’s smaller version of our old Tutwiler Hotel, demolished in the 1970s for the First Alabama Bank Building. In Mobile–where development pressure downtown was so slight, it makes Birmingham look like an Atlanta–the hotel was just quietly boarded up and remained vacant until the Retirement Systems of Alabama incorporated it into its huge RSA Tower complex completed a few years ago. Because of the RSA’s muscle, downtown Mobile now has 2 4-star Renaissance hotel properties–while Birmingham has no 4 -star properties anywhere close to downtown (though a Westin is planned to break ground shortly).

Narrow streets, restored hotel

Fourth–of interest to those saddened by the demolition of the old Birmingham News building for the creation of….a surface parking lot: in Mobile the local Press-Register donated their old facility to a non-profit called Center for the Living Arts which promotes the arts throughout downtown Mobile. An 8000 SF center for contemporary art is part of the new reuse of this building, seen below:

A better use than surface parking

Yes, we’re thrilled the News built a new facility downtown. It’s just a shame that instead of visualizing a new use for an outdated building like they did in Mobile, they tore it down for a few parking spaces instead. A very, very 1969 solution to a problem.

Which brings us to the train station. In 1969 we tore ours down. Mobile’s still stands, although mostly vacant (they lost their passenger service long ago), and at a disadvantaged location down Water Street (it was a hardy 20-minute walk down a warehouse and gas-station-laden 6-lane highway from the Battle House). If Water Street could be re-envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with mixed-use and a waterfront promenade–then the old station could be a wonderful terminus again.

Any takers?

Mobile’s core is much smaller than Birmingham’s by any measure–fewer office workers, fewer residents, fewer buildings–and the scale is very different. It feels more like a small city than, well, a medium-sized one. This smaller scale is one factor that can make redevelopment easier. Lower Dauphin Street is lined with bars and restaurants and even some retail shops–but all the buildings are mainly one or two stories. Big, complicated, and expensive redevelopments are not necessary on this scale.

However, some basics of adaptive reuse, signage, even public postings of imminent Design Review hearings are all instructive as we work to create a better Birmingham. It’s clear that Mobile has made some real efforts to reinvigorate their center. And, the City is considering adopting SmartCode for their downtown, similar to Montgomery, to help propel development in the right direction. This is something we’d love to see here too.

When in Mobile...

On a last note, I couldn’t help notice that city parking meters downtown allow 15 minutes per quarter–rather than the 60 minutes per quarter in Birmingham. And we have a much, much more congested downtown than Mobile. I believe Birmingham ranks as one of the largest cities with the cheapest on-street parking. This puts more cars on the street, circling for those cheap spaces–rather than considering decks, or walking, or transit. We’ve got to get used to paying more at the meter here.

Next post–Austin, TX! Happy New Year everybody. Here’s to a great 2011 in the ‘ham.

Putting out fires

An open letter to Kathy Okrongley, President of Connolly Net Lease, LLC–the developer of a proposed Walgreen’s drugstore at the site of historic Fire Station No. 22, Bogue’s Restaurant, and Clairmont Auto on Clairmont Avenue South:

Dear Ms. Okrongley:

I read with interest the article in today’s Birmingham News, where you state you want to work with the neighborhood and the Design Review Committee to come up with a proposal acceptable to all. Given the current neighborhood aversion to the project as depicted so far–tearing down the historic Fire Station No. 22 and other small, local businesses including the 70-year-old Bogue’s Restaurant, and replacing them with a generic, boxy Walgreen’s drugstore, asphalt parking lot, and drive-through–I welcome this willingness to explore alternatives. I know the members of the Facebook protest site, as well as the brand-new civic group I Believe in Birmingham, are also cautiously optimistic about your next steps.

A second chance?

First: the excellent points you discuss. You say you’re an architect by training, and have an appreciation for historic structures. You say you’re interested in developing a sustainable design, possibly with LEED certification. You say that you are seriously considering saving all or part of the Fire Station and incorporating it into the design. You also say you will work to find another neighborhood location for Bogue’s, carefully restoring the historic neon sign at a new location.

As Alison Glascock, Highland Park neighborhood president states in the article, a lot of opposition “would end” if the above goals were all achieved.

Second: the note of caution: I’m reading good things, but an actual detailed plan is yet to be presented. I don’t want some clumsy pastiche that makes a few “references” to the historic Spanish-style architecture of the Fire Station. I don’t want Bogue’s and Clairmont Auto to just disappear for a parking lot–I want an earnest effort to relocate them. I know the corporation, Walgreen’s, that you represent has the resources to commit to fine design, neighborhood involvement, and relocation of existing businesses–if the will is truly there.

Ms. Okrongley, there are plenty of local community leaders and neighbors–and designers (this author included)–who’d be delighted to work with you to make this a winning project for everyone. Please understand that if the Walgreen’s effort falls short of your newly stated intentions, I feel the City has an obligation to reopen its RFP process to other developers who stand by committed to preserving the Fire Station and local businesses. I’m eager to see your next step.

Yours sincerely, etc.

Walgreen's CAN do urban, pedestrian, and contextual. And historic neon.

[thanks to acnatta for the Bogue’s shot, and willcrusta for the Walgreen’s in New Orleans]