Tag Archives: Blackmon Rogers Architecture

Mixed bag

A victory for adaptive reuse

Birmingham’s Design Review Committee had a broad spectrum of design issues on the agenda today. Universally commended and approved was the signage package for the new Walgreens complex on Clairmont Avenue and 32nd Street South, where the historic Fire Station #22 is being restored with a hair salon and Bogue’s Restaurant as tenants (above). A new Walgreens building and parking lot are displacing these two businesses directly to the west of the Fire Station. We first broke the story of Walgreens’ original plan to demolish much of the block including the Fire Station. We are thrilled the Fire Station and the historic Bogue’s neon sign are being reused, and that a very old local restaurant isn’t disappearing. We are still concerned about the relationship of the new Walgreens to its western neighbor, Henry Sprott Long and Associates. But the salvation of the Fire Station is a win for the neighborhood, and an example of how a large, national chain can work with grassroots activists to achieve a better, more urban solution for retail developments.

Not again...

In an eerie replay of the earlier Walgreens controversy, Family Dollar presented a proposal for a suburban-style store at the corner of Tuscaloosa Avenue SW and 13th Street, in West End (my own quick sketch above). Just a few blocks from the thriving Princeton Medical complex, and surrounded by a relatively dense, historic fabric, the developer (Boos Development of Clearwater, FL) insisted that he’d followed the zoning guidelines (which he had), and that Family Dollar’s commitment to the neighborhood was predicated on this site plan–where a generic, blank-box Family Dollar is situated behind a swath of asphalt parking. The Committee was not pleased.

The context is urban, not suburban

Directly across from the currently vacant site is a reminder of the historic importance of this West End neighborhood–a two-story, commercial structure now sadly deteriorated, but illustrative of the urban, pedestrian character of the streets. The rest of the block has newer buildings–a post office, a county health clinic, a library–which speak of the continued civic importance of this area.

It's already a pedestrian neighborhood

In objecting to the proposal’s suburban, car-centric design, a couple Committee members mentioned they’d either grown up in this neighborhood or have family here–and that people walk. And that many will be walking to the Family Dollar. Above is the relatively new library across the street which, despite an awkward architecture, does  form a pedestrian-friendly street edge. Parking is concealed to the side and rear. Even on a very rainy morning, a number of pedestrians were out walking between the post office and library, and from the surrounding neighborhood–a visual confirmation of the Committee’s point.

More street edge in West End

Right down the street from the site are these fine church and residential buildings (above), another indicator of how out of character the proposal is with its surroundings.

Lots of potential here

More than many other neighborhoods on this part of town, West End shows promise (house across 13th Street above). Recent investments in the area–including this possible Family Dollar–show a stability that can be a strong base for future improvements. Committee member Marc Fugnitto was passionate about treating West End no differently from Five Points South or South Avondale, where large national chains wanting to invest in urban neighborhoods were required to redesign their proposals to be pedestrian-friendly and appropriate to local context. Others agreed, and hoped that the City Comprehensive Plan, currently in the works, will address the lack of Smart Code and other tools that would tell the developer up front what’s expected, from a form-based standpoint. Or, at the very least, that the Plan will consider this part of West End as an important urban node in the City, which needs clearer design guidelines to help steer development.

A harbinger of things to come?

The Committee asked the developer to meet again, informally, to discuss solutions for the site; the proposal as presented was not approved. On a brighter note, a few blocks further west at 48th Street and Court “V” in Five Points West, Hoskins Architecture presented the above plan for revitalizing a small park adjacent to the Five Points West library. A thoughtful palette of varied trees and plantings, elevation changes, and modern furnishings bodes well for the type of design we all hope will occur around the new Birmingham Crossplex (which is a block north). A bland piece of grass with a few desultory plantings will be transformed into a real place. This one passed the Committee with flying colors.

More potential, slowly getting realized

Back downtown on the 1700 block of Third Avenue North, a small, vacant two-story commercial structure (brown brick, above), was approved for renovation into a law firm downstairs, and the lawyer’s loft apartment upstairs. The simple, historically sensitive design is by NHB Group. Just one block west of the Alabama and Lyric Theaters, this side of the street is full of potential but, in the absence of a coordinated plan for the Theater District, has been slow to revitalize. Besides the renovation of the lower building in the right of the photo (private residence), and the mixed-use tailor shop and loft (below), both of which we designed, this block has been pretty stagnant. With the planned renovation of the Lyric Theatre, a strategic focus on this district, and more investors, this row could be a real downtown jewel. City, onwards!

Retail on the street. We need more

[Thanks to Blackmon Rogers Architects for the Fire Station elevations and Hoskins Architecture for the park plan]

Walgreens, Phase 2

A softer approach

Yesterday Connolly Net Lease, the developer who has acquired the historic Fire Station No. 22 and several adjacent parcels along the 3100 block of Clairmont Avenue South, held a charrette to help determine what a new Walgreens would look like. Coming off of a contentious earlier effort (which involved demolishing the Fire Station), the new plan is at first glance more pleasing to neighbors and others: the Fire Station has been saved, and will house two of the existing businesses that will be demolished on adjacent lots (Bogue’s Restaurant and Triple Platinum Salon). Connolly said the famous Bogue’s neon sign will be preserved and move it to the Fire Station; a neighborhood landmark is preserved and will have two local businesses inside. Good.  But what about the plan for the new structure and site layout?

Context is complex

The largest issue here is not the architecture per se (although it’s important), but the site layout itself. Above is Clairmont Avenue, looking west from the Fire Station. Note all the setbacks along the street–except for Bogue’s, whose setback is perhaps 5 feet or so, all structures are placed back 10-30 feet from the front property line. This is due in part to the fact the street was initially laid out residentially, with houses, porches, and apartment buildings. And lawns.

Sophisticated respect for context, ca. 1960

About 1960, the architectural firm Henry Sprott Long moved from their downtown offices to the leafier region of Clairmont Avenue, which by that point had become a less desirable residential address. They built an international style gem, with exposed steel beams, plate glass, stone veneer, and a flat roof (above). However, they were careful to respect their residential neighbors, preserving trees, keeping the scale modest–and setting the building back to match the adjacent houses.

Still historic in its own right

At the design charrette, the principals of Blackmon Rogers Architects showed a site plan that has a +/- 13,500 square foot Walgreens moved all the way to the western edge of the lot, and pulled out to the sidewalk with no setback. This awkwardly hems in Henry Sprott Long. In many cases, the correct “urban” and “pedestrian-friendly” location of a commercial building is right at the sidewalk. In this case, we’re not as sure.

A bit too close for comfort

In the architect’s quick sketch prepared yesterday above (please note: these are very early sketches in the process), an option for the new Walgreens facade on Clairmont is illustrated. They have made an effort to bring down the height to relate to Henry Sprott Long seen at the left; what you don’t see is the shadow that would be cast on the older building which is set so much further back. And to the other side of the Walgreens is…

an urban void

…a large surface parking lot, the extent of which can be seen in the second part of the sketch above (note the diminutive Fire Station to the far right). Having this much surface parking running along Clairmont is not good. If I were to redesign this site, I would place Walgreens more in the center between the international style and Spanish-style historic structures (and yes, they are both historic); I would make it longer and skinnier along Clairmont to put more mass on the street; I would set it back a very modest amount from the sidewalk; and parking would be contained at the rear. As it is, the Fire Station feels marooned in isolation at the end of the sea of parking, and Henry Sprott Long has the opposite problem: it’s being strangled by its much larger new neighbor.

Contextual in Oak Park

While certain participants yesterday asked for “historical” elements in the design, what actually emerged as a favorite “prototype” was the new part of the Oak Park, IL Walgreens, shown above (the other part is a renovated existing historic structure). It’s decent, if conventional, corporate architecture. It’s much better than your standard Walgreens, which is good. And it’s good the neighborhood gets to have input into materials. It’s also good activists were able to save the Fire Station from demolition, and the developer plans to relocate local independent businesses there.

Unfortunate siting--but still early

But the neighborhood should also insist on a better site plan. The current plan (sketched crudely above by this author) does a disservice to both historic buildings. The architects are at least on the right track with a “21st century” style that doesn’t cheapen the Fire Station by mimicking it.  Hopefully, the developer will reconsider the site plan so that the block can feel more whole, and the beautiful little modernist building can breathe again.

[Thanks to Blackmon Rogers for allowing us to show the elevation sketches; Oak Park Walgreens pic courtesy of Walgreens]