Tag Archives: Bromberg’s

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.

You are beautiful

A reminder of a lost nighttime fabric

By now we’ve all heard of the You Are Beautiful graffiti campaign in Birmingham, inspired by the Chicago-based art outfit You Are Beautiful. The Downtown Bromberg’s store (ironically no longer used as a retail outlet) is one of the few downtown retailers still actively doing thoughtful, catchy window displays; the above nighttime view shows how the graffiti campaign has caught on in a sort of meta-advertising theme.

A stroll at night through downtown even 40 years ago meant lit storefront after storefront, advertising wares in a visually appealing and constantly changing way: window-shopping. This unsung but crucial aspect of urban life–part of the common “fabric” of a street vs. the more iconic “object” buildings–is the subject of a great essay (in Black & White) by one of the authors of The Heaviest Corner, an excellent local blog on urbanism.  It’s worth a read.

It takes a village

A pioneering twist on the past

Today we’re travelling over the mountain to one of the metro’s most interesting assets: Mountain Brook Village. Designed in 1929 to complement the new Mountain Brook Estates residential section, it was (like the rest of the new neighborhood) modeled after traditional English architecture and landscape, to convey an aura of timeless, old-moneyed, leisure-class privilege. Of course, such design is also just plain pretty to look at. Unfortunately, the Depression killed most of the planned development both residentially and commercially, and the Village we know today is part 1920’s English Tudor, part 1940’s commercial storefronts, part 1950’s shopping center, and part neo-Tudor from the 1980’s and beyond (thanks to Dystopos for the pic above of one of the original buildings).

The Village has had its ups and downs (I highly recommend the Birmingham Historical Society‘s recent publication Mountain Brook Then & Now for learning more). When Bromberg’s jeweler became the first major downtown retailer to open a suburban branch in 1959, they chose the Village. This opened the floodgates, and soon the Village was home to branches of numerous downtown retailers, along with neighborhood shops. However, this trend soon turned against the Village, as new shopping malls were built; Brookwood Mall, less than a mile away, poached many stores. In recent years, despite some success stories,  the Village continues to not live up to its potential and is struggling with some empty storefronts and under-producing spaces.

Controversial expansion

Enter the proposal for Lane Parke, a preliminary rendering of which is shown here (courtesy Birmingham News). The developer originally built the Mountain Brook Shopping Center in the 1950s, as well as the Park Lane Apartments. Considered part of the Village, these properties lie a block from the historic core. Under the proposal these are replaced with a new, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development with housing, shops, boutique hotel, parking garage, and retail.

Just as cities must be open to new ideas (and newcomers) in order to survive, so do commercial centers like the Village. Mountain Brook Village is filled with charm–why not take the architecturally undistinguished post-war apartments and shopping center, and extend the charm into a vibrant new development that’s dense, friendlier to pedestrians, and helps create the type of “buzz” that would attract retailers, restaurants, and residents to enliven the streets at night?

Modern was fine in 1955

The black and white shot here illustrates the original shopping center in 1955 (courtesy Birmingham Historical Society), which has since suffered a dismal renovation. The auto-oriented strip mall would be replaced with multi-story buildings in a “traditional” style of architecture, with streets, sidewalks, and hidden parking garages.

The development plan has spurred a lot of local protest, and the zoning change necessary to implement the plan has been put on hold while the designers retool their plan.  A lot of the opposition comes from residents who do not want the Village to either expand or change in character. A group called Friends of  Mountain Brook Village has helped mobilize the protest. In essence, the group argues that the Village is indeed in need of rejuvenation, but the proposed development is too big, too tall, too dense, and too out-of-keeping with the existing historic Village.

In my view, there must be a compromise. Not only does Mountain Brook need new tax revenue and new energy in the village, but the strip mall–and Lane Park apartments behind it–offer very little to the Village in terms of ambience, architectural beauty, or attraction to retailers. They should be redeveloped. And a mix of residences, hotel, and shops–if done properly–could be a natural extension to the original plan for the Village. This extension could in turn breathe new life into the older core of the Village. Looking at downtown Homewood, another older suburban center a few minutes’ bike-ride from the Village,  SoHo Square serves as an interesting precedent. Unlike the Village, downtown Homewood is not known for landmark historic structures, but the new, mixed-use development of city hall, condos, retail, and restaurants is still a huge change to the urban fabric. Its scale (especially City Hall and its plaza) often seems a little arbitrary; its retail mix has been, well, a mixed bag; its design intent hurt by downgraded materials and details. On the other hand, its creation has made downtown Homewood a destination in a way it never was, and the original core seems to have thrived adjacent to the new development. This example shows us the positive side of this type of development, while also showing there’s room for improvement. And room for very thoughtful planning.

Mixed-use in Dallas is OK

The Village was one of the nation’s first planned suburban shopping districts–similar to Highland Park Village in Dallas, built at the same time (and unlike Mountain Brook, completely finished out, Depression not withstanding).  Rather than English Tudor, it’s designed in a Spanish Revival style. It has a lively mix of shops, restaurants, local and national boutiques, and a movie theater. It is incredibly successful, demanding rental rates higher than just about anywhere in North Texas. Two advantages: 1. it was completely built out to begin with, so no strip malls were shoehorned in the 1950’s, and 2. it is owned and managed by a single entity (similar to a shopping mall), which allows for coordinated marketing, retail strategies, etc. etc. (thanks to Ray Rafidi for the picture of the beautiful Highland Park Village Theatre).

This city–and I mean metro Birmingham–is excellent at opposing things. It’s much worse at promoting good plans and implementing them. I have no doubt that, done right, an extension to Mountain Brook Village could be a plus for all involved. A parking lot, strip mall, and undistinguished low-density apartments are worth re-visioning. Yes, the developers should be sensitive to the historic core, traffic, and architectural integrity. We don’t want some generic district that could be anywhere. But don’t oppose progress just for the sake of opposing it either–because in the end, even a village dies if it doesn’t adapt itself to change.

One last thought–lurking beneath the surface of any discussion of the new development is the fantasy that, if we extend the Village, we should extend it in the original English Tudor style. Unfortunately the cost of replicating the details that craftsmen assembled in the 1920’s would be astronomical on such a scale, unless perhaps we lived in China. How do we design an extension that complements the original without replicating it? It’s always a tough question.

Discuss amongst yourselves. And then post your thoughts!