Tag Archives: Brother Bryan Park

Oh Brother

Another affront to the park?

A few months back we discussed the condition of Brother Bryan (formerly Magnolia) Park which lies just a block east of the fountain at Five Points South commercial center. We return to the park today for a brief look at the sudden demolition of the former Kingsley Apartments at the important NE corner of Richard Arrington Blvd. and 10th Avenue South (above). This 1920’s-era apartment building was practically the last vestige of the original residential neighborhood that surrounded the now forlorn park.

What a way to face a park

As the neighborhood transformed from upper-income housing with some local shops to a destination, mixed-use district with offices and nightlife, poor design decisions were made around this park, including the Building Trades Tower (above), which literally turns a blank 12-story wall to what would otherwise be a prime urban vista.

Well at least they realized the view

In a related move, Magnolia Office Park (above, built 1966) sought to bring “suburban” amenities to this part of town–lots of on-site parking, modern floor plates–and absolutely no ground floor retail or commercial space. In fact, a grim parking garage stares out at the park across the street. What a missed opportunity that was.

And now it's all that's left

Across 10th Avenue South from the park is this medical office building (above) that–while we can appreciate its period Mad Men-ish architecture–again turns a mainly blank face to the park. Worse, the few large historic houses immediately to the east (to the right in the photo) have in the last few years all been demolished due to fires or for other reasons. Vacant land is all that’s left. With the apartments directly west just demolished, this  building is the sole mass facing the park from the north side. Which is depressing, but it could also be an opportunity: what if UAB (whose affiliate Southern Research Institute has a campus just north of here) partnered with the City and private developers to completely re-imagine the park and its surroundings as mixed-use office, retail, and housing to complement Five Points South and the campus?

This poor park and its edges have suffered enough.

People Power

Now there's a reason to be on Woodward Avenue after 5 PM

Shown above is Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in 2004, this public space has provided a welcome shot in the arm to the beleaguered central city. It’s an example of “placemaking”,  where citizens and stakeholders develop a vision for transforming particular spaces. These spaces in turn can catalyze the surrounding areas, and return a sense of pride and ownership to neighborhoods. Here’s an excellent article about this topic that one of our readers sent in.

The people spoke: take back the streets!

Public input in the design of public spaces has been around for some time. But this newer approach doesn’t use the public as a filter for a preconceived idea, but rather as the primary idea generator. The process can lead to something as simple–yet revolutionary–as reusing part (or all) of a street for pedestrians rather than cars (see Broadway near Times Square in New York City above). It is amazing to be in the middle of New York–where real estate, building costs, and zoning changes are all notoriously expensive and challenging–and enjoy a great public space that’s just asphalt, chairs, and some plantings. No buildings demolished or private property acquired; no expensive design or construction costs. The people wanted to sit in the street and they got it.

Intangible quality

The non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) consults across the world to help developers and cities create great public space, with “placemaking” as a tool. As has been argued here before, every progressive city needs certain things–a modern convention center, good transit, bike lanes, mixed-use zoning, etc. But these items themselves, even when connected through solid holistic planning, don’t necessarily add up to the intangible quality that make a place memorable–drawing attention, businesses, tourists, etc. Court Street in Brooklyn pictured above, with its layers of storefronts, signage, benches, people, and dogs may do as much (or more) for Brooklyn’s image as shiny new condo towers or well-planned bike lanes. PPS helps cities, through people-oriented planning, achieve this quality of place.

It needs to be top-notch, and it needs to avoid the shelf

Which brings us to the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan: the first plan for the City in 50 years that will produce a “policy and strategic framework” that will establish a city-wide vision for the future, how to pursue that vision, and how to get started (full disclosure: your author is on the steering committee for this project). While the initial round of public hearings kicks off Saturday October 22 from 9 AM-1 PM at Birmingham Crossplex, the notion of “placemaking” will most likely be generally, rather than specifically addressed in the Plan. It  will be up to all of us, once the Plan is produced, to insist on great place-making within the individual projects suggested by this Plan.

Civic pride ca. 1971--it didn't last long at this park

Birmingham, like other cities, used top-down approaches to public space for much of its existence. If you have enlightened leaders then this gets you the Olmsted Brothers Park System plan of 1924 (only partially implemented, unfortunately).  Less enlightened leadership and planning departments gave us the redesign of Magnolia (now Brother Bryan) Park, seen above in a 1971 newspaper article. Totally out-of-context A-frame picnic huts, formal reflecting pools, and ugly metal benches were the palette of that era’s City Planning Department. Today these same elements, forlorn and rotting, remain but the public mainly doesn’t care to use this park. What if, instead of the City continuing to spend money annually to keep it up, the park were turned over to a people-powered placemaking process? A vision established, a top designer similar to that used at Railroad Park could be hired to reconstruct this space. The Comprehensive Plan will probably identify Five Points South as a vibrant neighborhood with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness being this park. With the Plan as a roadmap, we can tackle this and other place-making needs around the city by involving good consultants like PPS, and designing from the bottom up, not the top down. Too many good plans have sat on the shelf in this City, from the Olmsted Brothers to the 2004 City Center Master Plan.This time around, actual implementation would be a refreshing change.

The potential for great "place" is here...

A lot of us, despite the challenges and frustrations of the City, have an intuition about the “soul” of Birmingham; the fundamentals of great place-making, we sense, are here. With the right nurturing, we just maybe could turn that long-vaunted “potential” into reality. Hey, if they can ice-skate to Christmas tunes in the middle of Detroit…

[thanks to dig downtown detroit for the Campus Martius pic; Project for Public Spaces for the NYC pics; bhamwiki for the news article; visual2 for the South East Lake neighborhood pic]