Tag Archives: Charm

Container creativity

Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box

An exciting new project in the Avondale neighborhood, just a short bike zyp ride from downtown, was announced in the Birmingham Business Journal yesterday (rendering above). The project is on 3rd Avenue South between 41st and 42nd Street and the architect is Design Initiative. The developer cites London’s Boxpark as an inspiration; Boxpark is created from shipping containers, and is intended to provide “pop-up” space for unique, low-cost, highly creative retail, restaurant and gallery space. Birmingham’s version–dubbed Box Row–will offer dozens of containers with simple, affordable pricing and the flexibility to join containers to create larger space. It’s high time the City embraces this type of concept, for many reasons.

If it works in Shoreditch...

If it works in Shoreditch…

We have argued in past posts that there would be a lot more retail downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods if available rental space were appropriately geared towards the young, the creative and the entrepreneurial. While a neighborhood like Avondale has land uses no longer compatible in the current marketplace (Box Row will occupy the former Anchor Motel site), central downtown has too many retail storefronts left over from an era of big department stores and the high-rent retail that clustered around them: they are too large, and rents too expensive, for contemporary urban retail. Charm  on Second Avenue North downtown would not be around if it weren’t for the oddball small space and corresponding lower rent. This could be the answer not just for Avondale, but for vacant lots downtown and in other locales.

Simple, sustainable, affordable

Simple, sustainable, affordable

The site layout (above) illustrates good urban design: rentable space lines the sidewalk, while parking is concealed to the rear. Terraces afford space for outdoor dining; the composition is a nice balance between the repetition of the individual containers and the contrasting masses of their groupings. At a reported $4.3 million investment, this is a leap forward in how we can re-imagine urban space.

Our own box concept

Our own box concept

We’re especially excited because back when the Community Foundation sponsored a 20111 competition for redeveloping a block just east of Railroad Park, our entry was a container box “pop-up” concept (above) that included retail, restaurant and gallery space (the site will now be a public plaza adjacent to the Steam Plant redevelopment). Creatively using container boxes is a proven solution all over the globe at this point; it’s very cool that developers are bringing Box Row to Birmingham. We wish them every success.

(thanks to Design Initiative and the BBJ for the rendering and site layout, and Boxpark for the London image)

Urban retail

More of these, please

The growth of retail establishments downtown has not kept pace with the growth of neighborhood population. Why? In part because populations must reach tipping points before retailers will consider new locations, and for certain businesses our population is just not there yet.

However, another reason is that downtown doesn’t have the right available space in the right locations. Take the growing Second Avenue district and the retailer Charm (above), in the 2300 block of Second Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. There are bars, a coffee shop, a corner bodega, and a skate shop on the block–all very complementary to Charm’s vibe. What we now need are a couple more retailers to step up and join the district–and indeed several have been searching for small space at reasonable rents. But it’s proven very hard to find.

Not the best and highest use of this corner

While there is plenty of vacant retail storefront downtown, much of it is too big. If it were subdivided into smaller, reasonably priced spaces it would be easier to fill. Unfortunately many building owners don’t want to go to the expense of speculative renovation for a market that’s still seen as pioneering. Above is the building at the SE corner of 24th and Second Avenue North, right down the street from Charm. Most recently professional offices, it was bought last year and is seemingly vacant: it’s storefront blinds are drawn, and no renovation work evident. It’s a big blank non-contributing element to the district right now.

Better and higher use

Last year we worked on a concept project with the previous owner (above) that would have created smaller retail storefront spaces on the first floor, and updated the building with a clean, graphic aesthetic complementing our 2nd Row project of 2007. If this city had a Redevelopment Authority, perhaps it could’ve identified this property as key to the growth of the Second Avenue district, bought or leased the space, performed the necessary renovations, and then marketed it to retail and restaurants. We have nothing like that here, which inhibits our getting traction or critical mass again and again (although Main Street Birmingham has had some success with similar ventures in the commercial centers of Woodlawn and Avondale).

Getting proactive

Once again, the smaller city of Mobile to our south is ahead of the curve: the Downtown Mobile Alliance (equivalent to our Operation New Birmingham) has acquired a spacious former retail space on Dauphin Street downtown (above) and created the Urban Emporium. Here, start-up retailers can rent small spaces with shared overhead, checkout, etc.–a retail incubator, if you will. It allows retailers interested in downtown to introduce themselves to the neighborhood at minimal expense. The idea is they grow a customer base, and then graduate to their own space elsewhere downtown. Birmingham needs to do something similar. Otherwise, we’ll keep losing opportunities like our aborted project above, while eager but frustrated entrepreneurs keep searching. Their search may lead  to other neighborhoods altogether if we don’t have a plan in place to accommodate them.

Critical mass is typically a combination of the organic and the planned. Here on Second Avenue North the organic has come a good ways. It’s time for some planning to keep it going. More on that next post.

[thanks to Downtown Mobile Alliance for the Urban Emporium pic]

Holiday Gifting 2010 *2*

Second in our quick series of where to find great gifts at local, indie shops: Charm! A one-of-a-kind retailer across the street from us here on 2nd Avenue North between 23rd and 24th, Charm has an eclectic, hip, and reasonable selection you can’t really find anywhere else in town.

From jewelry like that pictured above;

To cool scarves;

To more awesome jewelry;

To purses!;

To fun wallets with nifty animals on them;

to more jewelry–and much much more. This type of retail shop gives character and vitality to our downtown–please support them!