Tag Archives: Chattanooga

The Sheltering Sky

Before there were shelters, there was excellent transit

Our opening photo takes us back to the late 1940s (courtesy Birmingham Public Library) where we see people queuing to board a streetcar on Third Avenue North downtown. While most of us are aware of the ghastly state of our city’s current transit system, today I’m focused on a smaller but important issue: bus shelters.

Where's the design in Birmingham?

A relatively recent invention, the bus shelter has become an important piece of street furniture: a well-designed bus shelter can enhance the pedestrian’s (and transit-user’s) experience of the sidewalk and street environment. It can also convey the city’s attitude about urban design. Perhaps 8 years ago, the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) announced they were replacing old bus shelters across the city. There was talk about holding a competition among local designers for the new shelter. Instead, as illustrated here, what we got was something so banal and un-urban, it boggles the mind. And many, many dozens of these were constructed. The metal members form a claustrophobic, prison-like enclosure, with no panels for signage, advertising, or route information. All normally basics for a bus shelter.

Forward design in San Fran

As a counter example, consider the new prototype shelters going up in San Francisco. Simple and elegant, one side contains space for advertisements (an important source of revenue for most transit systems) and the other side has info panels, maps, and in most cases updated electronic MUNI schedules. I love the design of these shelters–not only do they have red, translucent undulating tops (created out of recycled resin by 3-form), but there are solar panels embedded in these roofs that power the illumination of the shelter at night. Note also the large, graffiti-proof and shatter-proof resin panels at the rear, unencumbered by fussy, prison-like metal bars. It’s all very open, airy, and inviting.

Solar power at work

User-friendly and inviting in Chattanooga

And lest we think it’s silly to expect the same sort of thoughtful design here as they get in a big city like San Francisco, turn to Chattanooga, a metro half our size to the north. The shot below shows a shelter on Market Street. Not quite as integrated in design as SF, but still good. And not only does it have electronic schedule info, but it conveys to users and visitors that the city cares about design and the urban experience. There’s thought behind it.

If you gave me a choice between good bus shelters and a good transit system, of course I’d take the latter. It’s a pressing need for our region. But part of making a transit system attractive is making its accessories attractive. I earnestly hope that when we do get the long-overdue overhaul of our transit system, we’ll also find the best designers to develop graphics, way-finding, and bus shelters. It’s one more piece of the urban puzzle we shouldn’t overlook.

Just like there’s a synergy between good transit and good shelters, the opposite is true. Our poorly conceived shelters are predictable given our poor transit. I mentioned earlier there is no panel on our standard shelter for signage, graphics, or info displays. However, as an afterthought, the BJCTA slapped some vinyl stickers on certain shelters warning “NO LOITERING”. That’s the only message conveyed in writing on the entire shelter. Here you see someone doing just that–loitering in a shelter. How do I know he’s loitering? Well, it’s just a good guess, because it’s Sunday afternoon. And a quick check of the BJCTA schedule shows no Sunday routes except the DART. If you look closely you can see the warning printed over his head…(thanks to richmondsfblog, almonroth, and zekumedo for the SF and Chatta. pics)

Emblematic of a culture of neglect

All together, now.

This past week the News confirmed an open secret: IMS, a company specializing in surgical instrument management and consulting, is relocating from suburban Homewood to downtown Birmingham. 100 employees will populate the former Noland building and warehouse (2nd Avenue North and 33rd Street), with additional space to be built on adjacent property. The “Sloss Business Park” would involve an (initial?) investment of $7.4 million.  ONB, the BBA, and the City are all mentioned as having helped make this possible. It is a too rare example of a corporate headquarters moving into the city. Here’s hoping others will follow.

Wellmark anchors a downtown district in Des Moines

In the meantime, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is building a new headquarters in downtown Des Moines (thanks to jeremye2477 for the construction pic). It will house close to 2000 employees and represents a $250 million investment. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited as anyone about IMS (and hopeful that the architecture and planning of their new campus will be urban, forward-thinking, and inspirational). But, this comparison illustrates how far behind Birmingham is when compared to recruitment and retaining efforts in other cities, and the impact those efforts have in creating urban place.

As the New York Times pointed out in an article Feb. 17, Des Moines in recent years has thrived on cooperative efforts to improve and expand downtown. There are about 75,000 jobs downtown today, up 20,000 since the mid-1990’s. Birmingham has roughly 80,000 jobs downtown, but this number has been rising much more slowly in the same period. While we tend to have good plans for growth that sit gathering dust on shelves while factions squabble, there is a sense of common purpose in Des Moines–that a healthy downtown does not have to exist at the expense of a healthy metro. Instead, area leaders there see the health of the entire region depending on the health of downtown. They have cooperation. We, with some notable exceptions, do not.

Businesses want to invest in a downtown that’s embraced by the wider community. Instead of feeling like a pioneer, you feel like part of a plan for success. The plan in Des Moines includes a Regional Account, paid into by both city and suburbs, that helps provide stable funding to civic amenities like the art museum, symphony, botanical garden, etc. Here, these institutions often struggle year to year, depending on the whim or largesse of politicians and donors. The stability of Des Moines is part of what influences businesses like the Gateway Market to open downtown with confidence.

Gateway Market in downtown Des Moines

Main Street art in Chattaooga

Interestingly, Des Moines spends a set amount ($250,000) per year on public art. In Birmingham this would generally be frowned upon as frivolous. But just look a couple hours north to Chattanooga, where their public art fund has helped to revitalize the entire Main Street Area. In Birmingham, public art is the first aspect of a project to be chopped or deferred. In Chattanooga, it’s the opposite: art is used on the front end to attract attention and development. In this photo, you can see large, public art that was installed on an almost abandoned Main Street. 2 years later (when I snapped this pic), the neighborhood is thriving with shops, restaurants, and lofts. Oh, and a grocery just announced it’s arriving soon.

Western Gateway Park with sculpture

I love the idea of a human head/torso created with large, interconnected letters. Uplighting at night is beautiful.

One project in Birmingham that offers a contrast with Des Moines is the Railroad Park. In Des Moines, the new Western Gateway park was opened with unusual speed–2 1/2 years. Not only is it filled with large public sculpture, but it has already attracted new development such as the Des Moines Social Club, a multi-use art center with big ambitions. Thanks to Lukeh and regan76 for the full and detail pics of the Jaume Plensa sculpture in the park.

Back in Birmingham, the Railroad Park is indeed one of those rare examples of cooperation among many parties. In contrast to Western Gateway, it’s taken about 15 years since first conceived.

The public art component has been on again, off again, illustrating this community’s ambivalence to the real power of public art.  There have also been other cutbacks that some worry will dampen the final product.  But there remains a sense of optimism that, when this park opens later this year, it will become a catalyst for development. Let’s hope that our community doesn’t just sit back and nervously hope for the best, but instead focuses serious effort to making sure the park and its surrounding blocks are seen as a regional amenity that can help bring new corporate headquarters to Birmingham, inspire our own multi-use art spaces to crop up, and generate the interest of small business (and grocers) to the center city.

And maybe, just maybe,  even help reset our “cooperation” button. We need to unite to get things done. Hey, if they can do it in Des Moines…