Tag Archives: Cheryl Morgan

Signage writ large

Communicating a brand big time

Today at Design Review Committee, Harbert Realty presented a proposal to wrap the electronic message board atop Two North 20th (corner Morris Avenue and 20th Street North, the former Bank for Savings building) with a massive vinyl advertisement for Pepsi (rendering, above). This is probably an unprecedented request, but the message board itself is unique to the City and Alabama, and therefore presents a special context for debate.

The latest technology, ca. 1971

The giant electronic sign, with its ability to scroll messages with some 1,280 incandescent light bulbs, went up in 1971 as a symbol of a new, modern Birmingham emerging from the turbulent 1960’s. Above, we see the new sign in context over a soon-to-be-greened 20th Street North (note the billboard on the right for the new First National-Southern Natural building, now Regions Center). Over the years, the cost of maintaining the sign has caused it to change hands and go dark periodically. Harbert stated today that they can no longer afford to run the sign as-is; they want to convert it to LED technology when economic conditions permit. Until then, they want to hit the off switch, and rent it out for the Pepsi advertisement.

Ubiquitous

Despite the obsolete technology, and the fact that no sign like this would ever be approved today (there were no design review approval districts back in 1971), there is a certain civic fondness for the quirkiness of the sign. Committee member Mark Fugnitto lauded the existing sign for both its retro quality and its ability from a distance to blend into the urban context. Cheryl Morgan wondered why Pepsi wouldn’t agree to a more custom, artistic banner that would be tailored for Birmingham in lieu of the generically commercial design presented. In the end, the Committee refused the applicant, and asked for him to return with another design.

There is no question the sign is about to go dark; at issue is whether it just sits dark, or gets the Pepsi banner. Harbert’s representative was pessimistic he could convince Pepsi (through local distributor Buffalo Rock) to modify the banner. This unique part of the skyline can be allowed to change with the times. Keeping it special and beloved will be a challenge.

[thanks to Harbert Realty for the rendering, and bhamwiki for the historic photo]

Play ball (2)

And it's happening

The City’s Design Review Committee conditionally approved demolition of an area just south of Railroad Park to prepare for construction of the new ball park of the Birmingham Barons. The area, pictured above, is four square blocks bounded by First Avenue South (facing the park) and Third Avenue South, and 14th and 16th Streets. The hatched buildings will be taken down; noticeably unhatched is the B&A Warehouse building at the corner of 16th and First Avenue, no longer part of the project.

Conceptual--with the hope of solid urban edges

Brian Wolf of Corporate Realty presented the 2 simple documents–the demo plan and the concept ball park plan, above. The Committee’s main objection was the lack of even schematic drawings illustrating the nature of the street edges of the project. Committee member Cheryl Morgan stated her concern about the importance of the 14th Street corner, and the need for parks to have active, vibrant edges. The rest of the Committee had similar concerns. Mr. Wolf assured the Committee that much time and effort has been put into creating an active street edge, and that he’d come back in January with completed schematics showing this. In the end, given the fast-track schedule and the scale of the project, the vote was to allow only partial demolition to occur, with the remainder waiting until schematics are presented in January. The main concern of this blog has been similar to the Committee’s–having a backside of a ball park fronting a major public park is not good urban planning. That we will get even a small buffer of pedestrian-scaled architecture between sidewalk and ball park is hopeful.

Big improvement

About a year ago we posted on the unfortunate deterioration of an aging strip center in Five Points South at the corner of 19th Street and 11th Avenue South. A massive “Bail Bonds” sign that had gone up without Design Review permission seemed to symbolize the challenges of this historic commercial area’s struggle to rejuvenate. This morning, the above proposal was unanimously passed by the Committee. All existing (and mainly non-conforming) signage will be removed, and a new red sign band created to provide a unified appearance. Needless to say, there was practically cheering in the aisles. (Cohen, Carnaggio, Reynolds are the architects).

More urban amenities = good

Last but not least, the above shows a major renovation of historic structures at the corner of 6th Avenue South and 22nd Street South into a music performance space and lounge, able to hold up to 1000 patrons (design by TRI Architecture and Interior Design). Located within the same block as Workplay, across the street from the Fish Market, and adjacent to the Liv on Fifth lofts, this is a major investment in downtown entertainment. Healthy cities have lots of entertainment options that make urban places attractive to the coveted younger demographic of people in their 20’s and 30’s. We wish Iron City Live Music Hall much success, and hope it inspires additional development in the area.

[thanks to Corporate Realty for the ball park plans; Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds for the Five Points rendering; and TRI for the Iron City Music Hall elevations]

Out with the old, in with the…

Pop go the gas bubbles

This morning at Design Review Committee saw approval for the renovation of the downtown Alagasco building, one of iconic local architect Fritz Woehle‘s few commercial projects (above). The building is also one of Birmingham’s unique examples of Pop Architecture [you can read a good essay on the Pop movement here]. An older building was reconfigured by Woehle–I assume in the late 1960’s–with a smooth stucco skin punctuated by playful, circular windows. These suggest gas bubbles, and present a singular, unique image for the gas company. [Update: I’m now told the building was originally conceived by Woehle for a bank, which makes the circles pure geometric play rather than symbolic of gas bubbles. Although perhaps the allusion drew the gas company to purchase the building?] Urbanistically it has its faults  (a massive drive through at the corner of 20th Street North and Powell Avenue; dark-tinted windows do not engage with the street; there is no real pedestrian scale)—but the Committee paused before approving the renovation.

A measured critique

The main concerns came from committee member Cheryl Morgan (pictured above seated at the left during the presentation), who objected to the vaguely classicizing style of the proposed synthetic stucco detailing (pilasters with capitals, cornices, etc.). While the architect (Alan Tichansky of Williams Blackstock) argued that the new design was more stylistically in keeping with the smaller, attached building which is part of the campus, Morgan felt the smaller historic building would be more respected if the new design were simpler, not so overtly “historicist”, and had closer attention paid to proportions and details. In the end, the committee voted to approve as long as the architect just tweaked the capital details.

In the same vein

While we were not able to obtain renderings for this post, the proposed architecture is vaguely similar to that found right up the street at Adamson Ford (above): big stucco-type cornices, and elements that recall original Birmingham commercial architecture from the 1910’s without replicating the proportional relationships seen in those buildings. A palette of taupes and browns will be the paint scheme.

Many probably have mixed feelings about the Alagasco building; regardless it’s about to be altered beyond recognition, and will go from unusual to conventional. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Discuss.

[thanks to Adamson Ford for the pic of their downtown dealership]

Dead customers can’t buy a lot of chicken

At yesterday’s working session of a subcommittee of the Design Review Committee, Chick-Fil-A came back once again with a revised proposal for the heavily trafficked NE corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Historic Five Points South.

A move in the right direction, but not enough

A summary of the session can be found in the News here, or over at Second Front here. Suffice it to say that while the site layout–and the drive-through’s impact on the layout–is still a serious concern of the subcommittee, the design of the building itself has undergone a sea-change from earlier versions. Local firm Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds has been hired by Chick-Fil-A to try to win over hearts and minds. What exactly is at issue with the design of the building?

The quick sketch above roughly illustrates the difference between earlier schemes–which showed a typically suburban “outparcel” site strategy (#1 above)–and the current scheme presented yesterday (#2 below). Whereas before the building mass was dwarfed by the relative sea of surrounding asphalt parking (and drive-through), now the building has been elongated to take up over 80% of the street frontage on both streets. The parking and drive-through are now fairly well hidden from either street. (Please note these sketches are not to scale.)

From an urban standpoint, this is a good thing. Urban neighborhoods depend on density for their success as dynamic environments. It’s pretty intuitive: how many of us have visited a dense environment like Manhattan and walked a mile without noticing? Whereas in a less dense environment, like most of Birmingham, most of us really notice–and avoid it–if we have to walk more than 1/2 block to a destination. When we don’t have a dense, vibrant, interesting wall of buildings fronting the street to hold our interest and make us feel secure, we don’t want to keep walking. Brightly lit storefronts keep us walking; big parking lots don’t.

How did the architects stretch out this new, 291 feet of facade? While actual floor plans were not presented, it appears that a lot more seating was added–both interior and exterior, some under a covered pergola. And how did they respond to the Appeals Board’s decision to deny Chick-Fil-A in part because the building previously presented was clearly purpose-built for Chick-Fil-A, rather than as an adaptable commercial structure more typical to the area?

The response was to offer several possible versions of how the building could look. In each one, the building was imagined as a simulation of organic growth over time, dividing up one facade into 3 parts, with each part resembling a somewhat different building. While this sounds reasonable in concept, it is very hard to pull off, especially if the same architect is designing the entire project. Simulating architectural diversity that normally occurs organically, and over time, often results in a “Disney Effect”, where the street ends up looking like a stage set.

A simulacrum of the real thing

Take the outdoor street and commercial “facades” at Brookwood Mall, pictured above. While the design has certainly improved the mall from a planning standpoint–opening shops onto an outdoor sidewalk, facing new restaurants, with parallel parking and street trees mimicking an actual urban street–the architecture itself is disappointing. Because despite the effort to modulate the elevations, with different heights, setbacks, and architectural “styles”, the whole thing still looks like it’s one big mega-project that came from the same hand. Why? The level of detail is consistent; while from facade to facade the brick may differ from the stucco, and the impressed tiles differ from the cornice, overall there is a similarity in both material and design quality that makes the experience more homogeneous than diverse. If the developer had one master plan, and hired multiple architects to create the facades using certain guidelines, then the results would have had much more potential. Of course large-scale commercial development rarely goes that way.

Rather than simulate 3 buildings, I think it would be more fruitful to consider one consistent building, and vary the scale along the facade to achieve a certain diversity and rhythm.

A post-modern infill down the street

Interestingly, the Committee towards the end (with Cheryl Morgan leading the discussion) urged the architect to not depend on historic precedent to such an extent that the buildings look like imitations of Spanish Revival or Art Deco, two common styles of the Five Points area. “Contextual” and “Compatible” do not mean “Imitation”; Morgan pushed for a “21st century solution” that, while clearly new and  of this time, responds in a respectful way to the scale, rhythm, and massing of the eclectic neighboring buildings. Too often when new buildings are designed to be “Tudor” or “Spanish Revival”, modern budgets and available craftsmen make the details very disappointing compared to the models of 100 years ago. Above you see an example at Pickwick Place a couple blocks north of the proposed site, where an infill project in the early 1980’s gave us stucco facades with end piers and grooved details meant to evoke the 1930’s Art Deco of the Pickwick Hotel to the south–but while the massing feels right, the paucity of detail, the banal storefronts, and the cheap looking light standards, clumsy railings,  and ugly metal coping all say “1980’s on a budget.”

21st century contextual

This residential project at 48 Bond Street (designed by Deborah Burke) in New York is an example of a confidently modern infill structure that manages to respect and respond to its neighbors without imitating them. It matches the parapet heights of its neighbors, recessing its additional stories back from the street line; it uses proportion and material to relate without copying. And frankly, even with New York budgets, copying historic elements is almost bound to disappoint once you start designing details. And details can make or break a project–as Committee member Mark Fugnitto stated, the details will determine whether the proposal is a good or bad building. And, as this is still a work in progress, we  don’t have the details yet.

Another example of sensitive modern infill architecture that doesn’t try to imitate the past is the Portland Harbor Hotel annex below in Portland, ME. Designed by Archetype, this project proves you don’t have to build a corporate template, or imitate the past, or simulate diversity, in order to create something both substantial and adaptable to other uses in the future.

Elegant and substantial

Now, what still remains–and what the architect can’t fix no matter how hard she tries–is that Chick-Fil-A is still hell-bent on a drive-through, on a single-use for the entire site, and of course on their no-Sundays policy. I think all 3 of these represent big flaws to the development of the site.

First, a drive-through is incompatible in this neighborhood.  Chick-Fil-A’s traffic engineer stumbled a bit yesterday when he finally acknowledged that the famous “47 second” average drive-through wait–“the best in the business”– was actually 47 seconds from placement of order to receiving that order. You can wait much longer to get to the box and ramble through the order itself. So at peak times, it is all too easy to imagine the stack of cars spilling out into the parking area and creating traffic hell all around the site, which is already hellish enough. Couple this with the fact that people are not getting out of their cars like everyone else in the neighborhood and walking to their destination makes me–and most of the committee–still skeptical that the drive-through can be proven compatible with the neighborhood. [A friend of mine just timed his drive through experience today at the Eastwood Village CFA location and clocked 374 seconds total from entry to exit–and this was a good 20 minutes before CFA’s stated “peak time” of 12:15 to 12:45.]

Second, while it’s admirable that the company is now willing to reduce total number of parking spaces, and simulate multiple storefronts across a wider street frontage, this is no substitute for true urban diversity, with multiple businesses located adjacent to each other. This prominent site is much better suited for mixed-use than for single-use, and while CFA admits they have “more property than they need”, they refuse to entertain the idea of subleasing out a portion to another business. Hardly surprising, but still disappointing (and disappointingly beyond the purview of the Design Review Committee).

Finally, while somewhat unspoken (and again beyond the DRC purview), it is truly a shame that, because of CFA’s policy of not opening Sundays, this important intersection in one of the most popular urban destinations for locals and tourists alike would be completely dead for a full half of every weekend. Not the schedule you want in one of the few dense, around-the-clock neighborhoods we have in this city [Pancake House: you need to open for dinner!]. And speaking of the Sunday closing: CFA is known for hiring only clean-cut workers with proven “family values”; its corporate office financially supports such groups as Focus on the Family, a controversial organization that campaigns against gay rights among other things. The fact that the Five Points neighborhood is one of the most demographically diverse and accepting in the entire state at the very least lends an irony to CFA’s desperation to be there.

When the traffic engineer was grilled on vehicle counts and flows, one objection was conflict with pedestrians at various points around the site. His reply was that of course CFA wants to avoid pedestrian accidents: “Dead customers can’t buy a lot of chicken.” Oddly enough, that quote seems like a good way to sum up this entire effort thus far. Stay tuned.

[thanks to KMGough for the Portland infill; Deborah Berke for 48 Bond Street]

Chick-Fil-A Denied

The Design Review Committee voted unanimously this morning to deny Chick-Fil-A’s request to place a new restaurant and drive-through at the corner of 20th Street and Highland Avenue South, in the heart of the Five Points South Historic District.

Delivering an impassioned speech about the duty to maintain “the vitality of the whole neighborhood”–and the incompatibility of drive-throughs in this pedestrian-friendly area–Committee member Cheryl Morgan eloquently laid out the reasoning behind the vote.

James Little, president of the Five Points South Merchant Group, spoke of residents’ and merchants’ approving a resolution against this and any other drive-through in the district. He mentioned that other chain outlets known for drive-throughs–Jim-n-Nick’s and Starbucks–are successfully operating in the area in historic urban storefronts with no drive-throughs.

Despite several Chick-Fil-A attorney presentations which revolved around property rights and the fact that zoning does allow drive-throughs in this part of town, in the end the Committee decided that the Downtown Master Plan, Five Points South Design Guidelines, and the Five Points South Commercial Revitalization plan trumped the generic zoning allowance.

With all those lawyers at their disposal, I would be surprised if this is the last we’ve heard from Chick-Fil-A. It’s a real pity they’d want to pursue something so opposed by their neighbors and this community at large.

Mike Calvert helps make the case for denial

One final note–Committee member Don Cosper brought up an aspect of this proposal that has been lost amidst all the talk about drive-throughs–the architectural compatibility of the building itself. The representatives of Chick-Fil-A were at a loss to defend what’s essentially a suburban-mall-out-parcel style building. Yes, they’d made some modifications (brick instead of stucco) in the hopes of helping their case. But thoughtful architecture that responds to its context? Far, far from it.

Stay tuned.

[Thanks to Victor Blackledge, with Planning, Engineering, and Permits, for allowing me to photograph the public proceedings of this Committee]

UPDATE:

Real estate sources have confirmed that Panera Bread is the second choice tenant of the property owners, and is poised to present a plan for a new restaurant in this location without a drive-through (if the owners decide not to continue pursuing Chick-Fil-A). You can read the article in the News here.

Chick-Fil-A: Meet Frank Stitt

An impassioned defense of an urban neighborhood

What happens when you put Poulet Rouge on the same platter next to Chick-n-Strips? Well, we learned the answer this past Wednesday when Frank Stitt, chef/owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez FonFon, and Bottega Restaurant and Cafe, spoke eloquently against a proposed redevelopment of the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street into a drive-through Chick-Fil-A Restaurant (he’s pictured above addressing the City’s Design Review Committee). His reasoning (echoed by other merchants present as well as the president of the Five Points Merchants’ Group): 1. The alley which accesses the drive-through queue is an active alley used for deliveries for his restaurants; 2.  Car traffic will increase, possibly dangerously, at an already busy intersection; 3. The fumes of idling cars and the noise from the “squawk box” will affect not only his diners at the patio across the alley but the elderly lady who lives in one of the last remaining Victorian mansions on Highland Avenue next door; and 4. A drive-through is incompatible to an historic, vibrantly pedestrian neighborhood. Of course Number 4 is the most important reason for everyone to be concerned about this sort of proposal, regardless of whether you plan to dig into Moules-Frites across the alley or not.

I’d like to set the record straight here. Over on the al.com blog there’s been a lively discussion about Frank Stitt and his opposition to the development (you can see it here). First, Frank was only the most famous of other merchants and neighbors who all stood to speak against the idea of a drive-through. Second, Jim Little, who heads the Five Points South Merchants Group, also stood to express his organization’s disapproval. Third, I’ve spoken personally with Frank Stitt and he is clear: he, and his fellow merchants and neighbors, are not opposing Chick-Fil-A. They are opposing a drive-through.

The argument is not about haute cuisine vs. the mass market

This in fact is a rather populist protest against an Atlanta-based corporation wanting to impose a suburban design on a neighborhood that’s one of the most urban we have. So charges of elitism/arrogance, in my opinion, are best directed at the corporation–not at the neighborhood.

The argument is about preserving urban character against a suburban-style assault

Now let me try to briefly explain the options available to resolve the situation. This property is located in an official Commercial Revitalization District, as well as in an Historic District listed on the National Register. Any proposed alteration or change to property in such districts must come before the Design Review Committee. The DRC, however, must abide by City zoning law in making its approvals. In Birmingham’s zoning code, drive-through facilities are allowed in all commercial areas without restriction. Therefore, the DRC, while its members appeared unanimous in their opposition to a drive-through, cannot in the end stop it. They have to follow the current zoning rules.

What could be done to help this situation? Three things come to mind:

1. The City amends its zoning code (as other cities have done recently) to restrict new drive-through facilities in certain areas (grandfathering extant facilities).

2 The City adopts a Form-Based Code. Such a code provides regulations beyond the normal zoning code, to help better shape development especially in key areas of a city. Part of this new code could restrict drive-throughs in certain areas. (The town of Seaside, Fl. was the first example of a modern form-based code. See this interesting illustration of  form-based code principles here, from the new code adopted recently in Miami).

3. The City creates a Redevelopment Authority. Such an authority typically has the ability to develop urban design plans, acquire and/or promote key properties for redevelopment in accordance with the plans, and act as the developer in certain instances, sometimes in conjunction with private investors or developers.

4. The Five Points Historic District organizing papers are amended to specifically prevent drive-throughs within the district.

Based on discussions I have had with people familiar with the above options, our City lacks the political will to implement either a Form-Based Code, a zoning change, or a Redevelopment Authority (in part due to opposition from local developers who imagine such changes would be bad for business). Such lack of political will, matched with opposition from the development community, keeps our city from progressing like other cities which have one or more of those tools at their disposal.

And in the meantime, drive-through or not, a very prominent corner in the heart of a diverse, pedestrian-friendly district is getting a free-standing, suburban-style building surrounded by a sea of parking. As Cheryl Morgan of Auburn’s Urban Studio put it, “parking spaces don’t produce revenue.” The neighborhood, visitors, and the City would be much better served if a higher and better use were contemplated for this site, one that included multiple tenants opening directly on the sidewalks, with limited parking in the rear. This is one rare part of town where people get out of their car and walk, as Frank Stitt pointed out. Here’s hoping Chick-Fil-A will listen hard to this community and reconsider this plan.

Let's keep it urban!

[thanks to cathydanh for the Highlands dinner plate,  jreed for the Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and Five Points South Merchant’s Group for the overhead view of the site and surroundings]