Tag Archives: Chick-Fil-A

The fraying fabric of Five Points Alert (1)

Among the last of an era

Walking through Five Points South yesterday I was struck by the number of vacancies, the “for sale” signs, and then it hit me — we are at a very crucial time.   I think back 10 years ago when, heaven forbid, there was talk of chain stores (Gap, Blockbuster Video) moving in.  Now that many independent retailers are gone anyway (with some very important exceptions! iii’s anyone?),  and a Chick-Fil-A is the biggest recent news story, we are facing a difficult period.  This should be a jewel of our downtown.  Restaurants, bars, retail — all capitalizing on the huge adjacent UAB population.  But it’s not living up to this potential.

Seeing the furniture and detritus on the front porch of the Hassinger home, a gorgeous grande dame of Highland Avenue adjacent to the new Chick-Fil-A development (the elderly lady living there has departed), I am reminded of what happened to the Otto Marx mansion further down Highland a few years ago, when a unique, historic structure was torn down and replaced by a new structure that could have easily gone somewhere else:

A piece of history falls before the mighty hand of the market

In 2003, the Alabama Historical Commission and Alabama Preservation Alliance added the Hassinger home to its “Places in Peril” list, and rightly so.  This is an excellent example of the Queen Anne style as noted in the Birminhgam Historical Society‘s Guide to Architectural Style:

Illustrative purposes

So many of the homes that once lined Highland Avenue have been torn down in the name of progress, or left to fall apart until there was no other choice.  As readers may know, I am a big proponent of diverse communities with lots of architectural choices. But when you only have a handful of historic houses left in the City like this, the choice is clear. We need to preserve.

The way it was

What could this site be? A fantastic bed and breakfast with a welcoming front porch for visitors.  A bookstore.  Or, to dream big, quality retail, similar to how the Rhinelander mansion in NYC was saved to create the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue:

Could be perfect for prepsters

[thanks to dystopos for the Hassinger House pic; lsyd for the Marx/Sales sign pic; Birmingham Historical Society for the diagram of the Hassinger House; Jefferson County Historical Commission for the 1910 view of Highland Avenue, and sruellen for the Ralph Lauren pic.]



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]

Design Review Alert

The Design Review Sub-Committee will hold another “working session” with representatives of Chick-Fil-A to “review Chick-Fil-A’s latest design proposals” for a new restaurant on the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of the Five Points South Historic Neighborhood.

The meeting will be Tuesday, July 20, 2010, at 4 PM in the 5th floor conference room at City Hall, and is open to the public. However, unless requested by the Sub-Committee, no public comments will be taken, and seating is limited in this conference room. For those who cannot attend, I will do my best to report the proceedings.

No rulings are made at the working session.

The bulldozers are coming

The way it's usually done

Over in one of our alternative papers, Black and White, associate editor David Pelfry has an editorial exploring the relationship of developers, municipalities, and citizens—and the large imbalance often inherent in this relationship which can lead to the loss of green space, beauty, and community values in the name of tax revenue. Whether you are concerned about the current Chick-Fil-A and Walgreen’s projects in the City, or recent shopping center, mega-subivision, and other developments in the greater Metro, it’s a very interesting read.

[thanks to Robert Burnham for the aerial pic]

Chick-Fil-A: we’re back!

Still trying to make a suburban model urban

I found out at very late notice that a subcommittee of the Design Review Committee was meeting today at City Hall in a working session with representatives of Chick-Fil-A, to discuss a revised proposal for the prominent site at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Five Points South. As many already know, their previous proposal has been denied twice: once by Design Review, and once by the Appeals Board just a couple weeks ago.

So it was with great interest that I hurried to the meeting to observe the proceedings.

First, subcommittee chairman Richard Mauk laid out the guidelines–that the subcommittee expected Chick-Fil-A to respond to each of the points laid out by the Appeals Board. The implication was: if you don’t address each point, then you don’t have much chance of success with a new presentation.

Chick-Fil-A started their presentation, once again using a site plan showing no surrounding buildings or other neighborhood context. This is Presentation 101, especially when you’ve just been raked over the coals for not being sensitive to the neighborhood. Besides the lack of context, the site plan was most notable for still containing a drive-through, and for still containing the same basic proportion of building mass to open parking (2 of the main concerns of both previous “No” votes).

While the Chick-Fil-A in-house engineer was attempting to explain the plan, committee member Don Cosper asked why the location needed so many parking spaces when only 21 are required by code [almost every surrounding business has a variance on parking and very few have on-site parking at all]. The answer from the Chick-Fil-A traffic engineer was, “we just have a large site so we are filling it with more parking than we are required.”

What ensued was a somewhat circular discussion, with Design Review members Mauk, Cosper, Cheryl Morgan, and Mark Fugnitto continually reminding Chick-Fil-A about the importance of neighborhood, pedestrians, and context, and Chick-Fil-A appearing a bit caught off -guard (again, despite the appeal process they’ve just been through). The company has now hired an outside design consultant (architect Bill Allswell–I’m afraid I’m not spelling his name correctly). This architect also presented two proposed exterior elevations, one which he admitted was “more suburban” and one which was “more contextual”. Neither was aesthetically very pleasing, though each tried to extend the mass of the actual building with some false screen walls.

Morgan was especially adamant that false screen walls do not substitute for active storefronts engaging pedestrian life in an urban area. She summed it up by saying that CFA still has a very suburban plan, and they need to return with something new, at which point the “working committee” would meet with them again.

All in all, a somewhat bizarre meeting: with all the resources CFA has, and all they’ve been through, you would think they would have a more sophisticated visual presentation, and one that truly addressed the points in the Appeal Board denial. Instead it was 95% more of the same.

I will try to alert everyone to the time of the next working session, assuming it’s open to the public again.

Finally, looming in the background but mainly unspoken today: the drive-through. Still in the plan. Which is bewildering.

FOOTNOTE: out of courtesy to the designers presenting, I’m unable to show any of their draft renderings on this blog.

[thanks to link576 for the Chick-Fil-A bags]

Chick-Fil-A Denied…Again

About 30 minutes ago, the special appeals board upheld the Design Review Committee’s decision to deny Chick-Fil-A the right to build a stand-alone drive-through restaurant at the corner of 20th Street South and Highland Avenue in the heart of the historic Five Points South neighborhood.

In making the motion to uphold, board member Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker noted the following to her fellow members, David Allen and Frederick Chatman:

1. A drive-through is not appropriate to the intent of the Commercial Revitalization District ordinance;

2. Traffic counts (verified at 38,000 cars per day at this intersection) make this an inappropriate place to further burden the traffic stream;

3. The site plan (a small stand-alone building surrounded by a sea of parking) is not appropriate to the surrounding context, where all buildings–except this one proposed–fill the full frontage with building mass;

4. The design is not architecturally compatible with the neighborhood. Other, historic buildings are clearly adaptable into multiple uses, while the Chick-Fil-A building is designed to be ONLY a Chick-Fil-A, to look like other Chick-Fil-A’s across the country, and to not be easily adaptable as something else.

5. The dumpster is not well-located on the site.

The motion was seconded, and the vote was a unanimous “Aye” to uphold the DRC.

As a reminder to Chick-Fil-A: we love your chicken, we really do. But we expect something closer to the below–which you already have in downtown’s northside–if you want to come to downtown’s southside!

Urban Chick-Fil-A just a few blocks away

PS: it will remain to be seen if the property owners go to court over this, or if better heads will prevail and a satisfactorily urban Plan B is proposed.

PPS: Form Based Code needed!

Playing Chicken

Come unto me, all ye miscreants

Today was the first of 3 public hearings of the special Appeals Board hearing Chick-Fil-A‘s appeal of the Design Review Committee‘s unanimous decision to deny the construction of a stand-alone restaurant and drive-through at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Five Points South. 3 1/2 hours later, here’s the (longish) report:

1. Attorney Charlie Beavers, representing Chick-Fil-A, reduces the case to a fundamental question: did the DRC have the right to deny this project based on its proposed use? Answer: no, it did not. The use is allowed by current zoning and the DRC overstepped its bounds. He then proceeds to argue that, beyond this simple fact, Chick-Fil-A bent over backwards to modify its design numerous times, resulting in a very urban and appropriate design. At least according to Mr. Beavers.

2. Erwin Reed, Vice-President of Chick-Fil-A in charge of real estate, then states his corporation “doesn’t like to come to neighborhoods where we are not wanted.” He assures the chamber (about 50 people in all) that once it was built, the neighbors would love the place.

3. The opposition now has a chance to state its views. Attorney Alton Parker stands to contend the plan as drawn is suburban both in style and traffic accommodation, and therefore is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. “Why does Chick-Fil-A insist on doing something so opposed by the neighborhood?  Why insist on the drive-through?” [Note: both the Commercial Revitalization District and National Register designation papers, which were adopted as city ordinance, call for development in the neighborhood to be complementary and consistent with the historic, pedestrian character of the place; it is on these ordinances which the DRC based their ruling.]

Mike Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham, states that he has 40 years of experience as an urban planner and expert witness on the topic, and this plan neither conforms to the City Center Master Plan nor to the Five Points South Revitalization Plan, and the DRC ruling should be upheld.

Bob Moody, adjacent property owner for 30 years, asks the board to uphold the ruling.

Frank Stitt, Alabama’s and one of the South’s most famed restaurateurs, states he loves Chick-Fil-A, but a drive-through is not appropriate on this site.

James Little, president of the Five Points South Merchant group, reminds the board that both his group and the Neighborhood Association approved (non-binding) resolutions opposing the current plan. He also states that Chick-Fil-A itself has admitted it needs a more “urban” prototype for pedestrian neighborhoods, and is implementing a pilot program in Chicago. He mentions the long lines at local suburban Chick-Fil-A outlets, and how this tight urban site can’t accommodate such traffic.

Joseph Baker, organizer of I Believe in Birmingham, speaks passionately  about the urban nature of the neighborhood, how we can’t put inappropriate uses into these special areas, and that corporations are not citizens. And if they go against the will of citizens, a boycott will be announced.

Betty Bock speaks about traffic nightmares if the plan were allowed.

Libby Rich says Chick-Fil-A is “a wonderful corporation. But this is our neighborhood. You [Chick-Fil-A] have overstepped your bounds.”

Ron Council points out the plan drawing only shows the property with almost no context, i.e. it leaves out all the historic structures around the intersection. More traffic woes for elderly people who walk or use wheelchairs on the sidewalks and must cross curb cuts.

Alison Glascock, Highland Park Neighborhood president, states she is not anti-corporation, but wants corporations to listen to the neighborhoods in which they locate. She regrets this situation has become “us vs. them.”

A long slog of a hearing

4. Charlie Beavers now stands up for Chick-Fil-A to rebut. He mentions the company’s traffic engineers have studied the site and are satisfied it will be fine. He insists this is indeed an urban design. He again asks the Board to overturn the DRC.

5. Greg Despinakas stands on behalf of the owner (who would lease the land to Chick-Fil-A). This is perhaps the most colorful moment: in a fiery, preacher-like sermon, he declares this project would be a “God-given enhancement to the neighborhood.” Which he then describes as deteriorating, filled with “…miscreants.  And head shops. And tattoo parlors. Broken glass. Piercing shops. Graffiti.” Even…saloons! He then dramatically turns to the audience and says. “Clean it up! Before you tell Chick-Fil-A what to do, clean up your own neighborhood!”

6. It’s now question time from the Board. How many customers will be served?  250-300,000 annually, about 50% of which is drive-through. Why this site? Because it maximizes our investment. Can you survive without a drive-through? We could, but this would not meet our financial expectations. How can you assure us that stacked cars waiting for the drive-through won’t be a nightmare at peak times? Trust us. We are the fastest drive-through in the US and we’ll hire traffic directors at peak times if required.

7. Executive Session. For maybe 30 minutes. Break time. Milling around, some wary hellos between camps, but mainly each sticks to his own.

8. Board returns. They ask the hours of store operation (6AM-10PM M-T; 6AM-11PM F,Sat; closed Sun). They announce the next public hearing is 8:30 AM Friday June 18, Room 215 City Hall. But no more public comments on that date; it’s just deliberation with public observation. One more important item: the board asks City staff to provide updated traffic counts for that intersection by Friday morning. With current budget woes at the City, there are not exactly extra bodies sitting around to count traffic. Here’s wishing staff good luck with this request!

So that’s it for now–stay tuned.

The takeaway? We need a form-based code for this neighborhood (and others)! Pronto. No one wants to sit through this again, trust me.

[thanks to southernpixel for the shot of Frank Fleming’s sculpture at Five Points fountain]

Now or Never: Chick-Fil-A and Walgreen’s Updates

It is time to make yourself heard. Public hearings are set for two controversial issues:

The City Council’s Economic Development Committee will discuss the proposal to sell the historic Fire Station No. 22 to Walgreen’s Drugstore on June 7 at 4 PM in the Council conference suite at City Hall. In related news, local developer and Highland Park resident David Carrigan has put together a counter-proposal that fully preserves and restores the Fire Station into a neighborhood gastropub. You can see the website here.  (Full disclosure — the rendering below is by the writer of this blog)

Another path

Second, the Birmingham News reports today that a special panel–set up to hear Chick-Fil-A’s appeal after the unanimous decision of the Design Review Committee to deny their building a stand-alone restaurant and drive-through at the corner of 20th Street and Highland Avenue South in the heart of Five Points South–will hold public hearings June 16, 18, and 21. They will then rule on the matter within 7 days of the last hearing.

This is one particular situation where Form Based Code would be potentially very useful. While Chick-Fil-A argues that this is purely a zoning matter (and indeed drive-throughs and stand-alone restaurants are allowed by zoning on this property), the neighborhood and other advocates (including myself) argue that the Commercial Revitalization and Historic District organizing papers clearly state that new development should be in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. These papers are city ordinance, just like zoning. Instead of one lawyer arguing that an ordinance takes precedence over another, Form Based Code would settle the matter up front, telling any prospective developer that along certain streets, or within certain blocks, there can be no drive-through. Or no building less than a certain height. Or all parking must be hidden at the rear of the lot.

The process of putting together a Form Based Code is typically driven by neighborhood consensus. Highland Park is the first City neighborhood to adopt such a code–just a few weeks ago. In order to protect the urban assets we have, and enhance them with thoughtful, coordinated development, Five Points South and other neighborhoods should consider following Highland Park’s lead.

If you care about the urban environment in Birmingham, please plan to attend any or all of these important meetings.

Stay tuned for reports on the upcoming public hearings in both cases.

An unappealing appeal

Chick-Fil-A will appeal last week’s Design Review Committee decision to not allow the company to construct a freestanding restaurant and drive through on the corner of 20th Street and Highland Avenue South in Five Points. The City must convene a special Board of Appeals to hear the case. You can see the Birmingham Business Journal story here.

We will post more when we hear more. Stay tuned.

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]


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.