Tag Archives: Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds

City as artifact

Worth documenting

As the City prepares to demolish the 4-block-plus area between directly south of Railroad Park between 14th and 16th Streets South to prepare for the new ball park for the Birmingham Barons, we are about to lose a good bit of historic, warehouse fabric that’s been little discussed. It is the opinion of this blog that the ball park is a good thing for downtown and the City, and that the old warehouse neighborhood around it (tentatively dubbed Parkside) has vast potential to be revitalized into a vibrant mixed-use district connecting UAB to the park. Before the bulldozers arrive, however, it would be great to try to document the buildings that are about to disappear forever (example above).

Remnant of another era

Some of these old structures serviced prominent retailers located several blocks north in downtown’s shopping district, such as the above warehouse which still has its “Jefferson Home Furniture” sign prominently displayed.

Not something you see here often

In a central city laid out on a relentlessly orthogonal grid, it’s downright shocking to see this curving alley way between two warehouses (above), which followed the curve of a rail spur. Goods could be loaded directly onto rail cars from the warehouse docks. Wouldn’t it be great if the new ball park facility had a graphic display somewhere with images and history relating to this neighborhood and its (unsung) relationship to the better-known areas adjacent to it?

First sign of progress

Once these buildings are documented properly, and their history outlined for the public, we hope that upon completion of the ball park many of the surrounding warehouse-type buildings will be renovated to complement new, infill construction in a district with housing, restaurants, bars, shops, offices, and other amenities. A hint of what could come is seen above at the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue South, where the real estate firm Shannon Waltchack moved from the suburbs into a freshly renovated former National Biscuit Company building (they plan phase 2 with loft apartments next door; architect for the project is Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds).

Yes you are

Only a few years ago, the building across 18th Street from Shannon Waltchack had fully rented storefronts. The tenants left and took the storefronts with them; now all that remains is a (still beautiful) shell. Understanding the value of historic buildings is important, and we hope this one can be returned to service. Part of what will make this neighborhood work are built-from-scratch projects like Railroad Park, the Barons park, and proposed new UAB buildings. Destruction of some existing historic buildings will be inevitable. Let’s get them professionally documented before they go.

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]

Urban infill and slight of hand

Re-forming a street edge

Much has been written in recent years about the emptying out of the City core, with precipitous population drops, huge amounts of vacant housing stock, empty, weedy lots, and all the economic/social consequences. The neighborhood directly north and west of the Civil Rights Institute–once filled with housing–has long been emptied out, with large tracts of unused/underused land within blocks of the CBD. Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds has designed a new office/training center (above) which will mercifully fill some of that land on the 1400 block of 6th Avenue North. Independent Living Resources is the owner; they provide services and advocacy for disabled people. It would be wonderful if housing and more mixed-use developed in this area.

Aye, welcome to Philadelphia

On a lighter note, a good friend from Glasgow, Scotland sends these two pictures from her city, where Brad Pitt is currently filming a movie set in Philadelphia. Supposedly Glasgow was chosen in part because of its rectilinear street grid which mimics Philly’s. Fake American-style street signs and stop lights were erected to create the illusion.

The devil is in the details

The well-trained eye will notice the “To Let” signs left in the windows–the Scottish equivalent of “For Lease”. Perhaps the calculation is that the audience will be so focused on Pitt and his antics, no one will register this tell-tale sign. Or perhaps they’ll be digitally altered later. Regardless, a fascinating look at how, with a few signs and traffic lights, one city can (almost) transform into another.

[thanks to Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds for the rendering]

Donut fix

A yankee transplant

Dunkin’ Donuts, the fabled donut purveyor based in Canton, MA, serves over 3 million customers a day in 31 countries worldwide. It has recently started a push into the deep south–where Krispy Kreme has long reigned supreme–and the second (“flagship” , according to the News article here) metro location will be on 6th Avenue South between Richard Arrington and 22nd Street. It is in a small, historic commercial structure wedged between a massive Regions drive-through and the Fish Market restaurant. It was most  recently a Domino’s pizza outlet.

Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds has prepared the rendering shown above. The News article states that the owners will be attempting a drive-through here; speaking of drive-throughs, the same architects are slated to slog it out again on behalf of Chick-Fil-A at another working session for the controversial Five Points South restaurant proposal today at 4 PM at the Auburn Urban Studio, 1731 First Avenue North, 3rd floor.

Local favorite under attack

It’s great to see this small structure being reinvigorated; and while many may decry the Yankee usurper bringing it’s cake-ish donuts (and renowned coffee) to Dixie, a little competition may be good for everybody. As to the drive-through? While not at the same level of density and diversity as the heart of Five Points just up the street, this block is still a very urban situation with good pedestrian access from the surrounding hospitals. The City should think long and hard before allowing a drive-through here. Such a concept is fundamentally anti-urban and should be discouraged.

Birmingham, brace yourself. Just when we thought we couldn’t ingest anymore calories…

[Rendering from the Birmingham News; KK donuts courtesy karenn]

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]

Details, details

A lot of our time recently has been spent on big issues: form based code, new urbanism, corporate footprints within historic neighborhoods, major public greenspace. It can be equally useful to examine the myriad small details that go into our built environment–the ones that are often taken for granted.

Today’s Design Review Committee meeting was a good place to reflect on these small things (and the hard work–often thankless–that this volunteer committee puts into all considerations, large and small).

Signs of the (changing) times

The Wachovia Tower (formerly the SouthTrust Tower, shown above right a few years ago before that merger with Wachovia) is now the Wells Fargo Tower. Executives from Wells Fargo presented a proposal to replace the current abstract Wachovia logo (approximately the same size as the old SouthTrust “S”) with a much larger “Wells Fargo Bank” that stretches across the blank, dark spandrel glass of the penthouse, repeated on each of the four sides. Noting the importance of the chamfered penthouse corners, the Committee asked for just a few feet of breathing room to either side, slightly reducing the size of the sign. After the WF people initially objected–claiming the sign as presented was the perfect size to be seen “from all the major interstates”–they bowed to the reasonable assertion that the sign should be proportionally correct to the building and pleasing to the eye for pedestrians, not just stressed-out commuters on the freeways. Who, as Committee member Cheryl Morgan pointed out, should really be “concentrating on driving” rather than gazing at distant signage.

Illuminated signs (and this one will be lit with expensive, but energy-saving LEDs) are important symbolic markers on a skyline. I’m happy this building–whose branding has long suffered with tiny, illegible logos, is now getting a well-proportioned, clear sign that lives up to the importance of the southeastern headquarters for a major national bank. And I’m happy the Committee insisted on a very small, but important adjustment–improving the view of this sign from the surrounding streets and windows in the CBD.

Clever retro aesthetic

There were also two other, similar cases, both again involving signage. One, for Sheppard-Harris and Associates in Fire Station No. 4 in the 200 block of 24th Street North (my firm designed the exterior renovation), won approval for both a new projecting (blade) sign which will illuminate at night, and a new, painted mural sign at the blank side of the building facing a parking lot along Third Avenue North (shown at left).  Dog Days of Birmingham, in the 100 block of 18th Street North in the old Hunter Furniture building  (which was discussed earlier here), won approval for a new blade sign but was denied approval for a painted sign on its side wall facing First Avenue. Their proposed painted signage did not show much artistic creativity (in contrast to the Fire House sign, designed by The Modern Brand), which in part led the Committee to judge it banal and redundant given the prominence of the large blade sign around the corner. I’m a big fan of signage downtown–a full post to come on that soon–so I hope that we can see a new proposal for a more thoughtfully designed painted sign at this location.

Some other items:

1. A crude picket fence (in lieu of a proper railing) constructed without a permit at a porch of an historic Highland Park house that the Committee agreed should be replaced with something more appropriate to the house;

2. A new landscape plan for a small parking lot directly east of the new Marriott Residence Inn in Five Points South whose landscaping and paving plan was passed–but whose many, excessive “No Parking–Tow Zone”-type signs strewn across the site were denied;

3. New wood replacement windows in the Blach’s Building annex in the 300 block of 20th Street North (to accommodate new loft apartments planned for that building) that the Committee easily approved;

4. A renovation plan for the new Naked Art gallery in Forest Park commerical center, unanimously approved;

5. And a somewhat ingenious steel-framed parking deck slotted behind 11th Avenue South to service the newly renovated Terrace Court Apartments (and the general public) in Five Points South, designed by Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds–also unanimously approved.

All of these small-ish items aren’t big-ticket controversies or complex designs. But added up, these small bits (along with the larger and/or more prominent projects) help make our city’s environment special. One more pat on the back to the Design Review Committee for slogging through every item, however small, with an eye towards helping improve Birmingham’s built environment.

No parking deck required back in the day

[Full disclosure–the vote for my signage package was not unanimous: Chairman Sam Frazier cast the lone vote against, objecting to the blade sign illuminating at night. While perhaps unusual for a CPA to have illuminated signage, I felt it important in the burgeoning, (almost) 24-hour 2nd Avenue neighborhood for the company to have a night-time presence.]

[thanks to hannerola for the SouthTrust pic and Dystopos for the historic Terrace Court pic]