Tag Archives: Deborah Berke

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]

Checking in?

Essential urbanity

By one definition, cities are fundamentally places where strangers can meet to exchange ideas. The urban sociologist Richard Sennett writes extensively on the public space of cities, and how crucial public space is to the exchange of ideas. Public space means not just streets and parks, but cafés, coffee shops, bars, theaters, cyberspace–and hotels.

Hotels are so fundamental to experiencing a city that we tend to take them for granted. I have been an obsessed student of hotel history and design since I was a kid, fascinated by the layers of public/private spaces, and the mix of people found in these spaces. And I have been unhappy with Birmingham’s lack of a truly great hotel since I was aware of the term. Birmingham’s full-service hotels used to all be located downtown, and all within an easy walk of Terminal Station. The Tutwiler, Redmont, Dixie-Carlton, Thomas Jefferson, Molton and Bankhead were among the best known.

Today, the Tutwiler (in another building) and the Redmont remain, both considerable shadows of their former selves (pleasant enough, but lacking the amenities and vitality these hotels were once known for). The rest have disappeared. There is no longer a true 4-star hotel downtown (much less a 5-star), or anywhere nearby. Which is troubling for the state’s economic and population center, to say the least.

Hotels, in their best urban roles, facilitate the exchange of ideas through a very porous interface with the street. Lobbies, restaurants, bars, lounges, meeting rooms, ballrooms–these are often favorite places to rendezvous, and the multiple entrances facilitate easy access to visitors.  The streets around hotels are typically animated with people coming and going. A busy, bustling hotel signifies a busy, bustling city. Think about the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York, where you can enter the lobby, ballrooms, various restaurants and bars all through multiple entrances.

Porosity on the street

Now back to Birmingham and our dilemma. Over the last decade, there have been numerous studies conducted that show the need for more high quality hotel space in the City Center, and several unrealized proposals. My own office worked on a proposal from Rubell Hotels out of Miami to convert the Thomas Jefferson into a 5-star, independent boutique hotel back in 2000; more recently the Regions Plaza Building was to have converted into a 4-star Marriott Renaissance brand.

If we did have more hotel options, what should they be? The currently proposed Westin Hotel at the BJCC is disappointing for several reasons. It’s location is BJCC-specific and less central than one would like; its ambition is to add room capacity for conventions, rather than to increase street life and provide multiple destination points for urban dwellers. Equally disappointing is the bland aesthetic of the building, which is described over on heaviestcorner.

Westin BJCC: where's the urbanity?

To judge from the rendering, this is a slightly more upscale (and full-service) version of the limited-service Courtyard, Hyatt Place, and Residence Inn hotels that have opened downtown recently–welcome expansions of our options, but hardly more than clean, efficient places to lay one’s head. Similarly, this Westin appears to have no aspiration to capture the soul of a community, inspire visitors, and lure citizens and travelers alike to linger in its public spaces. The Westin proposal–while satisfying the need for more hotel rooms for users of the BJCC–is not the type of hotel that integrates into the larger urban fabric, with diverse appeal and street porosity that create public interaction.

When we think of certain cities, iconic hotels which seem to embody the city’s soul come to mind. Think of Paris–gorgeous, sophisticated, elegant Paris, whose ancien regime glamor can be summed up by the Hotel Crillon, perhaps the world’s first true luxury hotel (and a favorite haunt of Marie Antoinette).

The Hotel Crillon personifies Paris

All marble, gilt, and tapestries, the Crillon exemplifies Paris, and has served as a model for countless grand luxury hotels to follow, from the Willard in Washington, DC, to the Plaza in New York City. When in the Crillon, you have no doubt where you are; there is no generic corporate color scheme or bland, universal detailing to make you think otherwise. It’s all very haute couture. Very Paris.

Hotels don’t have to be 250 years old (or just look that way) in order to become iconic. Take the Delano hotel in Miami Beach. While other boutique hotels (such as the Albion) were the first to renovate delapidated, boarded-up hotels into chic new playgrounds for a resurgent Miami Beach, the Delano was the first to really do it on a grand scale. Suddenly everyone wanted to be at the Delano, and it was the model for many subsequent hotel renovations in the area. It also helped designer Phillippe Starck become the mega-star he is today. The Delano became the “see-and-be-seen” venue for Miami Beach, perfectly capturing the feel of a breezy, celebrity and image- conscious contemporary city.

The Delano public spaces mirror the city beyond

Where does this leave Birmingham? While all those chains are a necessary part of the corporate travel world today, we are missing that one place that you’ve got to go to–whether reserving a room, meeting friends in the bar, having a special dinner, or just people-watching in the lobby. It should be somewhere special that both reflects local culture, but also rises above mere reflection to become inspiration.

Over in Louisville, KY, two local art collectors helped finance the 21c Museum Hotel in 2006 due in part to frustration that the city lacked an inspired hotel. Just a few years later this hotel won Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award for best hotel in the US, and 6th best in the world—no small feat considering Louisville is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue as a destination.

21c: stylish and local

Adjacent historic buildings downtown were renovated (design: Deborah Berke, one of my favorite architects in NYC) with open, crisp modern spaces inside, lots and lots of contemporary art, and a super-stylish restaurant called Proof on Main adding vibrancy to the street. This has not only become a favorite meeting spot for locals and visitors alike, but plans have been made for extending the brand into other cities that would benefit from having a non-corporate hotel, which is dedicated to helping revitalize the city through contemporary art.  We’ve got an amazing Museum of Art and wonderful private collectors here. It’s worked well in Louisville–why not Birmingham?

Art + Hotel = rejuvenation

I will leave you with this quote from Michael Bonadies, CEO of 21c, upon winning the Conde Nast award:

“Too often today, hotels are bland, isolated oases within cities that provide accommodations and dining but are removed from the city’s character and residents.

Thanks to 21c’s accessibility and social vibrancy, our guests have the opportunity to gain a real sense of the people and culture of Louisville as well as contemporary art from around the world. We are honored to be recognized as a destination for this great city and for travelers from around the country and the world.”

Yes, sometimes it takes a great hotel to not just help rejuvenate a city, but to put it on the map.

Integrating into the fabric

(PS: I couldn’t resist this pic of the new Standard hotel in NYC, hovering over the new High Line park in Chelsea. It brings interaction with the public realm into a whole new dimension.)

[thanks to tristan appleby for the neon pic; wallyg for the Waldorf; Concorde Hotels for the Crillon; saracino for the Delano; stlbites for 21c Restaurant; Conde Nast for the 21c exterior; Photogrammaton for Standard NY]