Tag Archives: density

West coast inspiration

That's what it's all about

As we continue to ponder our own City’s destiny (please consider attending the imminent round of public workshops regarding transportation, green systems, community revitalization, and economic development as part of the new City Comprehensive Plan), it’s always instructive to recall what’s compelling in other cities–in this case, San Francisco and the Bay Area, which was a holiday trip this year. Above is a shot taken in San Francisco’s Mission District: density is a fundamental aspect of this city, enabling walk-ability,interesting streetscapes, and healthy public life.

Only NYC is denser

A good mix of mid-rise and high-rise buildings define the downtown area, above.

Consuming the city

Above is the main shopping area downtown near Union Square, which manages to feel authentic–even a bit gritty–despite the very expensive chain stores. It was great to see huge crowds out on the sidewalks.

...and more shopping

It’s important to remember that San Francisco has one of the higher per capita incomes in the US, and is considered one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Hence the preponderance of luxury stores downtown, from Neiman Marcus to Diesel, above.


Chinatown, above, is unique in this country as a large, tight-knit ethnic community with a very old history. The projecting signage, fruit stands, and shoppers make for a superb walking environment.

How can you beat it

In the Russian Hill neighborhood, we stumbled upon the original Swensen’s ice cream parlor, a quaint corner shop with a lunch counter. This neighborhood is filled with corner coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Good edge

Across the water in Berkeley, the university campus is edged with vibrant streets lined with retail and restaurants, above. It’s a great urban amenity for staff and students alike.

Is it real?

Over at the edge of Oakland, the Bay Street Mall is an urban mall with all the right elements of good urban planning–lots of shops lining sidewalks, housing above, parking hidden away in garages, bike racks, etc. (above). Yes, it all feels mall-ish and homogenous. But if you do new construction malls, this is a really good effort.

Keeping fares low

Back in San Fran, the subway system, like many others across the world, is getting creative with selling ad rights. Above is the Union Square stop, which a bit jarringly feels like the “Banana Republic” stop when you leave the train. But it helps keep fares low. And with such a relatively comprehensive transit system, I guess we can’t complain too much about corporate branding like this.

Inspired by a great trip, it’s good to be back in Birmingham, ready to work to improve the city.

Mind the Gap (1)

How many crumbling historic (and gorgeous) buildings do we have to tear down, how many dilapidated Arts and Crafts style bungalows or shotgun houses have to be razed, or how many weedy lots do we have to witness before we do something? We have got to stop wasting the opportunities we have right in front of us before we sprawl our city all the way to Clanton

Why do we have so many gaps in our urban fabric…parking lots where buildings used to be, empty lots in our historic residential neighborhoods, historic houses abandoned or burned down?

There are many reasons, but the result is all about density — or lack of it. If you’re concerned about transit, or grocery stores, or dog parks, or walkable blocks, start thinking about density. Density provides the riders for bus routes or rail, the shoppers for the store, the canines for the park, or the consumers for restaurants, late-night coffee shops, and skate shops–which of course means pedestrian traffic and active storefronts which make a block walkable.

In a city like Birmingham, which used to be denser and more populated, we had, according to the 2000 US Census, 242, 820 residents and a density of 1619 people/square mile. Compare this to the 1950 census, when we had 326,037 residents and a density of 4,993 people/square mile. And our population is estimated to be a good deal less in 2010–closing in on 200,000 residents. [We are talking city limits of Birmingham here, not the metro area, which of course is considerably larger, much more populous, and also even less dense than the city proper].

Then take an older city like Providence, RI: in 1950 it had 248,674 residents and a density of more than twice Birmingham’s at 13,892 persons/square mile. By 2000 it’s population was down to 173,618 but it’s density was still considerable at almost six times Birmingham’s: 9,401/square mile.

Unlike some other cities which have deliberate density initiatives, we have been watching passively as people leave the city without enough new residents to replace them; new land is not annexed for dense development but for sprawling shopping centers; and of course gentrification occurs in certain older, desirable neighborhoods (such as Highland Park and Forest Park), where formerly subdivided residences are renovated back to single-family houses, new zoning laws prevent apartment buildings from easily being constructed, etc.

Abandonment in Detroit courtesy of desertchick.

The extreme end of this spiral is a situation like Detroit, where the mayor in late 2009 gave a startling admonition to his city: instead of pretending to still be the city of 2 million as designed, it should instead “focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be.” (New York Times, Sept. 25, 2009).  His practical argument: the city is wasting tax dollars, man power, and energy by cleaning, policing, fire-preventing, and generally maintaining city streets where a large number of houses are mainly abandoned. People have a hard time imagining being forced from their own neighborhoods to live in denser cores, with the old, underused neighborhoods being turned into green space–but this, in effect, is what the mayor suggested.

OK. We aren’t quite there yet, but unless we institute policies to combat the trend, we may get there. Already we have a strained police force and fire force whose jobs are much more difficult due to the spotty inhabitation of certain neighborhoods. It’s all inefficient in so many ways.
Lacking any density initiatives locally (see Vancouver’s density charter as an example), developers have been creating their own density mainly as a perception of market demand. A few years ago we designed the Southside Townhouses as an urban infill project right off Highland Avenue.
Southside Townhouses–possibly the only 5-story rowhouses in Ala.!

They are in an eclectic neighborhood at an intersection surrounded by buildings of many styles and types–historic old apartment buildings, a large mid-rise modern apartment block, and some new and old houses. There are many neighborhood activists who objected to the multi-family project, as well as the appearance, so I would describe the project as locally controversial, but in the end I stand by its scale, its materials, the way it addresses a very multi-layered intersection, and of course its replacement of a vacant lot with some density.
Another controversial project was later constructed just up the street, when the former Otto Marx mansion was torn down to make way for 2600 Highland, a condo tower. While bringing new residential density to its site, the loss of the historic house was painful to many. Thanks to dystopos for the shots below of the old mansion about to disappear, and a rather poignant shot of an older woman scrutinizing the marketing billboard for the new tower:
An example of new density that has thus far avoided the controversy of our own project and 2600 Highland is the CityVille Project put together byCorporate Realty: A half-block replacement of 1- and 2- story commercial and parking lots with a mid-rise, mixed-use development with apartments above and shops and restaurants below, with a parking deck buried in mid-project. Here’s a recent pic from the Cityville website showing the current state of construction:
We have big problems in this city with sprawl, and all the negative social, economic, and aesthetic issues that come with it. Re-densifying neighborhoods is one way to start solving these issues. And the denser a neighborhood, the more activity and amenities it supports, which in turn draws more people to enjoy these things, and we reverse the cycle that we’ve been in for decades here. And it can start with building a small, affordable, cool house on an empty lot in Norwood or College Hills. Or, bringing more housing to suburban centers such as downtown Homewood or Mountain Brook Village.
Coming soon…more infill inspirations from around town and around the country.