Tag Archives: downtown Birmingham

Give us a sign

Small, well-designed, yet somehow controversial

As reported in the last post, the Design Review Committee refused to vote on the proposed projecting sign advertising the new El Barrio restaurant in the 2200 block of Second Avenue North (sketch shown above). The Committee has been gradually giving more support over the last 10 years to projecting signs, which became symbolic in the 1970’s and early 80’s of urban “blight” and “messiness”. Back then, urban planners and designers tried to eliminate this type of projecting “blade” sign, and replaced them with surface mounted signage which mimicked retail signage you’d find in enclosed suburban malls–a fashionable  paradigm at the time.

Squeaky clean and miles away from urban woes

This suburban paradigm (illustrated above in a 1960’s photo at the original Eastwood Mall in Birmingham) was a product of strict control: malls are private enterprises, and signage along with other aesthetics had to conform to specific guidelines. Color, size, illumination, font, and verbiage were all subject to approval. This was different from the situation in older urban cores, where a lack of control over multiple ownerships resulted in a great diversity of signage. Historically, projecting signs to draw attention to businesses were a fundamental part of the visual landscape.

Haussmann's streets get color and variety in part through the signs

Even mundane signage (like that above in a narrow Parisian street) enlivens the pedestrian route down a street, alerting you that “something of interest” lies ahead. It also acts as a traffic calming device, making drivers slow down a bit as their peripheral vision takes in the signage around them.

The all-important sign repairman

More functional signage is seen at this London intersection above. Imagine this same scene without the projecting signs, and some of the charm disappears.

Good projecting signs encouraged by Swedes

Above is a development in downtown Stockholm, where the developer insisted that all retail tenants have well-designed projecting signs, which share a size and good graphics, but otherwise are distinct and eye-catching.

Part of a successful commercial street = projecting signs

Closer to home, another historic street is Royal Street in New Orleans, whose proliferation of signage is part of a recognizable fabric–and one beloved by many.  Historic districts like this today encourage–even mandate–the use of tasteful, well-designed projecting signs because their value as an intrinsic part of the street experience is appreciated, and has been (explicitly) for years now.

Is anyone there?

Contrast the vibrancy of the previous photos with the above image of 2nd Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, looking east from 20th Street. The lack of projecting signs (or awnings, or cafe tables) makes for a lifeless, dull, less-than-enticing prospect. Unless you are very familiar with the street and know where you are going, what stimulates you to explore? Not much. A lot of this is the result of Birmingham traditionally making it difficult, since the late 1970’s, to erect projecting signs.

A beacon on 2nd Avenue

Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, Design Review has been a bit more supportive each year in the last decade of approving projecting signs, to the point where–much to my relief–I’ve grown to count on them for approving projecting signs, as long as they’re thoughtful and tasteful (above is the projecting sign we designed for the Phoenix Building loft project back in 2005, which provides a welcome bit of light and whimsy on an otherwise distressed piece of street–note the ruined sign box across the street which has been in that condition for a decade). This is why I was quite surprised that the relatively small, non-illuminated sign for El Barrio received a lot of criticism, using as a reference point an early 1980’s argument about sanitizing the streetscape. It felt like a time warp.

Help me find my caffeine

A recent approval for a projecting sign was for Urban Standard, just a block down the street from El Barrio (above). This popular coffee shop wanted to clearly show pedestrian and auto traffic where their business is, and this sign works well. The busier this block has become, the less likely people park in front of a business–they often walk from some distance, or park on another block. Projecting signs are an excellent way to orient visitors and residents alike. I have personally witnessed visitors to this block with Urban Standard hesitate before crossing to the next block–they squint, looking, literally, for a sign of interest: is it worth our while to keep walking? To connect El Barrio with the energy of 2nd Row, people need that visual connection. The sign needs to be approved.

We need more!

Projecting signs (the 2nd Row sign we designed in 2007  is above) are crucial to any healthy urban street environment. They can be expensive, and time-consuming to install (the City legal department has made it more difficult to get the final permit for anything projecting over a public way, beyond approval of Zoning or Design Review). If a business owner is willing to put time and money into a well-designed sign, we should be encouraging them to do so to enhance our built environment, rather than discouraging them by using outdated, suburban-inspired principles from 40 years ago. I hope the applicant will make another case for the sign, and get approved next time. To anyone interested in improving this town, it’s a no-brainer.

[thanks to Appleseed Workhop for the sketch; akeley for the London pic; Matthew Zimmerman for the Stockholm pic; Jon Barbour for the Paris pic; MVI for New Orleans pic; birminghamrewound for the Eastwood Mall pic]

Home run?

Getting closer

The Birmingham News ran a story yesterday which pinpoints the proposed location of the new Barons Ballpark (see News graphic above). The facility itself would be entered from 14th Street or a 15th Street Plaza, with stands arranged on the SW corner of the site facing the downtown skyline. The outfield faces Railroad Park from across First Avenue South. Ancillary structures (assumedly patron and team amenities/facilities) and a Negro League Museum flank the ballpark along First Avenue; “future developments”, i.e. related private investments, are shown on property to the south.

It is rare to see a ballpark facing another public park like this. The reason is that typically a City will use a park like Railroad Park to encourage private investments in the immediate area; that same City will use a baseball park in a similar way. By putting the outfield right up against First Avenue, the City in effect gives up the ability to market each public frontage to private development.

From serving loading docks to serving urban consumers

Knowing how hard it’s been to assemble property (and two owners are still holding out at either corner of First Avenue), this siting may not have had much flexibility. If indeed the ballpark ends up as shown in the graphic, it’s essential that the design handles the outfield edge creatively, so that it animates that frontage even when the ballpark is dark and empty. Additionally, it would be wonderful if some of the old warehouses and alleyways in the adjacent “Parkside” district could be retained and rejuvenated (the Alley off Tallapoosa Street in downtown Montgomery, pictured above, is a direct result of private investment around their riverfront ballpark). A combination of historic restoration and new construction would be a great mix for the new district (which we also hope will have sharp, creative district branding–see our previous post on this).

It worked in Memphis

The downtown ballpark built in Memphis 8 years ago (above) has rejuvenated an 8-block area; once desolate and boarded up, it now sports restaurants, bars, and apartments. As this project develops in Birmingham, we’ll continue to advocate for the best possible architectural and urban design.  Because we want this project not just to compete with Montgomery or Memphis. We want it to be better. And to exude that quirky, undefinable quality that is the Magic City.

[thanks to the News for the graphic; larry miller for the Alley pic; dragonmistral for the Autozone pic]

 

More for Lakeview

Coming to a college town near you

The Tin Roof Bar franchise is opening it’s latest branch in Birmingham’s Lakeview District, in the 2700 block of 7th Avenue South (location of former dive bar T.C.’s). The venue will have live music and a menu that claims to be a step above “bar food”. Originally from Atlanta, the chain markets to college students/recent grads and has locations in Nashville, TN (pictured above); Lexington, KY; Columbia, SC; and Knoxville, TN.

The storefront space in this historic district has been vacant for some time since T.C’s closed; the Design Review Committee gave its approval to facade improvements and signage this morning. With Slice opening soon around the corner, and Huey’s  planned right down the street, there will be fewer vacancies and more evening choices in this center city district. Cheers.

Fighting fires

Sad news from the historic neighborhood of Norwood, directly north of downtown Birmingham: a 3-alarm fire created a large blaze and smoke visible across Jones Valley this morning. The fire occurred at a complex of historic structures that housed rental apartments at the corner of 30th Street and 13th Avenue North. Here’s a brief summary from the News. According to a resident I spoke with, every winter it seems like more historic structures in Norwood are lost to fires, in large part due to homeless people seeking shelter in the neighborhood’s many abandoned houses. The cause of this morning’s fire is not known.

Before people moved over the mountain

Norwood (whose beautiful, curving main boulevard is seen above) was at one time one of the city’s most elegant neighborhoods. Battered by competition from fancier places south of town (such as Forest Park, Highland Park, Redmont, and eventually Mountain Brook); thoughtless freeway construction that ripped right through the place; and racial integration in the late 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood has recently been undergoing a quiet but confident resurgence. There are many challenges, however.

Some of these challenges can be traced back decades, as the neighborhood became integrated for the first time, against a backdrop of rising crime, social unrest, and white flight from cities across the country. A fascinating snapshot of this period–with Norwood as our local representative of “The Urban Crisis”– can be seen in this multi-article series from the Birmingham News’ December 7, 1969 issue. It is well worth a read for anybody interested in urban development, and its earlier challenges whose effects remain with us today.

Urban Transition

We hope that everyone is safe and out of harm’s way this morning in Norwood, and good luck to the community in their tireless efforts to rebuild themselves.

[thanks to vizual2 for the Norwood Blvd. pic, and to the Birmingham Public Library for the newspaper clipping]

Railroad Park Development

As most of us concerned with Birmingham’s urban fabric know, the long-awaited Railroad Park should be open to the public in later this year. It is one of the few major elements of the downtown Master Plan that has come to fruition. Which is why we need a Redevelopment Authority–but that’s a subject for another post.

We, and several other architects, provided Operation New Birmingham with some concept sketches of a hypothetical development bordering the new park. The Birmingham News published the various drawings in an article today and has an online poll asking people to vote for their favorite.

Our sketch was very open-ended and more abstract than the others (and perhaps less accessible to the general public?). I wanted to take the artificial “nature” of the park and contrast it with the artificial “structure” of the architecture, a large concrete frame where solid and transparent surfaces move in and out of the frame.

If nothing else, it’s so rare in this city to have varied design proposals for anything, that I’m pleased to be part of this effort. It will be interesting to see what actually gets developed at the park. Baseball stadium, anyone?