Tag Archives: downtown

Play ball

Building community pride

About 10 years ago Memphis opened a new downtown baseball park and the minor league Redbirds moved in. Since then, over $80 million of development has occurred around the site, and Memphis has a great, family-friendly downtown activity set against the backdrop of the city skyline (seen in photo above).

Could the Birmingham Barons be poised to move to a new park downtown across from Railroad Park? While other locations across the city center could be possible, Railroad Park makes a lot of sense for many reasons, among them:

1. The huge community interest and momentum behind the Railroad Park itself;

2. The proximity to UAB and the ability to easily walk/bike from campus;

3. A large, mainly underdeveloped fabric of one and two-story warehouse type structures between the Park and UAB that could easily be renovated/rebuilt as housing, restaurants, and other amenities;

4. Ease of access from all points northside and southside .

The Birmingham News printed an editorial praising Mayor Bell for leading the effort to bring the Barons back to the City after a long spell out in Hoover at an outdated, isolated, suburban location. Mayor Petelos of Hoover recently stated that if the Barons did indeed move back to Birmingham, he would see it as a win for the region, not a loss for Hoover. This kind of regional thinking has been too infrequent in metro Birmingham; kudos to both mayors for meeting and talking like partners, rather than like competitors.

Field of dreams

The skyline of our own city (above) sure looks great from the new Railroad Park. It would look even better if a new ball park for the Barons was built adjacent, and the crack of the bat and roar of the crowd became as common as a picnic on the new lawns. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE: one of my favorite local blogs, Heaviest Corner, just posted a very detailed piece critical of publicly funded sports projects, which is well worth a read. While on balance, I believe that Birmingham could attain a net benefit from a new downtown ballpark, economically and psychically, there are indeed many variables and potential pitfalls to be mindful of. And it goes without saying that given the choice between a well-funded, well-organized transit system or a ball park—I’d have to take the transit system.

[thanks to theogeo for the Memphis pic and Terry McComb for the Birmingham pic]

Anticipation (on a positive note)

Nature comes into the city

On a cool, cloudy Monday, Katherine Billmeier of the Railroad Park Foundation gave me a tour of the soon-to-be-completed park (Katherine says July). As many times as I’ve seen the plans, and biked past the park to view progress from the street, entering the park itself was an entirely different experience. It felt bigger than I had thought, and more diverse. The details, whether salvaged cobbles and train tracks from the site transformed into paths and ledges, or the light standards and bridges—it all felt first class. It’s all too rare in this city to see a major public project done right. This feels like that sort of project.

The quality shows

Katherine explained the concessions service: it will be contracted out (they don’t know to whom yet); it will be “upscale” sandwiches and snacks, but at an affordable price point so students can comfortably eat here. There will also be beer and wine on sale–the very idea seems so New Orleans and so not Birmingham, it seems too good to be true. The concessions and other amenities will be housed in boxy pavillions designed to recall old-fashioned box cars, as seen in the below rendering:

Superior design

One item that may interest readers: a small area is being designed for skate boarding (you can read our earlier post on this subject here). I was told that not only this area, but any paved area of the park would be open to skaters–as long as they share the space responsibly. Peter Karvonen, our friend at Faith Skate Supply, is cautiously optimistic that the park’s embrace of skaters will endure. He also realizes that it will be up to the skaters to coexist peacefully with joggers, pick-nickers, walkers, bikers, and all the others we hope use this park. We really think that this mini-skate area could demonstrate to area leaders that a full-size skate park is vital to this metro area.

Preparing for skaters

Finally, this last shot I think starts to capture how this new public space can transform how we see the City: we are all familiar with the Daniel Building, and some of us with Cityville housing whose construction is finishing in the next months. Both are a couple blocks away from the park, but just seeing an office building and apartments glimpsed from across undulating hills and trees helps us imagine the new projects that could line the park. There is really no other place in Birmingham that has this sort of potential private-public synergy. This could be the big win we all really need right now.

Seeing the city in a whole new way

PS–Katherine is already looking ahead, beyond the park just connecting UAB to the northside; it will also connect with new bike trails and green space from Sloss to I-65, and from there on to the new Red Mountain Park and beyond. Now that’s thinking big, and then thinking even bigger. After the recent gut-punches of Chick-Fil-A and Walgreens, I hope this post let’s us all hang in there and realize we do have some things to be proud of here. Keep it coming!

Skin-deep Beauty

The good, the bad and the ugly

Last night at dinner, my friend K was ranting that she wished we could tear down all of downtown’s “bombed out” buildings…a heated argument ensued, but I get the gist.  The empty old buildings weigh more on your eyes than the renovated ones, the new ones.  So if we filled all these empty buildings with ground floor activities, that would go a long way to fixing her (and others’) perceptions — if all the buildings were fixed up, but still empty — that would look good, but not get to the goal.

A building in an urban setting serves multiple purposes: it shelters its inhabitants; it welcomes visitors; it facilitates commerce; and it defines the public space outside. It is this last item which concerns a building’s skin: where the surface of a building meets public space. You could argue that a building with an ugly skin could still have a positive effect on public space if this skin is permeable enough–both physically and visually–to encourage lots of human activity at the street (like this rather grim building above in Manchester, UK that nonetheless has continuous retail and restaurant storefronts at the street–thanks to deltrem for the pic). But if a building also has beauty, then it raises the public perception, and instills satisfaction within the viewer. Of course a building that neither encourages human activity, nor provides the casual viewer with a happy feeling–well, that building has problems — and that is what K and a lot of others see all too often.

Take for example the building at the corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue North downtown, the Webb Building (originally constructed 1871–and among the first brick 3-story buildings in the city).

Cri de coeur

Owned for years by Southtrust Bank, it has been vacant for a while, and is now privately owned after Southtrust’s successors sold both it and the entire half block it sits in. You would be hard-pressed to find such a prominent corner on the most prominent north-south street in town looking so darn tawdry. Although very small in size, the corner position of this forlorn building magnifies a message to those passing by: no one cares about this corner. Although nearby large office buildings may have occupancy rates averaging over 90%, often that occupancy is invisible, occurring on the inside. What’s visible is this peeling facade, desperate for renovation. This small building ends up speaking louder than an office tower that’s 90% full just a couple blocks away. It’s all about the bad skin.

Pizitiz selling with good graphics

Just a block down 2nd Avenue is the Pizitz Building, another distressed building that would radio the same depressing message, except for one fact: it’s entire skin, intricate terra cotta and masonry, is slated to be meticulously restored to the standards of the National Park Service in an imminent restoration (more on this project soon). Assuming this project goes through, we’ll get the best of all worlds–both a beautiful skin and lots of human activity in the form of retail and restaurant tenants at street level. People exiting the McWane Center or IMAX Theatre will no longer confront a major symbol of urban blight, but instead a thing of beauty.

And again, beauty makes people happy. Leaves ’em with a smile on their face. That’s what great urban environments do.

Phoenix Building pre-renovation

All of that facade restoration is often quite expensive, when you’re dealing with old buildings–especially those that have lots of decorative elements in disrepair. When we renovated the Phoenix Building, we were not required to restore the terra-cotta detailing, or remove the paint from the original copper transom frames. The federal Historic Tax Credit program let’s you choose to leave such things alone. But we just couldn’t imagine renovating the building without making it beautiful on the outside again. In the street shot taken before renovation, you can see the copper transom frames painted over, and dirty, chipping terra-cotta details. The detail  pic shows how artisans remolded shapes to match the original terra-cotta that had chipped off long ago, and a sample of the copper being burnished and restored.

Old skin on the left -- new on the right.

Back on 20th Street, the Watts Tower was renovated just 10 years ago into apartments, but the skin…not so much. This building, an Art Deco tower designed by local firm Warren Knight and Davis in 1927 (replacing a charming Commercial Second Empire style 1888 building of the same name), derived much of its original, streamlined, simple beauty through the contrast of its vertical brick spandrel/window stripes with terra-cotta at the corners. In 1977, the whole facade was “modernized” by painting everything a bland cream color. When the renovation occurred in 1999, this unfortunate situation was unremedied. Almost worse, certain windows were boarded up on each floor and ugly exhaust vents were unceremoniously stuck in their place.

sad skin

Add in the lack of a building standard for window treatments, and the lack of anything graphic telling you there’s something new in the building (except for some very off-the rack “for rent” and “for sale” signs)—-and you end up with a very sad looking skin. If I were a visitor looking up at this building, I would guess it was a low-rent apartment building redeveloped in the 1970s, not a high-rent condo building redeveloped just 10 years ago.

Watts Tower in better times, before the paint and the neglect--and the window vents

K can be tentative about her relationship to an urban environment. Sort of like a residential neighborhood where you see one house abandoned with windows out–it makes K want to keep driving to a better neighborhood. And when K sees one building downtown with bad skin, or several running down a street–this doesn’t make her want to linger. It makes her search for another, happier neighborhood.

OK K.  We will get right on it.  Better skin in Aisle 2.

Hungry for more

Today’s light-hearted Friday post is about restaurants. Eating out has been an essential part of the urban fabric in bigger cities (starting in the late 19th century); in the last few decades, it’s become pretty essential all over the place. Birmingham has more than its share of excellent restaurants at the high end (think Highlands, Cafe Dupont, or Hot and Hot Fish Club), or at the economical end (think Rojo, Makario’s, Zoe’s). Unless you’re at a typically mediocre chain restaurant, there are fewer options at the middle end (Trattoria Centrale, please start opening other nights besides Friday!–thanks to bradford for the pic).

The chef at Trattoria Centrale turns out some amazing pies downtown

This is why we’re excited about two things: one, we hear that Urban Standard is planning to start regular dinner service offering innovative, casual dining under the able stewardship of Chef Zachary Meloy. This place has become a community hub, not just for the neighborhood, but for many others who feel right at home when they visit. My hope is this knitting together of community will now continue into the evening hours on a regular basis.

Second thing: as many now know, a new restaurant called Brick and Tin is set to open in a few months on 20th street in the former “Dress for Success” storefront. (photo courtesy pallid7) Chef Mauricio Papapietro (who, like one of the chefs at Trattoria Centrale across the street, trained under local superstar Chef Frank Stitt), plans a gourmet sandwich place that will focus on lunches initially. Dinner will hopefully follow soon.

For most people, whether consciously or not, the architecture and ambience of a restaurant at any price level is an important part of the experience. You expect a lot of thought to go into restaurant interiors at the upper end, but it’s nice to go to more moderate restaurants and find exciting design as well. This tends to happen more often in larger cities where the importance of hiring a good designer is seen as necessary for business, rather than an expendable luxury (or even a nuisance) as is too often the case in a smaller place like Birmingham.

Flip Burger is an example of a moderate restaurant here with a very high quotient of design. From the logo, to the menus, to the booths, to the food itself, everything is rigorously thought out and tied to a strong central concept.

High Design at Flip Burger

In the big picture, there’s nothing truly original about Flip Burger’s concept–hip, design-heavy fancy-burger spots have proliferated across New York City for a couple years now. But this is a rare instance in Birmingham to see such a thorough design concept carried through from start to finish in a restaurant. And refreshingly, there’s nothing conservative about this design either–no stained wood chairs, “retro” pendant lights, or any of the other banal elements that are too often strewn over our dining landscapes in town. (photo courtesy cathydanh)

Back to Brick and Tin–while I’m not privy to the design plans (local firm Hendon and Huckstein has been engaged), the name reminds me of English or neo-English gastropubs. Helping revitalize the food environment in a country until recently not known for innovative cuisine, the gastropub refers to an older pub (which used to just serve beer, spirits, and snacks) which has been converted to serve full meals, often with a gourmet bent, moderately priced, and riffing on traditional English cuisine. In this country, it has a broader definition (as there are no real historic pubs to convert): a moderately priced restaurant with design cues taken from the UK’s typical pub, and where beer  can take precedence over wine as the beverage of choice with dinner. An example is the new Againn gastropub in DC.  Sitting at the long bar (or in booths) enjoying good food and beer at moderate prices within a charming, well-designed environment is the sort of thing we need more of here.

Againn gastropub in DC

One last word (for now) on restaurant design: one of my favorite designers, Karim Rashid, was asked several years ago (actually 2001; I can’t believe it’s that long) to design the interior of Morimoto in downtown Philadelphia–a city which, like the UK, was not terribly known for its cuisine (Philly Cheese Steaks excepted). This is an incredible example of high-concept restaurant design, and an early innovator of integrated LED lighting (the booths and walls slowly change colors as you eat). It also inspired many other restaurants to open downtown, and now the restaurant scene in Philadelphia is transformed. Here’s to more options, better design, and new cuisines coming to town. And yes, I would love Karim Rashid to collaborate on a restaurant design with me someday. Right here in downtown Birmingham. (Morimoto pic courtesy bombtrack)

Morimoto revitalizing downtown Philly

All together, now.

This past week the News confirmed an open secret: IMS, a company specializing in surgical instrument management and consulting, is relocating from suburban Homewood to downtown Birmingham. 100 employees will populate the former Noland building and warehouse (2nd Avenue North and 33rd Street), with additional space to be built on adjacent property. The “Sloss Business Park” would involve an (initial?) investment of $7.4 million.  ONB, the BBA, and the City are all mentioned as having helped make this possible. It is a too rare example of a corporate headquarters moving into the city. Here’s hoping others will follow.

Wellmark anchors a downtown district in Des Moines

In the meantime, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is building a new headquarters in downtown Des Moines (thanks to jeremye2477 for the construction pic). It will house close to 2000 employees and represents a $250 million investment. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited as anyone about IMS (and hopeful that the architecture and planning of their new campus will be urban, forward-thinking, and inspirational). But, this comparison illustrates how far behind Birmingham is when compared to recruitment and retaining efforts in other cities, and the impact those efforts have in creating urban place.

As the New York Times pointed out in an article Feb. 17, Des Moines in recent years has thrived on cooperative efforts to improve and expand downtown. There are about 75,000 jobs downtown today, up 20,000 since the mid-1990’s. Birmingham has roughly 80,000 jobs downtown, but this number has been rising much more slowly in the same period. While we tend to have good plans for growth that sit gathering dust on shelves while factions squabble, there is a sense of common purpose in Des Moines–that a healthy downtown does not have to exist at the expense of a healthy metro. Instead, area leaders there see the health of the entire region depending on the health of downtown. They have cooperation. We, with some notable exceptions, do not.

Businesses want to invest in a downtown that’s embraced by the wider community. Instead of feeling like a pioneer, you feel like part of a plan for success. The plan in Des Moines includes a Regional Account, paid into by both city and suburbs, that helps provide stable funding to civic amenities like the art museum, symphony, botanical garden, etc. Here, these institutions often struggle year to year, depending on the whim or largesse of politicians and donors. The stability of Des Moines is part of what influences businesses like the Gateway Market to open downtown with confidence.

Gateway Market in downtown Des Moines

Main Street art in Chattaooga

Interestingly, Des Moines spends a set amount ($250,000) per year on public art. In Birmingham this would generally be frowned upon as frivolous. But just look a couple hours north to Chattanooga, where their public art fund has helped to revitalize the entire Main Street Area. In Birmingham, public art is the first aspect of a project to be chopped or deferred. In Chattanooga, it’s the opposite: art is used on the front end to attract attention and development. In this photo, you can see large, public art that was installed on an almost abandoned Main Street. 2 years later (when I snapped this pic), the neighborhood is thriving with shops, restaurants, and lofts. Oh, and a grocery just announced it’s arriving soon.

Western Gateway Park with sculpture

I love the idea of a human head/torso created with large, interconnected letters. Uplighting at night is beautiful.

One project in Birmingham that offers a contrast with Des Moines is the Railroad Park. In Des Moines, the new Western Gateway park was opened with unusual speed–2 1/2 years. Not only is it filled with large public sculpture, but it has already attracted new development such as the Des Moines Social Club, a multi-use art center with big ambitions. Thanks to Lukeh and regan76 for the full and detail pics of the Jaume Plensa sculpture in the park.

Back in Birmingham, the Railroad Park is indeed one of those rare examples of cooperation among many parties. In contrast to Western Gateway, it’s taken about 15 years since first conceived.

The public art component has been on again, off again, illustrating this community’s ambivalence to the real power of public art.  There have also been other cutbacks that some worry will dampen the final product.  But there remains a sense of optimism that, when this park opens later this year, it will become a catalyst for development. Let’s hope that our community doesn’t just sit back and nervously hope for the best, but instead focuses serious effort to making sure the park and its surrounding blocks are seen as a regional amenity that can help bring new corporate headquarters to Birmingham, inspire our own multi-use art spaces to crop up, and generate the interest of small business (and grocers) to the center city.

And maybe, just maybe,  even help reset our “cooperation” button. We need to unite to get things done. Hey, if they can do it in Des Moines…

Mind the Gap (2)

The site, within an indeterminate cityscape

I realize we’re all due for some new posts; a deadline in the office has prevented me from publishing in the last few days (though I have a long list of topics just itching to get onto the blog). Hang in there for a couple more days.

In the meantime, let’s jump to Anniston, Alabama about one hour’s drive east of Birmingham. The city has a population of some 24,000, and the metro about 110,000. Its central core, while home to some great historic buildings and some revitalization, feels frayed and pock-marked in many places. Like many other cities, the energy has shifted to the suburbs, especially Oxford.

Downtown Anniston, feeling a little frayed

We were commissioned to design a new dental clinic on a lot at the edge of the business district, where the city starts to transition to neighborhoods. The property was an empty corner, surrounded by suburban-styled parking lots and unmemorable, one-story buildings, as well as some older houses across the street. The owner wanted to make a statement to the city about confidence in its potential growth. This was an unusual part of town for this sort of investment, that’s for sure.

So we designed a building that, rather than sitting back behind a parking lot, comes right up to the corner, with the parking tucked behind it. We used a combination of metal panels and stained wood for the exterior; the interior is high-ceilinged with lots of glass to try to dispel that typical “dentist office” feeling.

While small, the building has already surprised some locals, used to suburban investment and parking lots, not architecture that proposes a more urban edge on the street.

holding the corner

We’ll see if this building (just opened recently) might inspire others to reevaluate the importance of the central urban fabric, and to consider fresh ways of redeveloping un- or under-used property.

(downtown Anniston pic courtesy markbajekphoto1)

And for anyone interested in seeing the site plan, click here: SD 2010-03-12 SITE iii

Woof!

Sometimes recessions bring out interesting entrepreneurial efforts (see architects selling ice-cream in my post below).  Sue and Jimmy Johnson have purchased the former Hunter Furniture building on 18th Street North and plan to open a “doggie day care” facility, the first of its kind downtown. The owners intend to create a loft upstairs for their residence. While primarily known recently for its electric turquoise coloring, this building has a special place in local urban history: when almost the entire block was razed for a promised but never-to-materialize development, Hunter Furniture refused to bend to pressure. Today it stands alone amidst a sea of surface parking, a (rare) testament to grassroots resilience to the destruction of urban fabric.

People who live downtown tend to have dogs; walking dogs in the mornings and evenings helps foster community, creates pedestrian (and canine) foot traffic, and makes streets feel safer. While most residents are happy to finally have a dog park at George Ward Park, as yet there is no dog park downtown to which people can walk their furry friends. I’m hoping that the local Bark for a Park group will find a great place soon to start downtown’s first dog park. It doesn’t have to be big. And there are plenty of physical places where, in theory, you could locate one. Take a look at the Deep Ellum Dog Park in downtown Dallas for an example of what we could do here.

I also hope the Johnsons will figure out a way to preserve the old Hunter neon sign on the building; in my opinion signs like this should be landmarked and a special fund set up to help owners preserve them (the cost of restoration and operation can be daunting). A future post will discuss the importance of projecting signs and graphic imagery in dense, urban areas. But I could not resist posting this wonderful shot of Hunter Furniture and 18th Street from the mid-1970’s, before the wholesale demolition all around it.

Here you see the old WBRC-TV studio next door, the old Pasquale’s pizza downtown location, and a series of other businesses marching up 18th Street. Almost all these businesses are now defunct or demolished; Hunter wasjust about the lone survivor from this era (it finally closed in November, 2009).

It’s a shame that after all these years, the parking lots surrounding Hunter are still…parking lots. If this site could be redeveloped with new businesses, living units, restaurants, a shared parking deck, and maybe a small (dog-friendly) park, I’m convinced that fantastic older buildings nearby would see renewed interest in redevelopment (i.e. the Thomas Jefferson Hotel).

And the Johnsons could get some more 4-legged customers.

(pics courtesy army.arch, top; JCMcdavid, bottom)