Tag Archives: downtown

School Dazed … and confused

The Lane School--languishing in the shadow of UAB

The News has reported (and editorialized ) the story of UAB offering Birmingham City Schools $3.13 million for the old, former Lane School building at the university campus. The School Board president made a statement that, instead of selling the school, the Board should consider building a new headquarters building there instead (the City School website lists the Lane School as a “surplus property” for sale) .

Rather than discuss politics or the woes of the Birmingham City Schools, this is an opportunity to discuss possible solutions: 1. We have a shrinking urban school system with underused or unused buildings, and 2. the system’s (outdated) headquarters occupies a piece of very prime real estate facing Linn Park at the corner of 20th Street.

What would an enlightened city do?

Let’s start with the current site of the School headquarters on Park Place. This building, never a true architectural gem to begin with, suffers most from a mismatched location. Not only is it a dated, 3-story office building occupying that prime corner site, but the majority of its facade along 20th Street is the mainly blank wall of the parking garage. Hardly a generator of activity on the sidewalk.

There was a plan in 2004 to build a 14-story Westin hotel here, but the Board has rejected this and all subsequent offers to buy this property (in part due to the perceived expense of building a new headquarters). What if the Board agreed to sell the lot to a developer, and in return a dynamic, mixed-use building including space for a new headquarters was constructed? Or, alternatively, a brand-new charter or magnet school, that could signal the system’s determination to turn things around? Or a combination of all of the above?

This idea has a parallel in Lower Manhattan right now. For years, neighborhood residents have been demanding a new school (K-8) but due to high land costs, it never materialized. In return for certain state and local incentives, a developer agreed to build the new school at the base of a 76-story luxury apartment tower (the Beekman, designed by Frank Gehry; under construction). In the picture here, you can see the brick school at the base of the tower:

Beekman School and Tower

(pic via jskrybe)

We are hardly in New York (but hey, like the new Beekman school, did you know the Advent Day School, a block from the Board HQ, has a rooftop playground?); but what if the current Board site was redeveloped into new board offices, an innovative charter school on the park, and private offices or condos/hotel above. And a great restaurant facing the park? What if?

But what about all the other outdated school structures, like the Lane School? These are dotted all over town–where changing demographics have forced school closures and realignments.  Old schools can make some really awesome living units.  When we looked at renovating the Phoenix Building some years ago, and thought about maintaining the best parts of a historic structure, we looked at various school rehabs across the country for inspiration.  Where else can you live in a basketball court? Check out the Union Square Condos in Grand Rapids, MI—a very innovative transformation of an obsolete neighborhood school.

Or closer to home, the old Crogman School in Atlanta was almost razed. Instead, it became reborn as the Crogman School Lofts, an affordable housing and community center that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

Old Schools can be turned into community assets.  Market rate or affordable housing;  art classes and community meeting spaces.

And prime corner lots facing major city parks need innovative, mixed-use approaches to help spur further growth and foot traffic. Here’s hoping the School Board can strategize thoughtfully and carefully about how it could help it’s own bottom line, while helping the communities surrounding its properties.

Death of a Gypsy…

…and we don’t mean Carmen.

So, my local convenience store just closed a couple days ago–I ran across the street last night to get a couple tomatoes and found the “closed” sign on the door, and the interior was clearly in the process of being emptied.

Here’s a pic of the facade of the  Gypsy Market. Closed.

Now this brings up an interesting discussion–there was another “Neighborhood Market” around the corner that closed maybe 2 years ago. While the Gypsy seemed more in tune with the eclectic vibe of our urban ‘hood, neither its owner nor the owner of the Neighborhood Market struck me as being great business people, with solid plans for stability and growth. We need convenience stores downtown; we need local grocers; and we need supermarkets.

In Birmingham, for years we have heard the same argument. It goes like this: “Supermarket chains typically need approximately [insert high number here] people living within a 3-mile radius, and downtown is not ready yet. Not enough people.” More recently, there has been serious consideration of smaller, “urban footprint” type supermarkets that would be positioned geographically to serve both the north and south sides of central downtown–i.e. capturing the large UAB market to the southside.

What we’ve been missing is coordinated, professional efforts combined with incentives that other cities have used to induce supermarkets to come into areas traditionally avoided by chains that are oriented to the suburbs. Check out Greenlife Grocery in downtown Chattanooga which is like a mini-Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  And, unlike Birmingham, Chattanooga boasts a truly comprehensive, coordinated effort to induce a more mainstream supermarket into downtown: you can check out this executive summary from 2007 for a taste.

Cities cannot just wait for markets to come–they’ve got to get organized, aggressive, and in many cases offer incentives. Washington, DC has a specific incentive for inducing supermarkets to enter the city, which has had great success. I remember when the U Street neighborhood there was a relatively shabby area with no good supermarket. About 10 years ago the city passed their incentive law, and a developer put together a mixed-use project with Whole Foods as an anchor. The rest is history–the grocer helped spur retail and condo development across the neighborhood (although gentrification had started a few years earlier, Whole Foods accelerated it). Thanks to Maryland Route 5 for the pic:

Markets can be fantastic growth generators for neighborhoods. I think downtown can support both a full service supermarket, as well as at least a couple small convenience/local groceries, if they were done intelligently and backed by the right research and business plans. And, of course it would be nice if they could match the quirky vibe of downtown, as the Gypsy did manage to do.

And by the way, gentrification is a complex topic that will weave it’s way in and out of this blog. Suffice it to say that right now, downtown Birmingham has NO local grocers whatsoever, so we’re not talking about displacing local flavor with boring corporate chains. We’re talking about an essential service that’s needed. Now.