Historic neighborhood meets outdated zoning
At yesterday’s City Council meeting a group of citizens from the historic neighborhood of Bush Hills in the west side of Birmingham gathered to protest the construction of a new service station and convenience store underway on a prominent corner in this mainly residential area (Graymont Avenue and 8th Avenue West, above). You can watch a video of the Council meeting here.
After one resident after another took the stand, councilors then replied that unfortunately this was out of the Council’s purview, as the site in question has been zoned B-1 for years, and this zoning allows a service station with no variance necessary. Thus, the developer of this property would encounter no neighborhood committees, boards of adjustment, etc.: she merely needs to submit plans to the planning department for approval, and they’re ready to go.
Not the new neighbor they were hoping for
Once again we have a situation where residents of an historic neighborhood (above, houses directly across Graymont Avenue from the site) object to the technically legal use of a prominent corner lot–the Five Points South Chick-Fil-A and Clairmont Avenue Walgreens projects come to mind. In each case grassroots efforts led by citizens helped convince the developers to redesign their projects using urban principles more in keeping with their contexts. Once again, the lack of neighborhood form-based code is making this a lot more complicated than it should be.
If we overlaid form-based code onto our existing zoning code, we could single out certain prominent intersections, or corners, to insist that any development’s form would need to be urban-friendly (i.e. buildings built out to sidewalks, certain percentage of storefront glass/entrances directly facing streets, parking areas hidden at the rear, etc.). It wouldn’t prohibit service stations, but it would require either an extremely creative design–or otherwise influence the developer to look for another less restrictive lot (located outside an historic residential neighborhood, and therefore more appropriate for a service station).
Part of the challenge
So far the City’s Highland Park neighborhood and Jefferson County (which covers unincorporated, and thus typically less dense, areas) have adopted form-based codes. Highland Park–with its wealthier, well-educated residential base–organized, paid for, and lobbied for the new code. As the above Bush Hills residence around the corner from the site demonstrates, this neighborhood has vastly fewer resources. The fear of the citizens yesterday was in part economic: already facing a downward spiral pressure on home values and multiplying vacancies, the introduction of a gas station could make the surroundings less desirable, augmenting that spiral. We’d love to see a solution to this continual problem, because the more we mismatch uses within our historic neighborhoods, the harder it is to convince residents to remain.
On another note, a reader pointed out that permits for demolition and a dumpster have arrived at the former First Federal Savings and Loan building on the corner of First Avenue North and Richard Arrington (above). We reported a year ago on the Design Review Committee giving conceptual approval to a mixed-use redevelopment in this modernist structure. Perhaps this is the beginning of that project, or it may be something else; it’s hard to tell.
Hard to figure
It’s illustrative to look at the publicly posted permits above; they tell us about demo permits and dumpsters, but not about what’s actually happening to the building.
A better way
Other cities treat construction projects not just as private developments (which they often are), but as contributors to the greater urban fabric. Above is what’s found on any building site in New York City, informing the public about the nature of the project, who the developer is, and who to call for more info. Yes, this takes resources to organize and implement. But it’s a worthy goal for any city to strive for. It educates the public; piques the interest of other developers; and increases the public trust. For the time being, we hope the dumpster is a sign of fresh life for this downtown corner.