Tag Archives: Form-Based Code

Downward pressure

Historic neighborhood meets outdated zoning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.

Happening, maybe

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.

Now or Never: Chick-Fil-A and Walgreen’s Updates

It is time to make yourself heard. Public hearings are set for two controversial issues:

The City Council’s Economic Development Committee will discuss the proposal to sell the historic Fire Station No. 22 to Walgreen’s Drugstore on June 7 at 4 PM in the Council conference suite at City Hall. In related news, local developer and Highland Park resident David Carrigan has put together a counter-proposal that fully preserves and restores the Fire Station into a neighborhood gastropub. You can see the website here.  (Full disclosure — the rendering below is by the writer of this blog)

Another path

Second, the Birmingham News reports today that a special panel–set up to hear Chick-Fil-A’s appeal after the unanimous decision of the Design Review Committee to deny their building a stand-alone restaurant and drive-through at the corner of 20th Street and Highland Avenue South in the heart of Five Points South–will hold public hearings June 16, 18, and 21. They will then rule on the matter within 7 days of the last hearing.

This is one particular situation where Form Based Code would be potentially very useful. While Chick-Fil-A argues that this is purely a zoning matter (and indeed drive-throughs and stand-alone restaurants are allowed by zoning on this property), the neighborhood and other advocates (including myself) argue that the Commercial Revitalization and Historic District organizing papers clearly state that new development should be in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. These papers are city ordinance, just like zoning. Instead of one lawyer arguing that an ordinance takes precedence over another, Form Based Code would settle the matter up front, telling any prospective developer that along certain streets, or within certain blocks, there can be no drive-through. Or no building less than a certain height. Or all parking must be hidden at the rear of the lot.

The process of putting together a Form Based Code is typically driven by neighborhood consensus. Highland Park is the first City neighborhood to adopt such a code–just a few weeks ago. In order to protect the urban assets we have, and enhance them with thoughtful, coordinated development, Five Points South and other neighborhoods should consider following Highland Park’s lead.

If you care about the urban environment in Birmingham, please plan to attend any or all of these important meetings.

Stay tuned for reports on the upcoming public hearings in both cases.

Chick-Fil-A: Meet Frank Stitt

An impassioned defense of an urban neighborhood

What happens when you put Poulet Rouge on the same platter next to Chick-n-Strips? Well, we learned the answer this past Wednesday when Frank Stitt, chef/owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez FonFon, and Bottega Restaurant and Cafe, spoke eloquently against a proposed redevelopment of the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street into a drive-through Chick-Fil-A Restaurant (he’s pictured above addressing the City’s Design Review Committee). His reasoning (echoed by other merchants present as well as the president of the Five Points Merchants’ Group): 1. The alley which accesses the drive-through queue is an active alley used for deliveries for his restaurants; 2.  Car traffic will increase, possibly dangerously, at an already busy intersection; 3. The fumes of idling cars and the noise from the “squawk box” will affect not only his diners at the patio across the alley but the elderly lady who lives in one of the last remaining Victorian mansions on Highland Avenue next door; and 4. A drive-through is incompatible to an historic, vibrantly pedestrian neighborhood. Of course Number 4 is the most important reason for everyone to be concerned about this sort of proposal, regardless of whether you plan to dig into Moules-Frites across the alley or not.

I’d like to set the record straight here. Over on the al.com blog there’s been a lively discussion about Frank Stitt and his opposition to the development (you can see it here). First, Frank was only the most famous of other merchants and neighbors who all stood to speak against the idea of a drive-through. Second, Jim Little, who heads the Five Points South Merchants Group, also stood to express his organization’s disapproval. Third, I’ve spoken personally with Frank Stitt and he is clear: he, and his fellow merchants and neighbors, are not opposing Chick-Fil-A. They are opposing a drive-through.

The argument is not about haute cuisine vs. the mass market

This in fact is a rather populist protest against an Atlanta-based corporation wanting to impose a suburban design on a neighborhood that’s one of the most urban we have. So charges of elitism/arrogance, in my opinion, are best directed at the corporation–not at the neighborhood.

The argument is about preserving urban character against a suburban-style assault

Now let me try to briefly explain the options available to resolve the situation. This property is located in an official Commercial Revitalization District, as well as in an Historic District listed on the National Register. Any proposed alteration or change to property in such districts must come before the Design Review Committee. The DRC, however, must abide by City zoning law in making its approvals. In Birmingham’s zoning code, drive-through facilities are allowed in all commercial areas without restriction. Therefore, the DRC, while its members appeared unanimous in their opposition to a drive-through, cannot in the end stop it. They have to follow the current zoning rules.

What could be done to help this situation? Three things come to mind:

1. The City amends its zoning code (as other cities have done recently) to restrict new drive-through facilities in certain areas (grandfathering extant facilities).

2 The City adopts a Form-Based Code. Such a code provides regulations beyond the normal zoning code, to help better shape development especially in key areas of a city. Part of this new code could restrict drive-throughs in certain areas. (The town of Seaside, Fl. was the first example of a modern form-based code. See this interesting illustration of  form-based code principles here, from the new code adopted recently in Miami).

3. The City creates a Redevelopment Authority. Such an authority typically has the ability to develop urban design plans, acquire and/or promote key properties for redevelopment in accordance with the plans, and act as the developer in certain instances, sometimes in conjunction with private investors or developers.

4. The Five Points Historic District organizing papers are amended to specifically prevent drive-throughs within the district.

Based on discussions I have had with people familiar with the above options, our City lacks the political will to implement either a Form-Based Code, a zoning change, or a Redevelopment Authority (in part due to opposition from local developers who imagine such changes would be bad for business). Such lack of political will, matched with opposition from the development community, keeps our city from progressing like other cities which have one or more of those tools at their disposal.

And in the meantime, drive-through or not, a very prominent corner in the heart of a diverse, pedestrian-friendly district is getting a free-standing, suburban-style building surrounded by a sea of parking. As Cheryl Morgan of Auburn’s Urban Studio put it, “parking spaces don’t produce revenue.” The neighborhood, visitors, and the City would be much better served if a higher and better use were contemplated for this site, one that included multiple tenants opening directly on the sidewalks, with limited parking in the rear. This is one rare part of town where people get out of their car and walk, as Frank Stitt pointed out. Here’s hoping Chick-Fil-A will listen hard to this community and reconsider this plan.

Let's keep it urban!

[thanks to cathydanh for the Highlands dinner plate,  jreed for the Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and Five Points South Merchant’s Group for the overhead view of the site and surroundings]