Tag Archives: Highland Avenue

The fraying fabric of Five Points Alert (1)

Among the last of an era

Walking through Five Points South yesterday I was struck by the number of vacancies, the “for sale” signs, and then it hit me — we are at a very crucial time.   I think back 10 years ago when, heaven forbid, there was talk of chain stores (Gap, Blockbuster Video) moving in.  Now that many independent retailers are gone anyway (with some very important exceptions! iii’s anyone?),  and a Chick-Fil-A is the biggest recent news story, we are facing a difficult period.  This should be a jewel of our downtown.  Restaurants, bars, retail — all capitalizing on the huge adjacent UAB population.  But it’s not living up to this potential.

Seeing the furniture and detritus on the front porch of the Hassinger home, a gorgeous grande dame of Highland Avenue adjacent to the new Chick-Fil-A development (the elderly lady living there has departed), I am reminded of what happened to the Otto Marx mansion further down Highland a few years ago, when a unique, historic structure was torn down and replaced by a new structure that could have easily gone somewhere else:

A piece of history falls before the mighty hand of the market

In 2003, the Alabama Historical Commission and Alabama Preservation Alliance added the Hassinger home to its “Places in Peril” list, and rightly so.  This is an excellent example of the Queen Anne style as noted in the Birminhgam Historical Society‘s Guide to Architectural Style:

Illustrative purposes

So many of the homes that once lined Highland Avenue have been torn down in the name of progress, or left to fall apart until there was no other choice.  As readers may know, I am a big proponent of diverse communities with lots of architectural choices. But when you only have a handful of historic houses left in the City like this, the choice is clear. We need to preserve.

The way it was

What could this site be? A fantastic bed and breakfast with a welcoming front porch for visitors.  A bookstore.  Or, to dream big, quality retail, similar to how the Rhinelander mansion in NYC was saved to create the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue:

Could be perfect for prepsters

[thanks to dystopos for the Hassinger House pic; lsyd for the Marx/Sales sign pic; Birmingham Historical Society for the diagram of the Hassinger House; Jefferson County Historical Commission for the 1910 view of Highland Avenue, and sruellen for the Ralph Lauren pic.]



Suburban = Urban?

could it get worse?

Ah, the demise of the infamous Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the heart of Five Points South. Infamous because a banal, cookie-cutter shopping-mall out-parcel building was plopped down 16 years ago on one of the most historic and important corners in this city–where 20th Street meets Highland Avenue South. There had been a plan in the early 1990s to redevelop this lot (originally a fine mansion) as a 14 story, mixed-use building called Renaissance Plaza. Instead we got a cheap looking, generic box sitting on a parking lot.

Well, lo and behold, the restaurant has closed after 16 years. And last week’s Design Review Committee approved a new development with nary a comment or dissent. Is it a dense, mixed-use development bringing interesting new retail and restaurant tenants? Is it thoughtful, urban architecture suitable to this distinctive corner surrounded by the Shepherd-Sloss Building, Terrace Court Apartments? Unfortunately it is neither. It is a stand-alone Chick-Fil-A restaurant, complete with drive-through and surface parking. This plan sketched here is very approximate, but gets the idea across.

presenting for Chick-Fil-A

I don’t want to say Chick-Fil-A shouldn’t be in Five Points– but can we talk context?  Gorgeous terra cotta detailing and the first high-rise apartments in the South across the street.  Crumbling, perhaps, but at least special.

unique across the street

These older buildings speak of a particular place and style — “I am in Birmingham”, not at any newish strip mall.  The unique architectural fabric of this city is what make visitors say: what a beautiful town you have. Hard to say that about  most strip malls/outparcels since they all look alike. But I digress; this is not a commentary on the architectural integrity of the American strip mall. That’s another post.

But Five Points! An area that is a food mecca for the metro area…  I am not against fast food in the least — or a good Chick-Fil-A.  But where is the comprehensive plan for revitalizing this area? Let me dust off some shelves somewhere, because this can’t be part of it.  Why? Kudos on the outdoor seating — but that’s about all I can say positive about the current plan. Take a look at Portland.  As we’ve discussed before, urban areas succeed with density.  In Portland you see sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants, including a McDonald’s storefront. No drive-throughs. And 90% of the property is not a vast dead zone of car park and drive-through lanes.

fast-food, urban-style in Portland

One reason why this sort of totally inappropriate development still happens here? We have no Redevelopment Authority. A RA is an independent, public agency that can buy and sell property, solicit proposals from developers, and finance buildings and development. They can take a good plan and actually implement it. This site would be a prime example of the kind of place identified by a RA as important to a city and the urban environment. It deserves to be built out according to a good plan. Not just randomly selected by Chick-Fil-A. And their drive-through mentality.

Drive-throughs, while ubiquitous to the American landscape, are not appropriate in dense urban areas. They require additional curb cuts which make pedestrian sidewalk use hazardous; they are horrible for the environment (all those motors idling); they discourage people from getting out of their car and enjoying a walkable streetscape; and the land use is wasteful (lots of asphalt). Various cities have started banning new, urban drive-throughs for all of these reasons.

I want a thriving Five Points.  I want the opposite of a strip mall — non-chain boutiques, restaurants that use local produce, new loft mid-rises — a snobby, creative-class dream?  OK then. I will also take some chains and fast-food that may be necessary  — but with the caveat that they should fit in with a comprehensive, urban vision for this area. I want more more more. I know, I want too much.  But I can dream, right? (thanks to dystopos for the Ruby Tuesday pic; Birmingham Public Library for the 1972 pic of the Shepherd-Sloss building, and alexabboud for the pic in Portland.)