Tag Archives: Highland Park

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Historic neighborhood meets outdated zoning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.

Congrats Highland Park

Urbane and eclectic

Congratulations to the Highland Park neighborhood, just south of downtown Birmingham, which has won the 2011  American Planning Association’s Great Places award, one of 10 neighborhoods nationally to win the honor (see this morning’s Birmingham News piece ).

Highland Park, one of the city’s oldest planned neighborhoods, is also the densest populated neighborhood in the state of Alabama. It’s known for its diversity of income levels, architecture, and topography. It is also known for its pedestrian/transit/bike friendly streets, accessible parks, and independent businesses (such as Rojo restaurant, pictured above).

Other neighborhoods recognized this year are: Northbrae, Berkeley, CA; Ansley Park, Atlanta, GA; The Pullman Neighborhood, Chicago, IL; Gold Coast & Hamburg Historic District, Davenport, IA; Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood, Hattiesburg, MS; Dundee-Memorial Park, Omaha, NE; German Village, Columbus, OH; Swan Lake, Tulsa, OK; and College Hill, Providence, RI.

Positive national recognition is what this City needs more of. Keep it coming!!

[thanks to maryvw for the pic]

Good (urban) sense

Good signs

The above shot is taken on Central Avenue in Charlotte, NC, in the heart of the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. Founded in 1910 as a street-car suburb, the neighborhood is roughly comparable to Highland Park in Birmingham, both historically and in its close geographic relationship to downtown. Each neighborhood is now known for its eclectic, diverse environment.

Signs of a healthy urban place abound in the picture above: sidewalks with people; lots of projecting signs beckoning those people into shops and cafes, a well-branded transit sign announcing bus routes; crosswalk signals that tick down the seconds left to cross, easing pedestrian navigation. In the background, however, you see a strip center and suburban-style Family Dollar sign that are evidence of the decline the neighborhood underwent in the 1950s and 60s, with a familiar tale of suburban flight and increasingly auto-centric development.

Not holding the corner

The Harris Teeter supermarket above, an anchor in the business district, is an example of the poor site planning of an earlier era. Unappealing, blank walls face the street; parking and a random patch of grass are much more prominent than the building itself, whose entrance is off the parking lot rather than the sidewalk. Luckily, Harris Teeter is completely rebuilding the store, in a much more urban-friendly design, seen below:

Who says a chain supermarket can't be a great urban anchor

The market has been moved to the corner, with storefronts and entries opening off the sidewalks, and parking moved to the rear of the lot. Outdoor seating, a green roof, and an art-deco-inspired design have pleased neighborhood leaders, who have long been pressing for a renovation of this property.

A better plan

The plan above illustrates the new building hugging the corner, thus becoming a real anchor. It’s a cautionary note too: while “green space” at corners in urban areas is sometimes touted as perfect for “gathering” or “pocket parks” or what have you, it often ends up being unused and un-programmed–like the existing corner of Central and The Plaza in Charlotte. Not always, but often.

We'll try not to be jealous

Charlotte, as some know, already has a great Harris Teeter full-line supermarket right at the CBD (Uptown, in the ever-cheerful Charlotte-speak), pictured above. At another prime corner, this time it’s the base of a mixed-use development, and shows the chain’s confidence in Charlotte’s center city. I will argue that Birmingham, building-stock-wise, has it hands-down over Charlotte–we were a much, much bigger city than Charlotte in the 1910s and 20s, and our fabric shows it.

But in terms of downtown (Uptown) amenities, well, it would be nice if we had a version of the Harris Teeter. Charlotte, of course, has moved beyond that: behold their Uptown Dean and Deluca, a branch of the famous food emporium from New York, and dream:

Oh, I'm just strolling down the street to Dean and Deluca

[thanks to willamor media for the street pic; otherstream for Uptown Harris Teeter pic; charlotte observer online for the Plaza Midtown Harris Teeter rendering; yelp for the Dean and Deluca pic]

Playing Chicken

Come unto me, all ye miscreants

Today was the first of 3 public hearings of the special Appeals Board hearing Chick-Fil-A‘s appeal of the Design Review Committee‘s unanimous decision to deny the construction of a stand-alone restaurant and drive-through at the corner of Highland Avenue and 20th Street South in the heart of Five Points South. 3 1/2 hours later, here’s the (longish) report:

1. Attorney Charlie Beavers, representing Chick-Fil-A, reduces the case to a fundamental question: did the DRC have the right to deny this project based on its proposed use? Answer: no, it did not. The use is allowed by current zoning and the DRC overstepped its bounds. He then proceeds to argue that, beyond this simple fact, Chick-Fil-A bent over backwards to modify its design numerous times, resulting in a very urban and appropriate design. At least according to Mr. Beavers.

2. Erwin Reed, Vice-President of Chick-Fil-A in charge of real estate, then states his corporation “doesn’t like to come to neighborhoods where we are not wanted.” He assures the chamber (about 50 people in all) that once it was built, the neighbors would love the place.

3. The opposition now has a chance to state its views. Attorney Alton Parker stands to contend the plan as drawn is suburban both in style and traffic accommodation, and therefore is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. “Why does Chick-Fil-A insist on doing something so opposed by the neighborhood?  Why insist on the drive-through?” [Note: both the Commercial Revitalization District and National Register designation papers, which were adopted as city ordinance, call for development in the neighborhood to be complementary and consistent with the historic, pedestrian character of the place; it is on these ordinances which the DRC based their ruling.]

Mike Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham, states that he has 40 years of experience as an urban planner and expert witness on the topic, and this plan neither conforms to the City Center Master Plan nor to the Five Points South Revitalization Plan, and the DRC ruling should be upheld.

Bob Moody, adjacent property owner for 30 years, asks the board to uphold the ruling.

Frank Stitt, Alabama’s and one of the South’s most famed restaurateurs, states he loves Chick-Fil-A, but a drive-through is not appropriate on this site.

James Little, president of the Five Points South Merchant group, reminds the board that both his group and the Neighborhood Association approved (non-binding) resolutions opposing the current plan. He also states that Chick-Fil-A itself has admitted it needs a more “urban” prototype for pedestrian neighborhoods, and is implementing a pilot program in Chicago. He mentions the long lines at local suburban Chick-Fil-A outlets, and how this tight urban site can’t accommodate such traffic.

Joseph Baker, organizer of I Believe in Birmingham, speaks passionately  about the urban nature of the neighborhood, how we can’t put inappropriate uses into these special areas, and that corporations are not citizens. And if they go against the will of citizens, a boycott will be announced.

Betty Bock speaks about traffic nightmares if the plan were allowed.

Libby Rich says Chick-Fil-A is “a wonderful corporation. But this is our neighborhood. You [Chick-Fil-A] have overstepped your bounds.”

Ron Council points out the plan drawing only shows the property with almost no context, i.e. it leaves out all the historic structures around the intersection. More traffic woes for elderly people who walk or use wheelchairs on the sidewalks and must cross curb cuts.

Alison Glascock, Highland Park Neighborhood president, states she is not anti-corporation, but wants corporations to listen to the neighborhoods in which they locate. She regrets this situation has become “us vs. them.”

A long slog of a hearing

4. Charlie Beavers now stands up for Chick-Fil-A to rebut. He mentions the company’s traffic engineers have studied the site and are satisfied it will be fine. He insists this is indeed an urban design. He again asks the Board to overturn the DRC.

5. Greg Despinakas stands on behalf of the owner (who would lease the land to Chick-Fil-A). This is perhaps the most colorful moment: in a fiery, preacher-like sermon, he declares this project would be a “God-given enhancement to the neighborhood.” Which he then describes as deteriorating, filled with “…miscreants.  And head shops. And tattoo parlors. Broken glass. Piercing shops. Graffiti.” Even…saloons! He then dramatically turns to the audience and says. “Clean it up! Before you tell Chick-Fil-A what to do, clean up your own neighborhood!”

6. It’s now question time from the Board. How many customers will be served?  250-300,000 annually, about 50% of which is drive-through. Why this site? Because it maximizes our investment. Can you survive without a drive-through? We could, but this would not meet our financial expectations. How can you assure us that stacked cars waiting for the drive-through won’t be a nightmare at peak times? Trust us. We are the fastest drive-through in the US and we’ll hire traffic directors at peak times if required.

7. Executive Session. For maybe 30 minutes. Break time. Milling around, some wary hellos between camps, but mainly each sticks to his own.

8. Board returns. They ask the hours of store operation (6AM-10PM M-T; 6AM-11PM F,Sat; closed Sun). They announce the next public hearing is 8:30 AM Friday June 18, Room 215 City Hall. But no more public comments on that date; it’s just deliberation with public observation. One more important item: the board asks City staff to provide updated traffic counts for that intersection by Friday morning. With current budget woes at the City, there are not exactly extra bodies sitting around to count traffic. Here’s wishing staff good luck with this request!

So that’s it for now–stay tuned.

The takeaway? We need a form-based code for this neighborhood (and others)! Pronto. No one wants to sit through this again, trust me.

[thanks to southernpixel for the shot of Frank Fleming’s sculpture at Five Points fountain]

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.

4-Alarm Shock

An architectural gem

Just when we had our hands full with a proposed drive-through Chick-Fil-A in Five Points, along comes this punch in the jaw at Design Review this morning: the historic Fire Station No. 22, recently vacated, is on the table for demolition. It would be replaced with a Walgreen’s drugstore and parking lot. And a drive-through. On yet another important, gateway corner (Clairmont Avenue and 32nd Street).

Except this time the owner isn’t proposing tearing down a Ruby Tuesday’s built in the 1990s, but a wonderful Spanish-style fire station built in the 1920s. And the owner just happens to be the City of Birmingham, which is perhaps the most shocking part of this. Hasn’t this City learned enough about tearing down historic structures and what that does to a neighborhood fabric? And to a sense of place?

A dismal idea

To their credit, the Design Review Committee refused to approve this conceptual site plan, and insisted Walgreen’s return with exterior elevations suitable for an urban environment, including pedestrian-friendly storefront and sidewalk entries (no exteriors were presented today). Alison Glascock, Highland Park neighborhood president, stood to commend the Committee for its stance.

City of Birmingham–you need to be actively seeking creative redevelopment of the historic fire station, not tearing down another piece of our history to replace with banal, suburban-style architecture! And if you need an architect to help figure that out, I know where to find one.

(thanks to Birmingham Firefighters Local 117 for the historic photo, and to LAI engineering for the Walgreen’s plan)


Not that there is one right way to go here, but I feel strongly about the historic structure and the accessible nature of its scale.  Just a few pieces of eye candy to get the creative juices flowing here:

Let’s think outdoor seating — bridging Lakeview and Forest Park:

stopping in for pizza...

Love this restaurant concept in an old fire house in LA:

Firehouse themed restaurant!

And this is just for fun but to live in a firehouse!!

note the fire pole hole!

(thanks to Engine Co. No. 28, insidetheperimeter, and designpublic for the above images)


The Walgreen’s plan would not just take out the neighboring service station, but also Bogue’s Restaurant, an historic fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for many decades.

The end of an era?