Tag Archives: Main Street Birmingham


Glorious fabric, few appreciative eyeballs

The recent report in the Birmingham News that Cotton’s department store in downtown Ensley is closing after 90 years of business gives us the chance to think about Ensley’s downtown district and its future (19th Street at Avenue F looking west, above). A reminder of Birmingham’s industrial boom, the historic district was once a thriving node of commerce, entertainment, and business in the western part of the City. Its scale and density startles the visitor today: not only was it the center of a neighborhood of more than 20,000 people, but others from surrounding neighborhoods would visit to shop, dine, or attend a show. That all of this could flourish in a place only 7 miles out from Birmingham’s city center testifies to the population base that was thickly spread within the city limits decades ago.

Dreams of grandeur

The former Birmingham-Ensley Land Company headquarters building (above at 19th Street and Avenue H) architecturally symbolizes the confidence real estate developers had in the area in the 1920’s, when the Ensley Works were producing steel at full blast and employed thousands of workers. Today, more than 30 years after the last steel plant closed, less than 4000 people inhabit the neighborhood. This statistic, and similar ones in surrounding neighborhoods, means a commercial district designed for a much larger population now serves a much shrunken one. Despite its surface charm, no new paradigm has arrived to help fill the storefronts.


Part of the charm of downtown Ensley is the relative narrowness of certain streets, like 19th Street seen above in the early 1920’s; note the streetcar tracks which allowed people to move between Ensley, adjacent neighborhoods, and central Birmingham and beyond. The streetcars stopped in the 1950’s in conjunction with the spread of car culture across this country. Suburban flight and decline of heavy industry hollowed out much of Birmingham proper.

Uphill battle against crime, real and perceived

The West Precinct of the City of Birmingham Police Department (above, 19th Street and Avenue G)–while architecturally a creature of the 1960’s with its suburban-style setback and sculptural massing–is in scale and expense a reminder of the importance of Ensley as a hub of the City’s west side. Unfortunately this west side has seen its share of problems with crime over the ensuing decades. While much of this issue has improved, the perception still lingers, which of course can be equally as challenging for any neighborhood.

The potential is there

For a myriad of reasons, one by one many of the buildings in this district have lost their occupants. While the 10-story Ramsay-McCormick Building is perhaps the most famous empty building in the district, many other significant structures also cry out for new purpose (above, commercial structure at Avenue F between 19th and 18th Streets).

Blank facade, for a reason

Some buildings in the district have found new purpose: the Volcano ‘gentleman’s club” (above on 19th Street between Avenues E and F) is an adult entertainment complex that joins a few other nightclubs, beauty salons, barber shops, and churches that have filled some of the buildings. This is hardly a recipe for a vibrant district of course. A more diverse mix is needed.

Still there….

One long-time business that remains is Gilmer Drug Company (above, 19th Street between Avenues D and E), which although its posted hours declared it open on a Saturday afternoon, nevertheless appeared shut. Not a great sign for ongoing viability of any business.

Corner anchor, about to vanish

This brings us to Cotton’s (above, looking east on 19th Street from Avenue D). This somewhat old-fashioned, family-run “clothing department store” is the last retailer of note in the district. While sad it’s closing after 90 years of service to Ensley, we should be grateful they managed to hang on as long as they did. They used to be in the middle of other retailers, theaters, offices, restaurants. When all those fell away, Cotton’s remained, supported by a loyal clientele that continued to shop there even if they no longer lived close by.

Old school

For anyone interested in the history of retail and shop windows, it’s worth traveling to Cotton’s before it closes just to see the fantastic shop windows (above), that are arranged around a U-shaped outdoor passage so that you can “window shop” from dozens of different angles. This type of display was once common in downtown Birmingham and across the country, but it’s very rare to see one survive today. The mannequins, the spatial quality, the views all add up to an urban experience that was once commonplace, and is now virtually lost. Not just here, but anywhere.

Troubling trend

Whither Ensley? Organizations such as Main Street Birmingham have worked hard to identify possible rejuvenations; the new Birmingham Comprehensive Plan highlights Ensley (and the massive amount of adjacent, formerly industrial property) as a focus area. But time is working against us. The Ramsay-McCormick building, in its art-deco glory, stands open to the elements. Building after building along 19th Street is endangered structurally–and some have already succumbed: above on 19th Street and Avenue G all that remains of a historic structure is the steel frame of its storefront. Other entire blocks have been demolished and sit gathering weeds. So many other cities would kill to have this sort of authentic urban environment within their limits. I hope we can figure out a way to make this district thrive once again.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the historic photo]


Urban retail

More of these, please

The growth of retail establishments downtown has not kept pace with the growth of neighborhood population. Why? In part because populations must reach tipping points before retailers will consider new locations, and for certain businesses our population is just not there yet.

However, another reason is that downtown doesn’t have the right available space in the right locations. Take the growing Second Avenue district and the retailer Charm (above), in the 2300 block of Second Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. There are bars, a coffee shop, a corner bodega, and a skate shop on the block–all very complementary to Charm’s vibe. What we now need are a couple more retailers to step up and join the district–and indeed several have been searching for small space at reasonable rents. But it’s proven very hard to find.

Not the best and highest use of this corner

While there is plenty of vacant retail storefront downtown, much of it is too big. If it were subdivided into smaller, reasonably priced spaces it would be easier to fill. Unfortunately many building owners don’t want to go to the expense of speculative renovation for a market that’s still seen as pioneering. Above is the building at the SE corner of 24th and Second Avenue North, right down the street from Charm. Most recently professional offices, it was bought last year and is seemingly vacant: it’s storefront blinds are drawn, and no renovation work evident. It’s a big blank non-contributing element to the district right now.

Better and higher use

Last year we worked on a concept project with the previous owner (above) that would have created smaller retail storefront spaces on the first floor, and updated the building with a clean, graphic aesthetic complementing our 2nd Row project of 2007. If this city had a Redevelopment Authority, perhaps it could’ve identified this property as key to the growth of the Second Avenue district, bought or leased the space, performed the necessary renovations, and then marketed it to retail and restaurants. We have nothing like that here, which inhibits our getting traction or critical mass again and again (although Main Street Birmingham has had some success with similar ventures in the commercial centers of Woodlawn and Avondale).

Getting proactive

Once again, the smaller city of Mobile to our south is ahead of the curve: the Downtown Mobile Alliance (equivalent to our Operation New Birmingham) has acquired a spacious former retail space on Dauphin Street downtown (above) and created the Urban Emporium. Here, start-up retailers can rent small spaces with shared overhead, checkout, etc.–a retail incubator, if you will. It allows retailers interested in downtown to introduce themselves to the neighborhood at minimal expense. The idea is they grow a customer base, and then graduate to their own space elsewhere downtown. Birmingham needs to do something similar. Otherwise, we’ll keep losing opportunities like our aborted project above, while eager but frustrated entrepreneurs keep searching. Their search may lead  to other neighborhoods altogether if we don’t have a plan in place to accommodate them.

Critical mass is typically a combination of the organic and the planned. Here on Second Avenue North the organic has come a good ways. It’s time for some planning to keep it going. More on that next post.

[thanks to Downtown Mobile Alliance for the Urban Emporium pic]

North Birmingham (1)


Just 20 blocks north of the BJCC’s new entertainment district is the commercial center of North Birmingham, an important early satellite city of the early industrial region, which was incorporated into Birmingham proper in 1910. This center has an incredible urban fabric, considering its economic woes–and considering the ill-advised attempt a few decades ago to “suburbanize” its downtown (above): an entire half-block was demolished for a parking lot, with existing and “modernized” storefronts facing it, with the whole venture branded as “North Birmingham Shopping Center.” Bunker-like landscape elements line 27th Street where buildings and businesses used to front.

Future potential

Above we see the former Kress Five and Dime, whose size and detailing is testament to the former importance of this commercial center. Despite the misguided demolition around the corner, much of the historic fabric is intact (the above shot is along 27th Street looking north towards 30th Avenue).

Even more beauty, and more potential

More testament to the fine urban fabric is the great neo-classical former North Birmingham Trust and Savings Bank (1926) and adjacent Art Deco former supermarket (above) which have been recently purchased by a young local design firm Regarding Architecture to renovate into a mixed-use development. The architects are planning a sensitive restoration of the exteriors (the former supermarket became a drive-through for the bank a while back!).

The way we were

The photo above is from perhaps the late 1930’s,  illustrating the same buildings. The fantastic building stock on these blocks is ripe for forward-thinking pioneers like RA, who are breathing new life into the district.

Keep it coming

Another recent investment is the Ecoscape garden that replaced a vacant lot (above). A project of the local neighborhood, Wells Fargo bank (which recently renovated their local bank branch), Birmingham Southern College, and Main Street Birmingham, it’s another example of a positive new direction for this place.

Not what one would hope for

A less positive note for the neighborhood are the proposed alterations to an historic building (above right), whose fake mansard and blocked-up storefronts puts it at odds with many of its better-preserved neighbors.  The Design Review Committee yesterday denied the business-owner’s request for a new neon sign–which has already been installed anyway (without approval). The owner also proposed stone infill to one side of the entrance–adding insult to injury on this facade. The business is a nightclub (The Mansion) that seems to have been operating without proper licenses, proceeding with interior renovations without a permit, etc. It also seems the owner has chopped down city trees on the sidewalk, an outrageous act in any neighborhood–but to this day has not replanted anything.

While a nightclub has a right to be in an urban district, wouldn’t it be great if it was a good neighbor–applying for permits properly, working to renovate its facade in a manner more in keeping with this place? My hope is that this neighborhood will see more of RA’s effort, and less of The Mansion’s.

[Historic photo courtesy Birmingham Public Library]

We need more of this

Clever marketing

In a clever marketing twist on the recent “Occupy” movement, Occupy Avondale is a contest offering 6 months free rent for the commercial storefront at 200 41st Street South (above), directly across the street from the newly opened Avondale Brewing Company in the central Avondale historic district. [there is an existing loft apartment on the second floor.] A joint project of the brewery and Main Street Birmingham, preference will be given to applicants whose businesses have a food, retail, or arts related basis. Providing more foot traffic to the block is also a plus.

Getting proactive about growing their neighborhood

Kudos to the brewery (above) and Main Street  for putting together this kind of incentive to help continue the momentum in this historic commercial district just east of downtown Birmingham. This City needs creative ways like this to better market real estate that’s well positioned to build on existing synergies. We need to target incentives for businesses in a strategic way, identifying certain neighborhoods (like this one) where the investment can be best leveraged. So Birmingham, put your thinking caps on (preferably while quaffing ABC’s Spring Street Saison Ale) and come up with something fantastic for this space. Deadline is February 15. Cheers.


Re-purposing an old neighborhood

Central Woodlawn — a few minutes’ drive (or future tram ride!) east of downtown Birmingham — is a superb example of urban place: well-scaled commercial storefronts, memorable historic architecture, a mixture of wider and narrower streets, and short blocks. This once-busy retail and business center has lost tenants and foot traffic over the years, but the fabric  largely remains. Main Street Birmingham, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods, has recently renovated a row of one-story storefronts into 55th Place Arts, with low rents targeted to artists (above, on 55th Place North). This city has been too slow to recognize the key role artists can play in urban revitalization; the Phoenix Building downtown (which we developed and designed), with its 74 live-work units of which 60 are subsidized and targeted to artists, is perhaps the only other comparable project in town.

It's all about the fabric

The corner of the project at 55th Place and First Avenue South is seen above, with the entrance to the new City Arts Boutique. Note the fine texture of the buildings along 55th Place, and the easy pedestrian scale of the environment.

Adding color can be literal too

Besides reactivating the street with new businesses and artistic energy, we really appreciate the paint job on the facade, illustrated above. Rather than the standard, conservative browns and grays painted evenly across a surface that you tend to see around town, playful angles and varied tones suit the reconstitution of these storefronts into artist workspace. Kudos to Main Street (and to the Design Review Committee, which today approved new signage and door treatments for the project) for allowing color to be used creatively here. It looks super.

If only the corner had been handled more sensitively

Just down the street (at First Avenue South and 55th Street North), Smiles for Keeps–a dental clinic for children and teens–is building a new facility on a prominent corner site, currently asphalt parking. Above is a rendering (architect: John Holmes), showing the new building with a landscaped area at the corner, and a proposed future building just beyond. A good deal of parking will remain at the rear. Clearly, reclaiming any piece of asphalt parking for a new building is a good thing; on a corner it’s even better. It’s good these buildings have relatively generous storefronts to allow transparency, and that they come to the sidewalk line along 55th Street. What’s less satisfactory is the resolution of the corner itself; while the intent was to mimic the corner entrance at the building currently leased by the clinic around the corner, in this case the “corner entrance” isn’t actually at the corner of the lot. The left-over green space feels just that–left over–and one wishes there were some way to extend the mass of the building out to that corner.

Back on First Avenue North, the corner feels resolved

Above is the historic Woodlawn building currently occupied by the clinic, with that original corner entrance that works seamlessly with the site. Despite this gripe, overall it’s great to see what Main Street Birmingham has been able to encourage in terms of neighborhood investment and even “buzz” about the cool factor represented by the potential in this neighborhood. Working with minimal staff and very tight budgets, this non-profit is on to something here. We wish them, and Woodlawn, much success in the future.

[thanks to John Holmes for the rendering]