Tag Archives: mixed-use

Sharpening the edge (2)

Transit as a positive image for the street

A reader alerted us to an interesting streetscape project, on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland, OH. This east-west spine is roughly similar to 20th Street in downtown Birmingham, in the sense that it connects the Central Business District at one end to a university (Cleveland State) district at the other end, before it continues into the eastern suburbs. A new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line (stop and dedicated lane pictured above on Euclid Avenue in the CBD) has been built as part of street improvements planned to better link the east and west sides of Cleveland’s downtown. This is similar in concept to a proposal prepared by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, whose In-Town Transit Partnership study envisioned BRT serving as a catalyst to downtown development and knitting together the north and south sides of the central city. It’s worth looking at just to drool over the highly inspirational video created as part of the study.

University edge gets urban

Opened for about 3-1/2 years, the $200 million transit redevelopment has ushered in over $3 billion in new/proposed redevelopment, including the University Lofts project shown above, a combination of restored historic buildings and new infill along Euclid adjacent to Cleveland State campus (architect: City Architecture).  The infill building is second from the left: restrained in tone and detailing, with proportions that align to its neighbors. This is a great example of how a well-done transit project, and urbane mixed-use development that accompanies it, can result in a vibrant edge for an urban campus.

Transit used to be part of the fabric

Above is 20th Street at Five Points South in the 1920’s–with prominent streetcar lines connecting the district to the north side. A potentially thriving edge of UAB‘s campus, it would benefit tremendously from better transit connections, and from university and private mixed-use development that adheres to solid tenets of urban design. Cleveland, and Cleveland State, seem to have gotten it right; let’s learn from their example!

[thanks to fitchdnld for the Euclid Avenue CBD pic; city architecture for the Euclid Avenue campus stop pic; photonut2 for the Five Points pic)

Sharpening the edge

Building a case for more amenities

Week before last, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees declined to include on their meeting agenda UAB‘s proposal for a new on-campus football stadium (shown schematically above at the corner of  13th Street and 6th Avenue South). It seems that despite a seemingly conservative business plan put forward by UAB, and good community support (all luxury skyboxes were rented for 5 years), the stadium, for the moment, won’t be built. While I personally hope the BOT will reconsider and move forward with the stadium, this is a good time to have a brief look at the UAB Master Plan, of which the stadium is a part.

The footprint says it all--big impact

UAB is the largest employer not just in Birmingham, but in the state; it’s impact is immense. All those employees, faculty, and students (as well as the health system complex) are on a Southside campus not much more than 40 years old. The recent Master Plan update (prepared by KPS Group, above)–which is part of a broader UAB strategic plan–shows proposed new construction and green space. The full master plan document states the following as a primary goal: “Encourage Midtown and Five Points town/gown mixed use development and foster interconnection of the campus with these areas.” My guess is this is the first time such a definitive statement has been officially included in a UAB master plan. The timing could not be better.

Critical mass, needs more permeability

Above is 19th Street looking north from 9th Avenue South. Historically, many UAB campus buildings have been impressive in terms of bulk, but are missing key links to the street; in place of welcoming entrances and transparencies, one often sees solid brick walls or immense mechanical vents. Or parking decks with no ground floor retail or contextual facades. The current administration, in part through the master plan, is making an effort to correct these issues by encouraging the “interconnection of the campus” with the surrounding neighborhoods. Rather than only considering buildings as discreet elements, serving  occupants and internal functions, UAB is committed to ensuring its buildings and green spaces tie into pedestrian/bike corridors, relate to existing/proposed neighborhood context, and otherwise weave into the surrounding city. The university’s plan is more extroverted than in the past, a needed quality given the nearby proposed private development around Railroad Park, in Midtown, and in Five Points. That edge–where campus buildings meet public streets and adjacent neighborhoods–is one of the keys to the plan’s success.

Mixed use for happy students

Several universities have taken on the “edge” of their urban campus in innovative ways. One example is Ohio State University (main campus at Columbus), which built the Campus Gateway project several years ago (above). This is a mixed-use complex where parking lots and other underused land at the fringe of campus were reformulated into a 4-block, mid-rise node including housing, office space, retail, restaurants, and a cinema. Extensive time was spent with many parties–from students, to employees, to neighborhood residents–before coming up with the desired mix, density, etc. The result? A rejuvenated neighborhood north of downtown Columbus (existing, adjacent historic commercial structures have also been renovated), a happier university community with dining and entertainment options right next to campus, and an improvement in the “town-gown” relations of Ohio State. In other words, a win-win for everyone. [note that Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm, was hired by Ohio State to design the Gateway project. This is the same firm leading the current Comprehensive Plan for the City of Birmingham].

Despite the football stadium’s current woes, there is much that UAB’s master plan could do to strengthen the existing Five Points commercial district and foster new growth in Midtown and at Railroad Park. With the right amount of smart thinking and strategic implementation, the university can create exciting urban places that improve life on campus–and in the City.

[thanks to intellidryad for the 19th Street pic; ifmuth for the Gateway pic]

It takes a village

A pioneering twist on the past

Today we’re travelling over the mountain to one of the metro’s most interesting assets: Mountain Brook Village. Designed in 1929 to complement the new Mountain Brook Estates residential section, it was (like the rest of the new neighborhood) modeled after traditional English architecture and landscape, to convey an aura of timeless, old-moneyed, leisure-class privilege. Of course, such design is also just plain pretty to look at. Unfortunately, the Depression killed most of the planned development both residentially and commercially, and the Village we know today is part 1920’s English Tudor, part 1940’s commercial storefronts, part 1950’s shopping center, and part neo-Tudor from the 1980’s and beyond (thanks to Dystopos for the pic above of one of the original buildings).

The Village has had its ups and downs (I highly recommend the Birmingham Historical Society‘s recent publication Mountain Brook Then & Now for learning more). When Bromberg’s jeweler became the first major downtown retailer to open a suburban branch in 1959, they chose the Village. This opened the floodgates, and soon the Village was home to branches of numerous downtown retailers, along with neighborhood shops. However, this trend soon turned against the Village, as new shopping malls were built; Brookwood Mall, less than a mile away, poached many stores. In recent years, despite some success stories,  the Village continues to not live up to its potential and is struggling with some empty storefronts and under-producing spaces.

Controversial expansion

Enter the proposal for Lane Parke, a preliminary rendering of which is shown here (courtesy Birmingham News). The developer originally built the Mountain Brook Shopping Center in the 1950s, as well as the Park Lane Apartments. Considered part of the Village, these properties lie a block from the historic core. Under the proposal these are replaced with a new, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development with housing, shops, boutique hotel, parking garage, and retail.

Just as cities must be open to new ideas (and newcomers) in order to survive, so do commercial centers like the Village. Mountain Brook Village is filled with charm–why not take the architecturally undistinguished post-war apartments and shopping center, and extend the charm into a vibrant new development that’s dense, friendlier to pedestrians, and helps create the type of “buzz” that would attract retailers, restaurants, and residents to enliven the streets at night?

Modern was fine in 1955

The black and white shot here illustrates the original shopping center in 1955 (courtesy Birmingham Historical Society), which has since suffered a dismal renovation. The auto-oriented strip mall would be replaced with multi-story buildings in a “traditional” style of architecture, with streets, sidewalks, and hidden parking garages.

The development plan has spurred a lot of local protest, and the zoning change necessary to implement the plan has been put on hold while the designers retool their plan.  A lot of the opposition comes from residents who do not want the Village to either expand or change in character. A group called Friends of  Mountain Brook Village has helped mobilize the protest. In essence, the group argues that the Village is indeed in need of rejuvenation, but the proposed development is too big, too tall, too dense, and too out-of-keeping with the existing historic Village.

In my view, there must be a compromise. Not only does Mountain Brook need new tax revenue and new energy in the village, but the strip mall–and Lane Park apartments behind it–offer very little to the Village in terms of ambience, architectural beauty, or attraction to retailers. They should be redeveloped. And a mix of residences, hotel, and shops–if done properly–could be a natural extension to the original plan for the Village. This extension could in turn breathe new life into the older core of the Village. Looking at downtown Homewood, another older suburban center a few minutes’ bike-ride from the Village,  SoHo Square serves as an interesting precedent. Unlike the Village, downtown Homewood is not known for landmark historic structures, but the new, mixed-use development of city hall, condos, retail, and restaurants is still a huge change to the urban fabric. Its scale (especially City Hall and its plaza) often seems a little arbitrary; its retail mix has been, well, a mixed bag; its design intent hurt by downgraded materials and details. On the other hand, its creation has made downtown Homewood a destination in a way it never was, and the original core seems to have thrived adjacent to the new development. This example shows us the positive side of this type of development, while also showing there’s room for improvement. And room for very thoughtful planning.

Mixed-use in Dallas is OK

The Village was one of the nation’s first planned suburban shopping districts–similar to Highland Park Village in Dallas, built at the same time (and unlike Mountain Brook, completely finished out, Depression not withstanding).  Rather than English Tudor, it’s designed in a Spanish Revival style. It has a lively mix of shops, restaurants, local and national boutiques, and a movie theater. It is incredibly successful, demanding rental rates higher than just about anywhere in North Texas. Two advantages: 1. it was completely built out to begin with, so no strip malls were shoehorned in the 1950’s, and 2. it is owned and managed by a single entity (similar to a shopping mall), which allows for coordinated marketing, retail strategies, etc. etc. (thanks to Ray Rafidi for the picture of the beautiful Highland Park Village Theatre).

This city–and I mean metro Birmingham–is excellent at opposing things. It’s much worse at promoting good plans and implementing them. I have no doubt that, done right, an extension to Mountain Brook Village could be a plus for all involved. A parking lot, strip mall, and undistinguished low-density apartments are worth re-visioning. Yes, the developers should be sensitive to the historic core, traffic, and architectural integrity. We don’t want some generic district that could be anywhere. But don’t oppose progress just for the sake of opposing it either–because in the end, even a village dies if it doesn’t adapt itself to change.

One last thought–lurking beneath the surface of any discussion of the new development is the fantasy that, if we extend the Village, we should extend it in the original English Tudor style. Unfortunately the cost of replicating the details that craftsmen assembled in the 1920’s would be astronomical on such a scale, unless perhaps we lived in China. How do we design an extension that complements the original without replicating it? It’s always a tough question.

Discuss amongst yourselves. And then post your thoughts!

Mind the Gap (1)

How many crumbling historic (and gorgeous) buildings do we have to tear down, how many dilapidated Arts and Crafts style bungalows or shotgun houses have to be razed, or how many weedy lots do we have to witness before we do something? We have got to stop wasting the opportunities we have right in front of us before we sprawl our city all the way to Clanton

Why do we have so many gaps in our urban fabric…parking lots where buildings used to be, empty lots in our historic residential neighborhoods, historic houses abandoned or burned down?

There are many reasons, but the result is all about density — or lack of it. If you’re concerned about transit, or grocery stores, or dog parks, or walkable blocks, start thinking about density. Density provides the riders for bus routes or rail, the shoppers for the store, the canines for the park, or the consumers for restaurants, late-night coffee shops, and skate shops–which of course means pedestrian traffic and active storefronts which make a block walkable.

In a city like Birmingham, which used to be denser and more populated, we had, according to the 2000 US Census, 242, 820 residents and a density of 1619 people/square mile. Compare this to the 1950 census, when we had 326,037 residents and a density of 4,993 people/square mile. And our population is estimated to be a good deal less in 2010–closing in on 200,000 residents. [We are talking city limits of Birmingham here, not the metro area, which of course is considerably larger, much more populous, and also even less dense than the city proper].

Then take an older city like Providence, RI: in 1950 it had 248,674 residents and a density of more than twice Birmingham’s at 13,892 persons/square mile. By 2000 it’s population was down to 173,618 but it’s density was still considerable at almost six times Birmingham’s: 9,401/square mile.

Unlike some other cities which have deliberate density initiatives, we have been watching passively as people leave the city without enough new residents to replace them; new land is not annexed for dense development but for sprawling shopping centers; and of course gentrification occurs in certain older, desirable neighborhoods (such as Highland Park and Forest Park), where formerly subdivided residences are renovated back to single-family houses, new zoning laws prevent apartment buildings from easily being constructed, etc.

Abandonment in Detroit courtesy of desertchick.

The extreme end of this spiral is a situation like Detroit, where the mayor in late 2009 gave a startling admonition to his city: instead of pretending to still be the city of 2 million as designed, it should instead “focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be.” (New York Times, Sept. 25, 2009).  His practical argument: the city is wasting tax dollars, man power, and energy by cleaning, policing, fire-preventing, and generally maintaining city streets where a large number of houses are mainly abandoned. People have a hard time imagining being forced from their own neighborhoods to live in denser cores, with the old, underused neighborhoods being turned into green space–but this, in effect, is what the mayor suggested.

OK. We aren’t quite there yet, but unless we institute policies to combat the trend, we may get there. Already we have a strained police force and fire force whose jobs are much more difficult due to the spotty inhabitation of certain neighborhoods. It’s all inefficient in so many ways.
Lacking any density initiatives locally (see Vancouver’s density charter as an example), developers have been creating their own density mainly as a perception of market demand. A few years ago we designed the Southside Townhouses as an urban infill project right off Highland Avenue.
Southside Townhouses–possibly the only 5-story rowhouses in Ala.!

They are in an eclectic neighborhood at an intersection surrounded by buildings of many styles and types–historic old apartment buildings, a large mid-rise modern apartment block, and some new and old houses. There are many neighborhood activists who objected to the multi-family project, as well as the appearance, so I would describe the project as locally controversial, but in the end I stand by its scale, its materials, the way it addresses a very multi-layered intersection, and of course its replacement of a vacant lot with some density.
Another controversial project was later constructed just up the street, when the former Otto Marx mansion was torn down to make way for 2600 Highland, a condo tower. While bringing new residential density to its site, the loss of the historic house was painful to many. Thanks to dystopos for the shots below of the old mansion about to disappear, and a rather poignant shot of an older woman scrutinizing the marketing billboard for the new tower:
An example of new density that has thus far avoided the controversy of our own project and 2600 Highland is the CityVille Project put together byCorporate Realty: A half-block replacement of 1- and 2- story commercial and parking lots with a mid-rise, mixed-use development with apartments above and shops and restaurants below, with a parking deck buried in mid-project. Here’s a recent pic from the Cityville website showing the current state of construction:
We have big problems in this city with sprawl, and all the negative social, economic, and aesthetic issues that come with it. Re-densifying neighborhoods is one way to start solving these issues. And the denser a neighborhood, the more activity and amenities it supports, which in turn draws more people to enjoy these things, and we reverse the cycle that we’ve been in for decades here. And it can start with building a small, affordable, cool house on an empty lot in Norwood or College Hills. Or, bringing more housing to suburban centers such as downtown Homewood or Mountain Brook Village.
Coming soon…more infill inspirations from around town and around the country.