Tag Archives: Mobile

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]

Sizing it up

What can we learn about Birmingham and its urban core after comparing it to Mobile’s, the third-largest city in the state (but second biggest metro, at about half the size of our 1.2 million)? On a recent trip I was able to get a quick glimpse of downtown Mobile, and observe some interesting things.

Pointing in the right direction

First, wayfinding. Central Birmingham has basically none–and we need it. Bad. For anyone visiting (whether from afar or just the ‘burbs), graphically clear signage which helps you navigate a city is essential. The above is an example of signage found throughout downtown Mobile–simple, to the point, and informative.

Good signage is good place-making

Second, good urban signage. Birmingham–thanks in part to enlightened members of the Design Review Committee, is more likely today to approve well-designed, projecting and/or illuminated signage for businesses in our urban areas. But the process can still feel like a struggle (one sign we designed for a project downtown took over 3 months to work its way through the City Legal Department after DRC approval). To the left you see some excellent signage at the hip Dauphin Street Taqueria ; in downtown Mobile, the city has a financial incentive to encourage owners to upgrade signage and illuminate it. Fantastic incentive, and the nice projecting signs across the core are a testimony to its success.

Third, Mobile’s older street grid means narrower dimensions–so instead of our wide avenues with 5 or 6 traffic, turn, and parking lanes–you get 4, or 3 total lanes which makes for a more pedestrian friendly environment (quicker to cross, and less traffic on the streets). Below is a shot looking towards the Battle House Hotel, Mobile’s smaller version of our old Tutwiler Hotel, demolished in the 1970s for the First Alabama Bank Building. In Mobile–where development pressure downtown was so slight, it makes Birmingham look like an Atlanta–the hotel was just quietly boarded up and remained vacant until the Retirement Systems of Alabama incorporated it into its huge RSA Tower complex completed a few years ago. Because of the RSA’s muscle, downtown Mobile now has 2 4-star Renaissance hotel properties–while Birmingham has no 4 -star properties anywhere close to downtown (though a Westin is planned to break ground shortly).

Narrow streets, restored hotel

Fourth–of interest to those saddened by the demolition of the old Birmingham News building for the creation of….a surface parking lot: in Mobile the local Press-Register donated their old facility to a non-profit called Center for the Living Arts which promotes the arts throughout downtown Mobile. An 8000 SF center for contemporary art is part of the new reuse of this building, seen below:

A better use than surface parking

Yes, we’re thrilled the News built a new facility downtown. It’s just a shame that instead of visualizing a new use for an outdated building like they did in Mobile, they tore it down for a few parking spaces instead. A very, very 1969 solution to a problem.

Which brings us to the train station. In 1969 we tore ours down. Mobile’s still stands, although mostly vacant (they lost their passenger service long ago), and at a disadvantaged location down Water Street (it was a hardy 20-minute walk down a warehouse and gas-station-laden 6-lane highway from the Battle House). If Water Street could be re-envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with mixed-use and a waterfront promenade–then the old station could be a wonderful terminus again.

Any takers?

Mobile’s core is much smaller than Birmingham’s by any measure–fewer office workers, fewer residents, fewer buildings–and the scale is very different. It feels more like a small city than, well, a medium-sized one. This smaller scale is one factor that can make redevelopment easier. Lower Dauphin Street is lined with bars and restaurants and even some retail shops–but all the buildings are mainly one or two stories. Big, complicated, and expensive redevelopments are not necessary on this scale.

However, some basics of adaptive reuse, signage, even public postings of imminent Design Review hearings are all instructive as we work to create a better Birmingham. It’s clear that Mobile has made some real efforts to reinvigorate their center. And, the City is considering adopting SmartCode for their downtown, similar to Montgomery, to help propel development in the right direction. This is something we’d love to see here too.

When in Mobile...

On a last note, I couldn’t help notice that city parking meters downtown allow 15 minutes per quarter–rather than the 60 minutes per quarter in Birmingham. And we have a much, much more congested downtown than Mobile. I believe Birmingham ranks as one of the largest cities with the cheapest on-street parking. This puts more cars on the street, circling for those cheap spaces–rather than considering decks, or walking, or transit. We’ve got to get used to paying more at the meter here.

Next post–Austin, TX! Happy New Year everybody. Here’s to a great 2011 in the ‘ham.