Tag Archives: Park Place

Transforming Southtown

Southtown University

The Birmingham Business Journal reports this morning that Southtown Court, a public housing community administered by the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, may be transformed into a mixed-income development pending a Federal grant award (Google Streetview above, taken at University Blvd. and 24th Street looking east, with Southtown on the right and the new Veteran’s Administration parking deck to the left). Built in 1941 as temporary housing for working class families, like other similar developments all across the US it has in later years become considered as permanent housing for low-income people. Southtown in particular, with its proximity to wealthier and well-traveled precincts (UAB, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Highland Park), has long been discussed as needing renovation, or even  repurposing. In the past, HABD has resisted wholesale change; now they are leading the effort.

Park Place

Park Place, pictured above looking west from 26th Street and 7th Avenue North, is an example of HABD working with private developers in the mid-2000’s to totally transform the former Metropolitan Gardens housing community in the heart of the CBD. Credited with aiding perceptions of downtown (reduced crime, improved aesthetics) it was also controversial for its displacement of low-income people who could no longer afford to live in the new development, or for whom there was simply no room (fewer units emerged in the new project compared to the old one). With the disappointingly designed Veteran’s Administration Clinic about to finish construction on University–future post about that one–one can only hope that if a new Southtown emerges, it will be more thoughtfully designed (and include commercial/retail components which sadly Park Place did not).

Southtown SA

With all of the generic “urban developer style” projects going up around downtown, could this site pave the way for yet another one (above project in San Antonio, TX)? As the process unfolds, we’ll explore what needs to happen on the Southtown  site in more detail: with 25 acres in such a visible, high traffic area, the possibilities are pretty endless.

(thanks to Google MapsHABD and San Antonio Business Journal for the images)

School Dazed … and confused

The Lane School--languishing in the shadow of UAB

The News has reported (and editorialized ) the story of UAB offering Birmingham City Schools $3.13 million for the old, former Lane School building at the university campus. The School Board president made a statement that, instead of selling the school, the Board should consider building a new headquarters building there instead (the City School website lists the Lane School as a “surplus property” for sale) .

Rather than discuss politics or the woes of the Birmingham City Schools, this is an opportunity to discuss possible solutions: 1. We have a shrinking urban school system with underused or unused buildings, and 2. the system’s (outdated) headquarters occupies a piece of very prime real estate facing Linn Park at the corner of 20th Street.

What would an enlightened city do?

Let’s start with the current site of the School headquarters on Park Place. This building, never a true architectural gem to begin with, suffers most from a mismatched location. Not only is it a dated, 3-story office building occupying that prime corner site, but the majority of its facade along 20th Street is the mainly blank wall of the parking garage. Hardly a generator of activity on the sidewalk.

There was a plan in 2004 to build a 14-story Westin hotel here, but the Board has rejected this and all subsequent offers to buy this property (in part due to the perceived expense of building a new headquarters). What if the Board agreed to sell the lot to a developer, and in return a dynamic, mixed-use building including space for a new headquarters was constructed? Or, alternatively, a brand-new charter or magnet school, that could signal the system’s determination to turn things around? Or a combination of all of the above?

This idea has a parallel in Lower Manhattan right now. For years, neighborhood residents have been demanding a new school (K-8) but due to high land costs, it never materialized. In return for certain state and local incentives, a developer agreed to build the new school at the base of a 76-story luxury apartment tower (the Beekman, designed by Frank Gehry; under construction). In the picture here, you can see the brick school at the base of the tower:

Beekman School and Tower

(pic via jskrybe)

We are hardly in New York (but hey, like the new Beekman school, did you know the Advent Day School, a block from the Board HQ, has a rooftop playground?); but what if the current Board site was redeveloped into new board offices, an innovative charter school on the park, and private offices or condos/hotel above. And a great restaurant facing the park? What if?

But what about all the other outdated school structures, like the Lane School? These are dotted all over town–where changing demographics have forced school closures and realignments.  Old schools can make some really awesome living units.  When we looked at renovating the Phoenix Building some years ago, and thought about maintaining the best parts of a historic structure, we looked at various school rehabs across the country for inspiration.  Where else can you live in a basketball court? Check out the Union Square Condos in Grand Rapids, MI—a very innovative transformation of an obsolete neighborhood school.

Or closer to home, the old Crogman School in Atlanta was almost razed. Instead, it became reborn as the Crogman School Lofts, an affordable housing and community center that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

Old Schools can be turned into community assets.  Market rate or affordable housing;  art classes and community meeting spaces.

And prime corner lots facing major city parks need innovative, mixed-use approaches to help spur further growth and foot traffic. Here’s hoping the School Board can strategize thoughtfully and carefully about how it could help it’s own bottom line, while helping the communities surrounding its properties.