Tag Archives: Railroad Park

Grabbing some inspiration

Looking a bit like the future

Trips to other cities are always inspirational; you can learn firsthand what others are doing to improve public space and to promote good design. First Cambridge, MA, where a huge part of North Cambridge is slated for redevelopment thanks in part to the booming biotech sector cropping up around MIT to the west. Above is the Northpoint development, with recently finished residential midrise buildings facing a park on reclaimed industrial land (designer: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates). While earlier office construction in the area has been criticized for being single-use, with relatively dead streets at night, Northpoint is conceived as a mixed-use neighborhood adjacent to a subway stop and served by bus and bike routes. The feel of the park, and the two buildings constructed thus far, reminded me of Railroad Park here and its own hoped-for future as the center of a mixed-use new neighborhood.

Big thinking

While Northpoint is an example of urban planning on a large scale (model of the proposed full development pictured above), you see results of smaller decisions around Cambridge that also help create a vibrant streetscape. For instance, the city funded the restoration of the sign below in Central Square, deeming it an important part of the urban fabric (the store owner couldn’t afford to do so on his own):

Unique illuminated projecting signs = good

Over in Allston, a Boston neighborhood, Machado and Silvetti have designed new Harvard Graduate Student Housing, a witty reinterpretation of the traditional Harvard Georgian (and neo-Georgian) quad layout. Seen below, Harvard brick is used in a contemporary way, cladding different wings forming a courtyard facing the river. Not too shabby for dorm life.

Provocative architecture bolsters academic reputation

The Institute of Contemporary Art, facing Boston Harbor downtown, is seen in the two shots below. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, its relationship to a (foggy) Boston Harbor is pretty sublime.

Mass and light

Amazing view, even in the fog

Finally, our trusted friend Austin, TX. Treated to a very tasty dinner at Lamberts downtown in the thriving 2nd Street District, below is a pic of the restaurant’s patio facing a downtown street. Charming, casual, and open–the patio’s design captures what Austin itself feels like. Next post–back to Birmingham!

Try the bread pudding

[thanks to iskunk for the Northpoint model pic]

People Power

Now there's a reason to be on Woodward Avenue after 5 PM

Shown above is Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in 2004, this public space has provided a welcome shot in the arm to the beleaguered central city. It’s an example of “placemaking”,  where citizens and stakeholders develop a vision for transforming particular spaces. These spaces in turn can catalyze the surrounding areas, and return a sense of pride and ownership to neighborhoods. Here’s an excellent article about this topic that one of our readers sent in.

The people spoke: take back the streets!

Public input in the design of public spaces has been around for some time. But this newer approach doesn’t use the public as a filter for a preconceived idea, but rather as the primary idea generator. The process can lead to something as simple–yet revolutionary–as reusing part (or all) of a street for pedestrians rather than cars (see Broadway near Times Square in New York City above). It is amazing to be in the middle of New York–where real estate, building costs, and zoning changes are all notoriously expensive and challenging–and enjoy a great public space that’s just asphalt, chairs, and some plantings. No buildings demolished or private property acquired; no expensive design or construction costs. The people wanted to sit in the street and they got it.

Intangible quality

The non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) consults across the world to help developers and cities create great public space, with “placemaking” as a tool. As has been argued here before, every progressive city needs certain things–a modern convention center, good transit, bike lanes, mixed-use zoning, etc. But these items themselves, even when connected through solid holistic planning, don’t necessarily add up to the intangible quality that make a place memorable–drawing attention, businesses, tourists, etc. Court Street in Brooklyn pictured above, with its layers of storefronts, signage, benches, people, and dogs may do as much (or more) for Brooklyn’s image as shiny new condo towers or well-planned bike lanes. PPS helps cities, through people-oriented planning, achieve this quality of place.

It needs to be top-notch, and it needs to avoid the shelf

Which brings us to the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan: the first plan for the City in 50 years that will produce a “policy and strategic framework” that will establish a city-wide vision for the future, how to pursue that vision, and how to get started (full disclosure: your author is on the steering committee for this project). While the initial round of public hearings kicks off Saturday October 22 from 9 AM-1 PM at Birmingham Crossplex, the notion of “placemaking” will most likely be generally, rather than specifically addressed in the Plan. It  will be up to all of us, once the Plan is produced, to insist on great place-making within the individual projects suggested by this Plan.

Civic pride ca. 1971--it didn't last long at this park

Birmingham, like other cities, used top-down approaches to public space for much of its existence. If you have enlightened leaders then this gets you the Olmsted Brothers Park System plan of 1924 (only partially implemented, unfortunately).  Less enlightened leadership and planning departments gave us the redesign of Magnolia (now Brother Bryan) Park, seen above in a 1971 newspaper article. Totally out-of-context A-frame picnic huts, formal reflecting pools, and ugly metal benches were the palette of that era’s City Planning Department. Today these same elements, forlorn and rotting, remain but the public mainly doesn’t care to use this park. What if, instead of the City continuing to spend money annually to keep it up, the park were turned over to a people-powered placemaking process? A vision established, a top designer similar to that used at Railroad Park could be hired to reconstruct this space. The Comprehensive Plan will probably identify Five Points South as a vibrant neighborhood with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness being this park. With the Plan as a roadmap, we can tackle this and other place-making needs around the city by involving good consultants like PPS, and designing from the bottom up, not the top down. Too many good plans have sat on the shelf in this City, from the Olmsted Brothers to the 2004 City Center Master Plan.This time around, actual implementation would be a refreshing change.

The potential for great "place" is here...

A lot of us, despite the challenges and frustrations of the City, have an intuition about the “soul” of Birmingham; the fundamentals of great place-making, we sense, are here. With the right nurturing, we just maybe could turn that long-vaunted “potential” into reality. Hey, if they can ice-skate to Christmas tunes in the middle of Detroit…

[thanks to dig downtown detroit for the Campus Martius pic; Project for Public Spaces for the NYC pics; bhamwiki for the news article; visual2 for the South East Lake neighborhood pic]

Good neighbors

And the times they are a changin'

There have been several recent reports about the one property holder (Bill Mudd) in the proposed multi-block Birmingham Barons’ downtown ballpark site still refusing to sell to the City (see News article about City Council approving the terms of the land agreement). Presumably Mudd, the owner of the B&A Warehouse, which contains an event and catering business under the same name, is hoping for a better deal. The City would prefer not to use eminent domain to acquire the property, but would like to have a coordinated, holistic development of the entire site with no exceptions. Is there a compromise?

As seen in the photo above taken from Railroad Park at First Avenue South, the warehouse in question, while indeed old, does not really contribute to the vitality of the street. This is an illustration of urban change: 5 years ago, when it faced a weedy lot and there were no other nighttime/public uses around it, it felt like a pioneer breathing some life into the area. Now that a large public park has opened in place of the weedy lot, and more public amentities are being planned, the building is not measuring up to its locale. Iron bars hide the few windows facing the park; a loading door and large ramp flank the entrance. The events that take place are private, catered affairs–not open to the general public–and thus are not ideal for a business fronting a public park.

One solution is for the City to agree to let B&A stay, but with a renovation, where a street-side cafe (that could also serve the ballpark) is carved out of the park front, with new plate glass offering transparency and openness.  The renovation would engage the building with the street, the park, and the ballpark. Perhaps the Negro Leagues museum proposed could be built into/above a portion of the warehouse.

Another solution, if B&A was not interested in the above, would be for it to relocate into one of a myriad of similar old warehouses this City is blessed with. There is no intrinsic or unique value to the building they have now, and B&A has proven that people will come to visit regardless of whether their location is edgy or facing a fashionable park.

Hopefully both parties will reach an agreement, with the overall good of the new neighborhood at heart.

Home run?

Getting closer

The Birmingham News ran a story yesterday which pinpoints the proposed location of the new Barons Ballpark (see News graphic above). The facility itself would be entered from 14th Street or a 15th Street Plaza, with stands arranged on the SW corner of the site facing the downtown skyline. The outfield faces Railroad Park from across First Avenue South. Ancillary structures (assumedly patron and team amenities/facilities) and a Negro League Museum flank the ballpark along First Avenue; “future developments”, i.e. related private investments, are shown on property to the south.

It is rare to see a ballpark facing another public park like this. The reason is that typically a City will use a park like Railroad Park to encourage private investments in the immediate area; that same City will use a baseball park in a similar way. By putting the outfield right up against First Avenue, the City in effect gives up the ability to market each public frontage to private development.

From serving loading docks to serving urban consumers

Knowing how hard it’s been to assemble property (and two owners are still holding out at either corner of First Avenue), this siting may not have had much flexibility. If indeed the ballpark ends up as shown in the graphic, it’s essential that the design handles the outfield edge creatively, so that it animates that frontage even when the ballpark is dark and empty. Additionally, it would be wonderful if some of the old warehouses and alleyways in the adjacent “Parkside” district could be retained and rejuvenated (the Alley off Tallapoosa Street in downtown Montgomery, pictured above, is a direct result of private investment around their riverfront ballpark). A combination of historic restoration and new construction would be a great mix for the new district (which we also hope will have sharp, creative district branding–see our previous post on this).

It worked in Memphis

The downtown ballpark built in Memphis 8 years ago (above) has rejuvenated an 8-block area; once desolate and boarded up, it now sports restaurants, bars, and apartments. As this project develops in Birmingham, we’ll continue to advocate for the best possible architectural and urban design.  Because we want this project not just to compete with Montgomery or Memphis. We want it to be better. And to exude that quirky, undefinable quality that is the Magic City.

[thanks to the News for the graphic; larry miller for the Alley pic; dragonmistral for the Autozone pic]


Delivering the message (2)

Banker, meet skater

In a happy note before kicking off the weekend, I opened up the Regions Social Responsibility Report 2010–just off the presses–and flipped it open to the above photo of a happy Regions Bank executive observing the balletic feats of a skater. Kudos to Regions for their help funding Railroad Park, and for deciding to frame this particular shot–a metaphor for different segments of our community coming together for the common good.

You can read the entry about Birmingham in the report here, and download the entire report here.

Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a Regions Skate Park in our future? Bankers and skaters across the metro, have a great weekend.

[Thanks to Regions Bank for the pic]

Delivering the message

Of which urban pleasure shall I partake today?

Branding and signage are essential aspects of any successful urban environment. The above painting by Jean Beraud, 1882 shows one of the famous Paris kiosks which not only provided advertising space in a newly urbane and consumer society, but provided a strong Parisian brand: when you see this kiosk, you think “Paris street.” Birmingham has not done a good job branding itself–a pity since there are talented graphic designers here, and places worth branding. Reflecting the fact that the city as a whole has struggled with how to project its own image, we are often disappointed by the lack of good, local public-sphere branding around here.  This past couple weeks have brought a few examples to the fore.


First, a couple items that were denied at Design Review Committee last week. The above is a proposed 15 x 20 foot banner (that’s big) to be located on the alley elevation of John’s City Diner on Richard Arrington Blvd. North, advertising the services of City Action Partnership, or CAP. This great organization provides supplemental security and motorist assistance to downtowners–and has certainly been instrumental in making the downtown core one of the safest neighborhoods in the metro. Advantage Marketing presented this design to advertise CAP–but it was sent back to the drawing board for being too incoherent for the average person to understand. The image is confusing; the “Big Wheels” seems to be advertising something else altogether; the font sizes aren’t balanced, etc. CAP does too great a public service; it deserves better design to communicate their mission. And the public deserves something much better to look at.

Begging for identity

Next up in the denial section was the above–a proposed new illuminated sign at the corner pier of Two North Twentieth, the former Bank for Savings Building at the corner of Morris Avenue and 20th St. North. This iconic building from 1962 is the City’s most prominent example of International Style architecture, following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking Lever House on Park Avenue in New York (1952), and a decade of countless copies across the nation (and world). It has never had any signage identifying the building  near ground level (many know it from it’s giant, illuminated advertising marquee on the roof). Not only is the proposed signage uninspired, but it doesn’t even match the building’s logo (itself a tepid, uninspired moniker): “20th” is not spelled out like “Twentieth” which is the actual name. The committee sent this one back to the drawing board too. I hope that a cool, illuminated, and creative solution that works with the rhythm of the concrete panels on the second floor can be devised. This building and this corner need good signage, not haphazard non-design.

Huh? Again

A different kind of mismatch is found at the approach to Railroad Park, where recently banners announcing the Five Points South neighborhood went up. Yes, the Five Points neighborhood stretches all the way north to the railroad tracks. But as a tourist destination and mental construct, Five Points is the area directly around Five Points Circle. It is confusing to say the least, to see these banners when one leaves the new Railroad Park–whose immediate neighborhood has already been envisioned as a distinct entity for redevelopment and marketing purposes (tentatively called Parkside). Showing these banners a dozen blocks away from Five Points Circle is not the right way to go. We should be developing a final name and logo for Parkside (contest, anyone?) and putting those banners up. They can even say in smaller print “part of the greater Five Points Neighborhood” if necessary. Of all areas, this location needs more focused branding, not territorial marking. The money for Five Points banners should be spent on kiosks or other needed items near the Circle itself.

[Sidebar: right across the railroad tracks the Fountain Heights neighborhood extends all the way from the bungalows north of downtown south to the edge of Railroad Park. But does anyone really consider, besides City committees and attorneys, McWane Center to be part of Fountain Heights? Of course not, it’s in central downtown and desperately needs its own sub-neighborhood brand.]

Please, please, I'm desperate for proper branding

Which brings us to our last comment: just like the new neighborhood around Railroad Park that deserves its own brand, other parts of central downtown are long overdue for the same. Other cities large and small–from Portland to Austin to little ol’ Mobile–have branded neighborhoods downtown to great effect: banners and publications use the logos, people say “I’m headed down to —” or “great new lofts are opening in —“. Here all we get is a vague “downtown” or “loft district”–fairly indistinct terms. Just look at what passes for branding in the so-called “loft district” above–signs put up perhaps in the early 1990’s which, in a classic branding nightmare, state “Historic District” with the words “Arts” “Business” and Lofts” interchangeably used on different faces. Which Historic District? Business??? Really? These terms are meaningless. The 2nd Avenue sub-district needs boundaries, a logo, and a name. Downtown should be sectioned off so that lofts east and north of Morris are in NoMo; those west of 20th are in West Central, etc. I am just making up these names–branding experts do this sort of thing much better and all the time. We need to make it happen soon.

Whether neighborhood or building signage, this City needs to demand better branding. It’s one of those things that you take for granted until you see how much sharper it can be in travels to different cities. We have the local talent. There are great examples around of their work. We just need much more. Employ them!

Stay tuned for a post on some of the great public-sphere signage that we do have around here.

[thanks to mbell1975 for the Paris kiosk pic]

Full-line yogurt northside. Finally

When a young girl's fancy turns to yogurt

We’d given a teaser in an earlier post about a new place coming downtown; we’d graciously allowed the News to, well, scoop the story here. We can now give you a progress report: Paramount, a new eatery with full-line yogurt options and other items, is underway and expects to be open a bit later this year, according to owners Angie and Kent Ingram. While others are handling the interior renovation, we’ve designed the exterior renovation of the former Parisian building, a rendering of which is above and an elevation of which is below:

Working on it

The illuminated “Paramount” sign is an homage to the original Parisian sign that some may remember existed on this building, as seen below ca. 1950:

Now that's some window shopping

Besides Paramount (named for a candy store which was originally part of the late 1930’s art-moderne renovation of this very old building), there is an additional storefront for lease just to the north along 20th St.

So get ready for another downtown option (or two!) real soon. We hope exterior work will commence soon as well.

Final Note: Congrats to Railroad Park for winning the People’s Choice First Prize for best new park in the USA in Daily Green‘s online contest. Fantastic national publicity for our city and our favorite new public space. Keep it coming.

[thanks to Birmingham Rewound for the Parisian pic]

Mapping the future (2)

How green grows my city

In the last post we celebrated the birthday of the Randel map that introduced the modern street grid to Manhattan. That initial map didn’t include Central Park; it was some time later that city leaders realized the potential of a vast new park and ordered Olmsted and Vaux to design it.

Likewise, in Birmingham there was no large central park designed in the initial grid of the city; only smaller parks (such as Linn Park). Large amounts of land were set aside at the railroad tracks as a “Railroad Reservation” for industrial use. Part of that Reservation is now Railroad Park, which is vying for the title of Best New Park for 2011 in the Daily Green‘s online Heart of Green awards: vote for it here.

We are up against some pretty big competitors, including the fantastic (and about to expand) High Line in New York City, so spread the word about this vote! Go parks!

A tale of two lots

It has been over a year since the Barber Companies (the successor to the Elyton Land Company which platted and developed the initial city of Birmingham, and a significant landowner across the City) offered “free land” downtown to the most qualified applicant. Why is this land still on offer? And how does this offer compare to the Community Foundation‘s recently announced “Next Big Thing“, an idea competition for the vacant lot due east of the Railroad Park?

A loss

When the Barber Companies offered their 40′ x 100′ lot in the 200 block of Richard Arrington Blvd. North for “free” to the user of their choice (you can see their selection rules here), what was seldom mentioned was that just months before their announcement, Barber quietly tore down a lovely, Moderne-style building (itself a successor to the old Lunsford Hotel and Birmingham Medical College, the predecessor to UAB) pictured above in a Google Map screenshot from 2008. In my opinion, this handsome structure, clad in stone with storefront windows, had no reason to come down except Barber wasn’t interested in maintaining the older building (note: Barber’s historic downtown headquarters was vacated earlier last decade and moved out to Inverness, in an office park past I-459).

The now empty lot is engulfed by a surface parking lot–hardly an attractive neighbor, even less so since the parking does not come with the lot. The cost of building a new structure on a very small plot like this downtown is considerable, no matter how you structure it; I would imagine more viable businesses would be considering this “free” offer if the building were still there. Starting from scratch can be fresh and exciting–but harder to visualize and to pay for. Was this really an act of altruism, or a public relations stunt to detract attention from the loss of another historic building (Barber is not exactly known for historic preservation interests–beleaguered or demolished structures are common across Barber’s vast Birmingham holdings).

Any ideas?

In contrast, the parking lot across from Railroad Park is a very different situation (a portion of the property is visible on the lower right of the photo above). The City owns this lot; the Community Foundation and City have organized an international idea competition (The Next Big Thing) to determine its use. No historic building was torn down here, at least not recently; and rather than expecting the winner to also develop/finance the winning proposal, the $50,000 prize money is awarded for the idea, only. Then, the Foundation’s new Catalyst Funds will commit at least $1 million of seed money towards implementing the plan (presumably by others, whether private or public, depending on the idea). Here’s a thoughtfully laid out contest, with lots of energy and excitement, that feels natural coming so soon after the great success of Railroad Park’s opening. It feels well-considered and thoroughly planned, in stark contrast to the somewhat bizarre Barber offer a few blocks north.

If only I felt less cynical about the Barber offer. Now that the beautiful old building is torn down, our hope should be that someone can overcome the challenges of the small site and constrained location, and construct a great piece of infill architecture with an engaging street presence. Because there’s little worse than a vacant lot sitting next to a big, unlandscaped parking lot. Which can feel worse than vacant sometimes…

P.S. Spread the word about Birmingham’s Next Big Thing contest–and enter an idea yourself!


Demise of the corner drugstore

Not anymore at a corner near you

Chalk it up to the ubiquity of national chains such as Walgreen’s and CVS; to the low prices and convenience of in-store pharmacies at Walmart or Publix; to the poor economy; or to causes less obvious and more mysterious. Whatever the cause, or combination of causes, MedTown Pharmacy closed its doors this week. As the sole surviving full-service drugstore on the northside of downtown (within the 200 block of 20th Street North), this comes as a blow to not only the daytime business population in the CBD, but to the many downtown residents (including this author) who chose MedTown as their drugstore of choice. MedTown joins the ranks of other downtown drugstores (such as Dewberry’s, at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and Richard Arrington Blvd., pictured above in 1939) which have closed over the last couple decades. As recently as 1998, there were still 4 independent drugstores operating within a few blocks of MedTown (itself formerly a Big B Drugstore). Now there are none.

Another blow for 20th Street

The closing of MedTown is sadly in sync with the generally haggard feeling of Birmingham’s “Main Street”. Despite some bright spots–Trattoria Centrale, Brick & Tin, Cafe Dupont, the private residence designed by Appleseed Workshop–recent years have seen the shuttering of the old First Alabama Bank building (and the failure of the proposed Marriott Renaissance Hotel there); the departure of SouthTrust/Wachovia from their 2nd Avenue Branch, leaving an entire half-block of empty buildings; thwarted redevelopments of both the Empire and Brown-Marx buildings; and of course the very, very tired and dated “Birmingham Green” of 1970’s era plantings, concrete benches, and low concrete walls that’s in desperate need of renovation.

Sign of the times?

It seems emblematic of Birmingham, in a way, that our “Main Street”, symbolic center of town, has been allowed to become so frayed. Other areas of downtown are brimming with promise and interest–but the energy dissipates where it instead should be united in full force on 20th. An encouraging sign: I heard members of the Mayor’s staff and the Horticulture department walked 20th Street last week discussing how to overhaul the landscaping to bring it in line with more modern, sophisticated efforts such as Railroad Park and the proposed streetscapes around the Pizitz project. And just seeing the crowds spill out of Trattoria for lunch, dinner, or brunch–no matter how desolate the immediate surroundings–also gives hope. Hope that other entrepreneurs will take initiative to renovate buildings and bring new businesses; hope that the Mayor will continue to search for ways to improve the City; hope that other nearby developments will exert pressure on 20th Street to revive.

Of course, some of us also hope that a drugstore will open up in the neighborhood again, and soon.