Tag Archives: Railroad Park

Keep the dream alive

Displaced by development

It always seemed a bit too good to be true. Birmingham, which embarassingly for a city its size has no proper central skate park, suddenly got a temporary version right across from Railroad Park in the 1500 block of First Avenue South when Railroad Park opened downtown (above). An almost-forgotten warehouse district was instantly brimming with green and people, and the skate park created a great synergy with its larger neighbor across the street. The balletic activity of the skate park was close enough to be visually compelling, but at just the right distance to not disturb people pic-nicking across the street in the grass. However, the writing was on the wall when the Birmingham Barons baseball team announced its intention to build a new downtown park in the area; the skate park has now been dismantled, awaiting imminent construction of a large baseball park at that location.

A path to success

Enter the A.Skate Foundation, a local non-profit that helps kids with autism through skateboarding. This nationally-recognized group, which holds clinics all over the country, just won a $50,000 grant for design of a new skate park in Birmingham, just a couple months after winning another equal grant for their clinics. This is probably the best opportunity to get an urban skate park built that we’ve had in a while.

Sculptural landscape, urban activity, kids–what’s not to like

Prototypes for the park are illustrated above (real design will start once a location has been selected; the designer is ASD). This is a no-brainer for the City–an opportunity to create a remarkable outdoor space, fulfill a true recreational need, and help kids with autism all at once. Talk about positive publicity. Birmingham should be jumping to identify property in the City Center or immediately adjacent neighborhoods. However, we hear that other metro cities are jumping quicker to assist the potential project. We’d love this park to be somewhere in the metro, period; we think a downtown location is ideal not only for the centrality to all populations, but for creating the best visibility for this very urban sport. We strongly encourage Birmingham to consider this worthy project.

Birmingham, make it happen

For anyone interested in donating to A. Skate’s mission, or who has ideas about possible locations for their new skate park, please contact them here. A skate park is part of any successful city’s urban fabric. Birmingham should be no exception.

[thanks to A.Skate and ASD for the renderings and photos of skate kids]

Play ball (2)

And it's happening

The City’s Design Review Committee conditionally approved demolition of an area just south of Railroad Park to prepare for construction of the new ball park of the Birmingham Barons. The area, pictured above, is four square blocks bounded by First Avenue South (facing the park) and Third Avenue South, and 14th and 16th Streets. The hatched buildings will be taken down; noticeably unhatched is the B&A Warehouse building at the corner of 16th and First Avenue, no longer part of the project.

Conceptual--with the hope of solid urban edges

Brian Wolf of Corporate Realty presented the 2 simple documents–the demo plan and the concept ball park plan, above. The Committee’s main objection was the lack of even schematic drawings illustrating the nature of the street edges of the project. Committee member Cheryl Morgan stated her concern about the importance of the 14th Street corner, and the need for parks to have active, vibrant edges. The rest of the Committee had similar concerns. Mr. Wolf assured the Committee that much time and effort has been put into creating an active street edge, and that he’d come back in January with completed schematics showing this. In the end, given the fast-track schedule and the scale of the project, the vote was to allow only partial demolition to occur, with the remainder waiting until schematics are presented in January. The main concern of this blog has been similar to the Committee’s–having a backside of a ball park fronting a major public park is not good urban planning. That we will get even a small buffer of pedestrian-scaled architecture between sidewalk and ball park is hopeful.

Big improvement

About a year ago we posted on the unfortunate deterioration of an aging strip center in Five Points South at the corner of 19th Street and 11th Avenue South. A massive “Bail Bonds” sign that had gone up without Design Review permission seemed to symbolize the challenges of this historic commercial area’s struggle to rejuvenate. This morning, the above proposal was unanimously passed by the Committee. All existing (and mainly non-conforming) signage will be removed, and a new red sign band created to provide a unified appearance. Needless to say, there was practically cheering in the aisles. (Cohen, Carnaggio, Reynolds are the architects).

More urban amenities = good

Last but not least, the above shows a major renovation of historic structures at the corner of 6th Avenue South and 22nd Street South into a music performance space and lounge, able to hold up to 1000 patrons (design by TRI Architecture and Interior Design). Located within the same block as Workplay, across the street from the Fish Market, and adjacent to the Liv on Fifth lofts, this is a major investment in downtown entertainment. Healthy cities have lots of entertainment options that make urban places attractive to the coveted younger demographic of people in their 20’s and 30’s. We wish Iron City Live Music Hall much success, and hope it inspires additional development in the area.

[thanks to Corporate Realty for the ball park plans; Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds for the Five Points rendering; and TRI for the Iron City Music Hall elevations]

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]

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]