Tag Archives: Second Avenue North

Excellent Opportunity

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In the heart of Birmingham’s Theater District, the Jefferson Home Furniture property is for sale (previously Joiner and Cain Furniture). Above is a photo from the 1940’s showing the larger concrete frame building in the center on Second Avenue North between 17th and 18th Streets; the smaller wood frame building to the far right is also included. Directly to the west is the Phoenix Building, a popular 74-loft development (the old Jefferson Theatre in the photo was demolished soon after this picture was taken and replaced with the expanded Phoenix Building). Within a half block are the Pizitz and Thomas Jefferson Tower mixed-use projects currently under construction. A Zyp bike station is directly across Second Avenue;  Railroad Park and the booming Parkside District are 3 blocks south. The Alabama, Lyric, and Carver Theatres are all within a couple minutes’ walk.

Both Federal and State historic tax credits have been substantially approved for converting this property. Please contact Southpace Properties here for more info on this opportunity!

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Engaging that edge

Walk on by

We have often discussed how streets are our cities’ most important public spaces, and the crucial role that the building “edge” plays in defining the street as a space. Even in a city like New York, known for its finely detailed and variated storefronts, one occasionally comes across the exception: above is the AT&T switching tower (21 stories, 10th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, completed 1964) whose facade is a windowless box clad in brick and stone. While its abstract geometry at times seems a worthy foil to the more humanly scaled buildings around it, nonetheless it fails at the ground level, where pedestrians are greeted with a blank wall.

19th century, meet 21st century

Needless to say, a telephone switching center (with its floors largely occupied by temperature-sensitive machinery and technology, not people) is always a tricky design within an urban context. Another typology that’s often challenging is the academic building: balancing needs for security and controlled teaching environments with community engagement can be difficult. At the Cooper Union‘s new building on Cooper Square and East 7th Street (above; architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis, 2009), the ground floor contains exhibition gallery space and retail uses along the sidewalk, to engage the public with the building. Likewise, the upper portions of the building skin reveal the interior through different levels of transparency. Initially controversial to the surrounding neighborhood, this project in the end manages to embody the college’s elevated aspirations for the future, while still being permeable and engaging.

Summer oasis

A few blocks south, an NYU building has renovated its formerly forlorn plaza setback into a landscaped court filled with benches and low walls for sitting (above, Mercer Street looking north to West 4th Street). This modest intervention creates a mixing zone where the public and academe come together.

Cinematic vision

Once Birmingham finally gets the indie cinema it deserves, it needs a bar/cafe similar to that found at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (view from the bar out to West 65th Street, above; the Juilliard School is across the street).  Views out to the street, and from the street into the cafe, illustrate the power of an engaging street edge.

Once again, art comes out on top

Back on 2nd Avenue North in Birmingham, the small storefront of Beta Pictoris gallery (above, between 25th and 24th Streets) is an excellent example of how well-lit, engaging storefronts can energize the public realm of the street. Better storefronts lead to better foot traffic. And better foot traffic means more business. Which leads to more storefronts. To keep urban momentum going, you’ve got to maintain that edge.

Delivering the message (2)

At long last

At today’s Design Review Committee meeting, unanimous approval was given to a new branding concept for the “micro-neighborhood” of Second Avenue North between 25th Street and Richard Arrington Blvd (logo above, designed by Shannon Harris of Big Communications). After writing in this blog about the lack of good neighborhood branding in this City last year, your author teamed up with a group of local 2nd Avenue merchants, residents, and supporters to put together a plan for branding this burgeoning urban place. After much work, and neighborhood presentations to garner support, we now have a plan. And it’s exciting for several reasons.

Now I know where I am

First, good branding will reinforce this place’s identity for residents, merchants, and visitors. Easy-to-spot banner signage (above) coupled with a website (coming soon!), brochures, and other items will make 2nd Avenue simpler to find, navigate–and market to prospective new users. Awareness is raised, and visibility heightened.

That most urban of street furnishings

Second, it introduces fresh design to the public realm. Certain items in the public right-of-way (like benches in the lovely 2nd Avenue “butternut” hue, above) help cohere the street and extend the brand. Final locations will be determined–there will be enough for consistency, but not so much to overwhelm the eclectic, natural power of the street.

We need ’em

Third, we love bikes. Bike racks (above) identify the street (and by extension the greater neighborhood) as bike-friendly. Currently in front of Urban Standard alone, the one bike rack is often double-loaded, with others tied to whatever other pole may be available. Our bikes deserve more respect.

Most importantly, we hope this small 4-block effort will serve as a catalyst for a comprehensive branding program endorsed by the City. Nothing would be better than for 2nd Avenue to link logically with other branded neighborhoods. It’s high time we all agree that the current legal neighborhood structure–while important politically–is very different from the reality of how urban places emerge and develop (and often cross over legal boundaries). Most every other city has realized this distinction between political geography and the more complex fabric of urban places.

This is currently a total volunteer effort (graciously assisted by Operation New Birmingham). The next step is to raise funds (through donations, grants, and other sources) to determine the total scope of Phase One. More information will be coming soon. Until then, get ready 2nd Avenue: you’ve only seen the beginning.

 

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]

Safety and the Public Realm

It could be prevented

Two common elements that contribute to safety on urban streets: on-street parking, and 2-way traffic. Both serve as natural calming elements by increasing driver’s alertness and decreasing traffic speeds.

Unfortunately many of our city streets are still relics of traffic engineering theories from 50 years ago, when certain streets became one-way, while others had on-street parking removed to create more traffic lanes. An example is the intersection directly outside our office–24th Street North and 2nd Avenue (this morning, above), where almost monthly there is an accident involving some combination of cars racing too quickly down 2nd (one-way) and running lights on 24th (no parallel spaces). Both streets were altered long ago by traffic engineers as corridors for moving auto traffic across downtown–with no regard for pedestrian life, merchant visibility, quality of place, etc.

How many more accidents and injuries must we witness before we change the configuration of these outdated street designs?

It’s that time….

The beginning of a new era

…of year when we wish everyone a great holiday. We’ll be back in January.

The last shot of 2011 is actually from 1963–Second Avenue North looking east from 19th Street (above). 1963 was a transitional year for Birmingham: downtown merchants were feeling pressure from suburban competitors (Eastwood Mall had opened a few years before) while the infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor finally left City Hall as civil rights protests swirled through central city streets. Downtown retailers would increasingly invest favorably in suburban branches, leaving the downtown locations to cater to lower socioeconomic classes. Over the next decades, many would leave downtown altogether.

As the City sees new life across many neighborhoods, there are still many challenges to overcome. Let’s hope 2012 brings Birmingham–and all of its citizens–much success. Cheers!

[thanks to Tim Hollis for the pic from his book Birmingham’s Theater and Retail District]

Buen apetito

It's almost here

After much anticipation, the new restaurant in the 2200 block of 2nd Avenue North, El Barrio, is poised to open the first part of December. The owners of Trattoria Centrale, a few blocks east, plan an innovative, energetic, foodie type of a place with cuisine inspired by all regions of Mexico. Picture a younger Sol y Luna, but with a much bigger kitchen (and therefore a more diverse menu). We give you a sneak peek at the design of downtown’s newest culinary attraction.

More foot traffic coming

Above is the storefront, in the former Storkland store; you will notice the hostess stand (temporarily outside) made from leftover concrete from a core drill on site, with rebar twisting up to hold the “book”. Design was a collaboration between KDAG Designs and Appleseed Workshop, with Appleseed not just handling general construction, but also custom building many of the interior elements like the stand. Outdoor seating will be installed at the sidewalk.

Explosion of latin vibe

A visually arresting feature of the main room is local artist Shane B’s full-wall mural (above, with a half-built banquette underneath; Shane B can be found at Non Stop Art around the corner on 20th Street). A riff on urban street art, it should set the mood for botanas (Mexican street snacks that are part of the planned menu).

Not complete without a bar and a lounge

Opposite the mural is the long bar, seen left in the picture above. To either side of the storefront entrance is a small stand-up drinking area, and a larger lounge area with built-in banquette and kidney tables designed for the space (below). Reclaimed wood and original, historic materials mix with new steel and concrete accents in an eclectic, “vintage” way.

Made from scratch and awaiting it's glass inserts

El Barrio plans to open initially just serving lunch, while they await their liquor license to get final approval (expected early January). At that point, the restaurant will be open every day for lunch and dinner (until 9 on weeknights, midnight on the weekends), with happy hour bar specials as well. Owner Brian Somershield emphasized that he wants dinner to be a full experience, including Latin American wines picked especially for the cuisine, seasonal fresh fruit margaritas, etc. So while we’re eager for evening service, we’ll be happy to enjoy lunch until they’ve got the bar ready to go.

Ensuring every detail is correct

As anyone who’s eaten at Centrale can attest, these guys are serious about details (above foreground, owner Geoff Lockert inspects new kitchen equipment). While the food and drink should be fresh and innovative, they also want the atmosphere to feel warm and accessible. Servers and bartenders are being chosen as much for their demeanor and passion for food, as for their experience (a similar concept to Centrale).  The chef, Neville Baay, was chosen due to his culinary skills of course, but also because his philosophy matches that of the owners. It should make for a good combination.

And also coming soon?

And why does this restaurant matter–besides giving us another dining option, of course? First, it should extend foot traffic and street life east from the 2300 block, enlarging the nucleus of retail, restaurant, and bar activity there. Second, it should become an anchor for its block, encouraging others to follow. For instance, above (middle storefront) is a recently rented space which is planned as the District, a bar serving late-night tapas–directly across the street from El Barrio. We can’t report much more about it yet, but it’s an example of how most businesses like to congregate around other similar businesses. It takes some initial pioneers, and then hopefully–with the right conditions and context–others follow, and then you have a real district. In other words, we’re ready for tacos!