Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson Hotel

Can we afford it?

Angled parking, streetcars, and rising hemlines

Recent reports in the Birmingham Business Journal have quoted the new owner of the historic Empire Building (First Avenue North and 20th Street) as wanting to redevelop the building into “low-income housing” as opposed to the boutique hotel he’d originally suggested. The reason stated was financing would be easier to come by. Two things are clear: one, the Empire is one of the City’s most recognizable and important buildings, due to its membership in the “Heaviest Corner on Earth” collection of early skyscrapers which formed the nexus of downtown for decades (seen above, first tall building on the left, in a photo ca. 1918). Two, this City has a huge need for more quality affordable housing. Does it necessarily follow that this project makes sense?

Disappearing act: first storefronts, then adjacent businesses

Affordable housing projects downtown have had mixed success. Older developments such as the conversion of the historic Bankhead Hotel into a Section 8 housing development for seniors (above, Fifth Avenue North between 23rd and 24th Streets) often have reputations for poor management, loitering and shady deal-making by the entrances, and reducing demand for adjacent development. On the other hand, the Phoenix Building–which we developed some 7 years ago with a mix of moderate-income and market-rate apartments–has provided affordable loft spaces for artists and others who want to live in an artistic environment. It’s known for photography studios, art shows/performances, and an eclectic vibe. Downtown could use more living units like that. Producing this means choosing the right financing program, marketing astutely, and managing effectively. The developer must have a clear intent at the outset: is it just to fill up a building with lower-income pesople? Or is it part of a greater vision for integration with the surroundings, and for harnessing a meaningful vibe? At Empire, the developer’s true intent remains a mystery.

Hell’s Kitchen, meet Midtown West

As urban areas redevelop, existing, poorer populations are often replaced by newer, wealthier ones in a process known as gentrificationThe Empire report strikes many as out of sync with the normal trajectory: low-income users will be injected into an already gentrifying neighborhood. In New York City, an example of the more familiar trajectory is seen above across the street from our apartment building where poorer residents on fixed incomes share the block with young professionals moving in (Harborview Section 8 housing ca. 1976 to the left, with our building ca. 2012 in the background, West 55th Street looking south between 10th and 11th Avenues). New York has a long history of affordable housing intertwined with market-rate housing in a variety of ways. Other cities in the US–at least in post-war period–not so much. Affordable housing needs to be integrated into any vibrant urban neighborhood–but all-to-often, it isn’t. With negative consequences for all.

Save it, but in the right way

Another out-of-town investor has recently explored turning the Thomas Jefferson Hotel (above, 17th Street North between First and Second Avenues) into low-income housing. This building, with its prominence on the skyline, and interior filled with high-ceilinged, ornate ballroom and restaurant space, is much better suited to a sensitive mixed-use plan (which may include restaurant, event space, housing, and hotel rooms) currently being explored by the local Thomas Jefferson Tower group. We need more investment from places outside of Birmingham. But in this case, the local group is much better attuned to how this building could integrate into the neighborhood.

In the end, we want to encourage all incomes groups to live downtown. But the appropriate way to situate the mix is complex, and needs to be thoughtfully planned. We’d love another Phoenix Building. But not another Bankhead Tower.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the Heaviest Corner pic; bamaboy for the Bankhead Hotel pic; caedan for the TJ Hotel pic]

Checking in (4)

Grande Dame

The Thomas Jefferson Hotel (pictured above, corner of 17th Street North and 2nd Avenue) has yet another chance for salvation due to the formation of a non-profit dedicated to stabilizing and restoring the 1929 structure to its former glory.Thomas Jefferson Tower, Inc. plans to acquire the building, stabilize it–and then work hard to put a viable restoration plan together.

This hotel opened within months of the Great Depression, and is a symbol of the last days of heady 1920’s optimism that had engulfed Birmingham real estate. It’s height and adornment testify to the belief that the City’s growth would extend inexorably westward; the Depression put a stop to such growth, and the hotel suffered somewhat from its relative isolation (in comparison to the Tutwiler Hotel, for instance).

Needs some work

The mix of larger main levels (with retail, restaurant, and ballrooms) and smaller upper floor plates means a mixed-use development with hotel, meeting, living, and retail/restaurant spaces could work well. The location is much more desirable than even a few years ago: the Phoenix Building lofts is across the street, Innovation Depot a block away, Railroad Park a few blocks south, and planning for bike lanes/revitalized Civil Rights district/bike-pedestrian bridge all within a few minutes’ walk. This building is also very prominent on the near skyline from the new Baron’s baseball park under construction. Yes, it will be a lot of work (George Wallace Suite, above)—but  a lot of other cities would kill to have such a fine piece of architecture to restore. They don’t build them like this anymore.

A certain elegance

Please consider supporting this effort by signing up for the non-profit’s website, and following their twitter feed. The time is right to help make this project happen!

[thanks to dystopos for the exterior pic; istvan s. for the suite; naamanfletcher for the detail]