Tag Archives: wayfinding

Better signage, and a house

A model for the future?

This morning at Design Review Committee the wayfinding proposal presented by Sheila Chaffin of UAB (above) was unanimously approved. Dozens of signs will direct people and traffic through the Medical District in a system coordinated between UAB, Children’s Hospital, VA Hospital, and Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. Complementing these will be UAB campus-specific signage–same style, but with the UAB logo on top rather than “Medical District.” MB3 Designworks of Virginia designed the signage, and local firm KPS Group coordinated placement and messaging.

We’ve commented several times on the urgent need for wayfinding in downtown Birmingham; hopefully this project will inspire the City to move that up their priority list. Because when we leave a well-marked Medical District, we still need to find our way around the rest of town.

Full renovation coming later

Approval was also granted for a neon-illuminated blade sign to be sited on the corner of 20th Street North and 2nd Avenue at the second-story level of the historic Roden Building. This sign, which is 8 feet tall and reads “PARAMOUNT” in a vertical format, is a temporary measure to advertise the Paramount store that opened last year and sells yogurt, sweets, and other items. Our office designed a complete exterior renovation (pictured above) for a future phase,  including larger illuminated signage running horizontally that was previously approved by the Committee. In the meantime, it’s exciting to see this great old building coming back to life step by step.

Man with a plan

Finally, approval was also granted for construction of a new residence on Cliff Road in historic Forest Park (above architect Alex Krumdieck presents the rendering). It’s good to see continued investment in the historic residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown; a healthy downtown complements the neighborhoods, and healthy neighborhoods complement downtown. We need to support intelligent improvements in both to help build a city greater than the sum of its parts.

Happy Memorial Day everybody!

Sizing it up

What can we learn about Birmingham and its urban core after comparing it to Mobile’s, the third-largest city in the state (but second biggest metro, at about half the size of our 1.2 million)? On a recent trip I was able to get a quick glimpse of downtown Mobile, and observe some interesting things.

Pointing in the right direction

First, wayfinding. Central Birmingham has basically none–and we need it. Bad. For anyone visiting (whether from afar or just the ‘burbs), graphically clear signage which helps you navigate a city is essential. The above is an example of signage found throughout downtown Mobile–simple, to the point, and informative.

Good signage is good place-making

Second, good urban signage. Birmingham–thanks in part to enlightened members of the Design Review Committee, is more likely today to approve well-designed, projecting and/or illuminated signage for businesses in our urban areas. But the process can still feel like a struggle (one sign we designed for a project downtown took over 3 months to work its way through the City Legal Department after DRC approval). To the left you see some excellent signage at the hip Dauphin Street Taqueria ; in downtown Mobile, the city has a financial incentive to encourage owners to upgrade signage and illuminate it. Fantastic incentive, and the nice projecting signs across the core are a testimony to its success.

Third, Mobile’s older street grid means narrower dimensions–so instead of our wide avenues with 5 or 6 traffic, turn, and parking lanes–you get 4, or 3 total lanes which makes for a more pedestrian friendly environment (quicker to cross, and less traffic on the streets). Below is a shot looking towards the Battle House Hotel, Mobile’s smaller version of our old Tutwiler Hotel, demolished in the 1970s for the First Alabama Bank Building. In Mobile–where development pressure downtown was so slight, it makes Birmingham look like an Atlanta–the hotel was just quietly boarded up and remained vacant until the Retirement Systems of Alabama incorporated it into its huge RSA Tower complex completed a few years ago. Because of the RSA’s muscle, downtown Mobile now has 2 4-star Renaissance hotel properties–while Birmingham has no 4 -star properties anywhere close to downtown (though a Westin is planned to break ground shortly).

Narrow streets, restored hotel

Fourth–of interest to those saddened by the demolition of the old Birmingham News building for the creation of….a surface parking lot: in Mobile the local Press-Register donated their old facility to a non-profit called Center for the Living Arts which promotes the arts throughout downtown Mobile. An 8000 SF center for contemporary art is part of the new reuse of this building, seen below:

A better use than surface parking

Yes, we’re thrilled the News built a new facility downtown. It’s just a shame that instead of visualizing a new use for an outdated building like they did in Mobile, they tore it down for a few parking spaces instead. A very, very 1969 solution to a problem.

Which brings us to the train station. In 1969 we tore ours down. Mobile’s still stands, although mostly vacant (they lost their passenger service long ago), and at a disadvantaged location down Water Street (it was a hardy 20-minute walk down a warehouse and gas-station-laden 6-lane highway from the Battle House). If Water Street could be re-envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with mixed-use and a waterfront promenade–then the old station could be a wonderful terminus again.

Any takers?

Mobile’s core is much smaller than Birmingham’s by any measure–fewer office workers, fewer residents, fewer buildings–and the scale is very different. It feels more like a small city than, well, a medium-sized one. This smaller scale is one factor that can make redevelopment easier. Lower Dauphin Street is lined with bars and restaurants and even some retail shops–but all the buildings are mainly one or two stories. Big, complicated, and expensive redevelopments are not necessary on this scale.

However, some basics of adaptive reuse, signage, even public postings of imminent Design Review hearings are all instructive as we work to create a better Birmingham. It’s clear that Mobile has made some real efforts to reinvigorate their center. And, the City is considering adopting SmartCode for their downtown, similar to Montgomery, to help propel development in the right direction. This is something we’d love to see here too.

When in Mobile...

On a last note, I couldn’t help notice that city parking meters downtown allow 15 minutes per quarter–rather than the 60 minutes per quarter in Birmingham. And we have a much, much more congested downtown than Mobile. I believe Birmingham ranks as one of the largest cities with the cheapest on-street parking. This puts more cars on the street, circling for those cheap spaces–rather than considering decks, or walking, or transit. We’ve got to get used to paying more at the meter here.

Next post–Austin, TX! Happy New Year everybody. Here’s to a great 2011 in the ‘ham.