Tag Archives: West End

Progress, with caveats

Very, very conceptual still

At this morning’s Design Review Committee, perhaps the biggest news was what didn’t happen–a representative of the new Regions Field project appeared, but did not present any elevations or other design details of the new structure. Instead, he requested the Committee approve the remainder of demolition work necessary to prepare the four-square block area directly south of Railroad Park. After hearing that the two renderings shown at last week’s groundbreaking (above, and the other shown in previous post) were simply conceptual suggestions, done merely for the sake of the ceremony, the Committee approved the remainder of the demolition required. At the same time, the Committee asked developers to return as soon as possible with schematic design of the project. That could happen within a few weeks–stay tuned.

Better, but...

Also approved was a revised design for the proposed Family Dollar store in West End at the corner of Tuscaloosa Avenue, SW and 13th Street (site plan above). Since we last discussed this in January, the developer has moved the building to the corner, and pushed the parking to the rear of the site. Good. However, it is disappointing to see two massive curb cuts occuring at either street, when ironically a service alley exists already behind the store. It was equally disappointing to see the entrance will be on the side, accessed from the parking lot–and not on the street frontage.  This helps contribute to a dead elevation along Tuscaloosa which is almost completely mute in its blankness:

Not exactly an engaging composition

It’s wonderful that this neighborhood, so bereft of retail options, is getting a major investment. It’s a shame the design couldn’t have been pushed further to incorporate a few more basic urban design principles.

And Lakeview gets another option

Finally, FIVE restaurant was granted approval for facade and signage improvements at the historic building on 29th Street between 7th Avenue South and University Blvd in the Lakeview district. The former Golden Rule Bar-B-Q is getting a new row of French doors (under construction, above), among other improvements. Yet another sign of this neighborhood continuing to draw investment and energy–we wish them well and can’t wait to see the menu.

[Thanks to HKS and City of Birmingham for the Regions Field rendering; Boos Development Group for the Family Dollar drawings; and the FIVE team for the pic]

Mixed bag

A victory for adaptive reuse

Birmingham’s Design Review Committee had a broad spectrum of design issues on the agenda today. Universally commended and approved was the signage package for the new Walgreens complex on Clairmont Avenue and 32nd Street South, where the historic Fire Station #22 is being restored with a hair salon and Bogue’s Restaurant as tenants (above). A new Walgreens building and parking lot are displacing these two businesses directly to the west of the Fire Station. We first broke the story of Walgreens’ original plan to demolish much of the block including the Fire Station. We are thrilled the Fire Station and the historic Bogue’s neon sign are being reused, and that a very old local restaurant isn’t disappearing. We are still concerned about the relationship of the new Walgreens to its western neighbor, Henry Sprott Long and Associates. But the salvation of the Fire Station is a win for the neighborhood, and an example of how a large, national chain can work with grassroots activists to achieve a better, more urban solution for retail developments.

Not again...

In an eerie replay of the earlier Walgreens controversy, Family Dollar presented a proposal for a suburban-style store at the corner of Tuscaloosa Avenue SW and 13th Street, in West End (my own quick sketch above). Just a few blocks from the thriving Princeton Medical complex, and surrounded by a relatively dense, historic fabric, the developer (Boos Development of Clearwater, FL) insisted that he’d followed the zoning guidelines (which he had), and that Family Dollar’s commitment to the neighborhood was predicated on this site plan–where a generic, blank-box Family Dollar is situated behind a swath of asphalt parking. The Committee was not pleased.

The context is urban, not suburban

Directly across from the currently vacant site is a reminder of the historic importance of this West End neighborhood–a two-story, commercial structure now sadly deteriorated, but illustrative of the urban, pedestrian character of the streets. The rest of the block has newer buildings–a post office, a county health clinic, a library–which speak of the continued civic importance of this area.

It's already a pedestrian neighborhood

In objecting to the proposal’s suburban, car-centric design, a couple Committee members mentioned they’d either grown up in this neighborhood or have family here–and that people walk. And that many will be walking to the Family Dollar. Above is the relatively new library across the street which, despite an awkward architecture, does  form a pedestrian-friendly street edge. Parking is concealed to the side and rear. Even on a very rainy morning, a number of pedestrians were out walking between the post office and library, and from the surrounding neighborhood–a visual confirmation of the Committee’s point.

More street edge in West End

Right down the street from the site are these fine church and residential buildings (above), another indicator of how out of character the proposal is with its surroundings.

Lots of potential here

More than many other neighborhoods on this part of town, West End shows promise (house across 13th Street above). Recent investments in the area–including this possible Family Dollar–show a stability that can be a strong base for future improvements. Committee member Marc Fugnitto was passionate about treating West End no differently from Five Points South or South Avondale, where large national chains wanting to invest in urban neighborhoods were required to redesign their proposals to be pedestrian-friendly and appropriate to local context. Others agreed, and hoped that the City Comprehensive Plan, currently in the works, will address the lack of Smart Code and other tools that would tell the developer up front what’s expected, from a form-based standpoint. Or, at the very least, that the Plan will consider this part of West End as an important urban node in the City, which needs clearer design guidelines to help steer development.

A harbinger of things to come?

The Committee asked the developer to meet again, informally, to discuss solutions for the site; the proposal as presented was not approved. On a brighter note, a few blocks further west at 48th Street and Court “V” in Five Points West, Hoskins Architecture presented the above plan for revitalizing a small park adjacent to the Five Points West library. A thoughtful palette of varied trees and plantings, elevation changes, and modern furnishings bodes well for the type of design we all hope will occur around the new Birmingham Crossplex (which is a block north). A bland piece of grass with a few desultory plantings will be transformed into a real place. This one passed the Committee with flying colors.

More potential, slowly getting realized

Back downtown on the 1700 block of Third Avenue North, a small, vacant two-story commercial structure (brown brick, above), was approved for renovation into a law firm downstairs, and the lawyer’s loft apartment upstairs. The simple, historically sensitive design is by NHB Group. Just one block west of the Alabama and Lyric Theaters, this side of the street is full of potential but, in the absence of a coordinated plan for the Theater District, has been slow to revitalize. Besides the renovation of the lower building in the right of the photo (private residence), and the mixed-use tailor shop and loft (below), both of which we designed, this block has been pretty stagnant. With the planned renovation of the Lyric Theatre, a strategic focus on this district, and more investors, this row could be a real downtown jewel. City, onwards!

Retail on the street. We need more

[Thanks to Blackmon Rogers Architects for the Fire Station elevations and Hoskins Architecture for the park plan]

Fair Park gets a new look

Spatial indeterminacy writ large

Above is the new Birmingham Crossplex (an ostensibly temporary name until corporate name rights are purchased), a large sports facility housing swimming and track facilities at the Fair Park site in Five Points West, in Birmingham’s West End. This picture is taken from Bessemer Road looking southeast across a vast stretch of open land and surface parking; the new structure itself rises towards the middle of the property. Davis Architects of Birmingham did the design.

The core amenities appear top-notch

While the facility is not officially open yet, a special tour reveals everything mostly in place (the event bookings seem promising so far despite the fact the marketing department has yet to ramp up). The main pool (above) is suitable for regional and even national events, as is the indoor track (below).

There's nothing else like it in Alabama

While the size and cost of the facility are impressive ($46 million was spent), the site planning does not convey the excitement a facility like this could create. The building has no relationship whatsoever with the surrounding street grid; it’s car-oriented isolation does not encourage pedestrian access. Granted, much of the immediately surrounding context was “suburbanized” in the 1950’s with the advent of Five Points West Shopping Center and surrounding development; much of this context is now frayed and in great need of rethinking.

Across the street, ripe for a rethink

As seen above, the opposite side of Bessemer Road presents a dated existing condition:  more surface parking, underused buildings, a hodgepodge of fast-food outlets and drive-through lanes. The approximately 85 acres that remain around the Crossplex itself are to be developed as retail, hotels, and restaurants at an unspecified time–presumably when the market demands it. This should be a chance to use progressive urbanist principles that would redeem the Crossplex’s current siting, redesign the surrounding context, and develop a reinvigorated 3rd Avenue linking this sports facility to the new baseball park and Convention Center downtown. We received international-caliber design at Railroad Park. We should expect no less in West End.

Could be helped by thoughtfully designed surroundings

The main facade (above) has no major hint of the world-class sporty activities within. Some really innovative landscaping and super-graphics would be welcome to help project more vibrancy.

Do sports happen here?

Likewise the interior (main foyer pictured above) seems functional, and it feels like a very nice public high school might feel; but I was hoping it would rise to the level of a cutting edge sports facility in terms of its form and detailing.

OK so we don't have this budget, but we can still get creative

Perhaps we won’t be hosting the Olympics in Birmingham anytime soon, despite the former Mayor’s wish to do so. But if this City continues to develop a strong reputation for hosting and supporting sporting events, and invests significant dollars in facilities and promotion–there’s no reason why we can’t demand innovative designing as you see in the Aquatics Center in Beijing (above). And to best revitalize West End, we need a thoughtful master plan that replaces suburban-style principles with pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use planning.

We love the increased interest in sports and recreation in various recent projects around the City and the potential this brings for the local economy and tourism.

Bring us your A-game.

[thanks to alphafish for the Beijing pic]