Ah, the demise of the infamous Ruby Tuesday restaurant in the heart of Five Points South. Infamous because a banal, cookie-cutter shopping-mall out-parcel building was plopped down 16 years ago on one of the most historic and important corners in this city–where 20th Street meets Highland Avenue South. There had been a plan in the early 1990s to redevelop this lot (originally a fine mansion) as a 14 story, mixed-use building called Renaissance Plaza. Instead we got a cheap looking, generic box sitting on a parking lot.
Well, lo and behold, the restaurant has closed after 16 years. And last week’s Design Review Committee approved a new development with nary a comment or dissent. Is it a dense, mixed-use development bringing interesting new retail and restaurant tenants? Is it thoughtful, urban architecture suitable to this distinctive corner surrounded by the Shepherd-Sloss Building, Terrace Court Apartments? Unfortunately it is neither. It is a stand-alone Chick-Fil-A restaurant, complete with drive-through and surface parking. This plan sketched here is very approximate, but gets the idea across.
I don’t want to say Chick-Fil-A shouldn’t be in Five Points– but can we talk context? Gorgeous terra cotta detailing and the first high-rise apartments in the South across the street. Crumbling, perhaps, but at least special.
These older buildings speak of a particular place and style — “I am in Birmingham”, not at any newish strip mall. The unique architectural fabric of this city is what make visitors say: what a beautiful town you have. Hard to say that about most strip malls/outparcels since they all look alike. But I digress; this is not a commentary on the architectural integrity of the American strip mall. That’s another post.
But Five Points! An area that is a food mecca for the metro area… I am not against fast food in the least — or a good Chick-Fil-A. But where is the comprehensive plan for revitalizing this area? Let me dust off some shelves somewhere, because this can’t be part of it. Why? Kudos on the outdoor seating — but that’s about all I can say positive about the current plan. Take a look at Portland. As we’ve discussed before, urban areas succeed with density. In Portland you see sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants, including a McDonald’s storefront. No drive-throughs. And 90% of the property is not a vast dead zone of car park and drive-through lanes.
One reason why this sort of totally inappropriate development still happens here? We have no Redevelopment Authority. A RA is an independent, public agency that can buy and sell property, solicit proposals from developers, and finance buildings and development. They can take a good plan and actually implement it. This site would be a prime example of the kind of place identified by a RA as important to a city and the urban environment. It deserves to be built out according to a good plan. Not just randomly selected by Chick-Fil-A. And their drive-through mentality.
Drive-throughs, while ubiquitous to the American landscape, are not appropriate in dense urban areas. They require additional curb cuts which make pedestrian sidewalk use hazardous; they are horrible for the environment (all those motors idling); they discourage people from getting out of their car and enjoying a walkable streetscape; and the land use is wasteful (lots of asphalt). Various cities have started banning new, urban drive-throughs for all of these reasons.
I want a thriving Five Points. I want the opposite of a strip mall — non-chain boutiques, restaurants that use local produce, new loft mid-rises — a snobby, creative-class dream? OK then. I will also take some chains and fast-food that may be necessary – but with the caveat that they should fit in with a comprehensive, urban vision for this area. I want more more more. I know, I want too much. But I can dream, right? (thanks to dystopos for the Ruby Tuesday pic; Birmingham Public Library for the 1972 pic of the Shepherd-Sloss building, and alexabboud for the pic in Portland.)