Central Woodlawn – a few minutes’ drive (or future tram ride!) east of downtown Birmingham – is a superb example of urban place: well-scaled commercial storefronts, memorable historic architecture, a mixture of wider and narrower streets, and short blocks. This once-busy retail and business center has lost tenants and foot traffic over the years, but the fabric largely remains. Main Street Birmingham, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods, has recently renovated a row of one-story storefronts into 55th Place Arts, with low rents targeted to artists (above, on 55th Place North). This city has been too slow to recognize the key role artists can play in urban revitalization; the Phoenix Building downtown (which we developed and designed), with its 74 live-work units of which 60 are subsidized and targeted to artists, is perhaps the only other comparable project in town.
The corner of the project at 55th Place and First Avenue South is seen above, with the entrance to the new City Arts Boutique. Note the fine texture of the buildings along 55th Place, and the easy pedestrian scale of the environment.
Besides reactivating the street with new businesses and artistic energy, we really appreciate the paint job on the facade, illustrated above. Rather than the standard, conservative browns and grays painted evenly across a surface that you tend to see around town, playful angles and varied tones suit the reconstitution of these storefronts into artist workspace. Kudos to Main Street (and to the Design Review Committee, which today approved new signage and door treatments for the project) for allowing color to be used creatively here. It looks super.
Just down the street (at First Avenue South and 55th Street North), Smiles for Keeps–a dental clinic for children and teens–is building a new facility on a prominent corner site, currently asphalt parking. Above is a rendering (architect: John Holmes), showing the new building with a landscaped area at the corner, and a proposed future building just beyond. A good deal of parking will remain at the rear. Clearly, reclaiming any piece of asphalt parking for a new building is a good thing; on a corner it’s even better. It’s good these buildings have relatively generous storefronts to allow transparency, and that they come to the sidewalk line along 55th Street. What’s less satisfactory is the resolution of the corner itself; while the intent was to mimic the corner entrance at the building currently leased by the clinic around the corner, in this case the “corner entrance” isn’t actually at the corner of the lot. The left-over green space feels just that–left over–and one wishes there were some way to extend the mass of the building out to that corner.
Above is the historic Woodlawn building currently occupied by the clinic, with that original corner entrance that works seamlessly with the site. Despite this gripe, overall it’s great to see what Main Street Birmingham has been able to encourage in terms of neighborhood investment and even “buzz” about the cool factor represented by the potential in this neighborhood. Working with minimal staff and very tight budgets, this non-profit is on to something here. We wish them, and Woodlawn, much success in the future.
[thanks to John Holmes for the rendering]