Tag Archives: Railroad Park

And the prize goes to…

Poised, yet again

Poised, yet again

Yesterday local media reported that the City-owned block directly east of Railroad Park (above) is poised to be sold to Alabama Power Company for almost $3 million. Currently surface parking, the lot was the subject of a well-publicized “ideas contest” in 2011, which resulted in a winner being awarded $50,000 by the Community Foundation. Many were excited by the high-profile nature of the contest, the professionalism of the process, and the engagement of the community–through crowdsourcing– to help determine the future of our built environment downtown. It was much more difficult to find anyone excited about the actual winning entry, which struck many as a confusing grab bag of odd components.

Perhaps even more perplexing was how the contest, and the winning entry, disappeared from public view almost instantly: after all the publicity and community engagement, the radio silence was quite a contrast. Very little has surfaced about the project since the Foundation announced this past March that they’d seek proposals to develop the site using the themes outlined in the winning entry. Now, Alabama Power steps in to purchase the property which lies across Powell Avenue from the historic steam plant the company already owns (and is on the verge of decommissioning).

The Foundation expressed its support for this latest development in a brief statement on their website. Since there are no details about the nature of the development, we can’t really comment except to hope that if this purchase does go through, that Alabama Power is able to put together something really exciting and community-oriented for both this lot and a renovated steam plant. The curious fate of this property now moves into an interesting next phase (the City Council should vote on the sale today). Stay tuned. And just for fun, below is part of our own entry into the contest.

small EXHIBITSANDVISTOR CENTER-final

[thanks to the Birmingham News for the aerial pic]

UPDATE: City Council approved the sale today, and the Community Foundation said they endorsed the sale due to pledges from APCO that the ideas generated by the contest would be incorporated into future plans.

Holiday cheer

The new roof is a good start

New roof for a new start

It was this past January when the historic Powell School suffered immense damage due to fire; what a welcome sight to now see Stone Building Company rebuilding the roof, stabilizing the brick, and otherwise weatherproofing the structure (above). Kudos to the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation which, in cooperation with the City and numerous volunteers, has organized this effort and is marketing the building for redevelopment.

This was the City’s first “Free School.” Before the fire it sat vacant, garnering little attention. Ironically, the fire illuminated the building’s potential: perhaps in the New Year we’ll see plans moving forward for renovation. Which would be pleasing.

Also pleasing should be the announcement–promised soon by REV Birmingham (formerly Operation New Birmingham)–of two new major housing developments near Railroad Park totaling some 450 units. Fingers crossed that downtown will have lots of positive news to look forward to in 2013.

The future of this city

When a city embraces its potential

In a great piece written by Kyle Whitmire over in Weld, what happened in Oklahoma City–in part due to the voters’ approval of several MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy) initiatives starting in 1993–is contrasted with what hasn’t happened in Birmingham–in part due to the voters’ rejection of a MAPS initiative in 1998 which was closely modeled on the one in OKC. One of the many downtown improvements that have transformed OKC’s central core after that initial 1993 vote is the SkyDance Bridge (above), a new pedestrian bridge linking a soon-to-be-constructed downtown park with reclaimed riverfront development across I-40. The design by S-X-L collaborative out of Oklahoma City is at once practical and inspirational, a gorgeous new icon on the skyline. [We previously discussed the revitalization of OKC's Bricktown neighborhood around their new baseball park here.]

Feasible?

Our firm is now working on the feasibility study for a new pedestrian/bike bridge that would connect 16th Street North downtown to Railroad Park and the Southside (projected northern terminus of the bridge, above at First Avenue North and 16th Street looking south). This is an extremely exciting and challenging project, and we are honored to be working on it with the City of Birmingham and MBA Engineers. Our goal is not just to design something practical and beautiful, but also to help link the Park into a network of greenways, bike lanes, and street improvements that will fan out around the adjacent neighborhoods. This bridge will be an important part, but only a part, of a greater plan.

Birmingham has struggled to overcome its troubled past to move forward decisively. Part of this struggle is evidenced by our lack of long-range planning: OKC first took the leap in 1993, and methodically built consensus around early successes to link subsequent initiatives together in a coherent, strategic fashion. Birmingham tends to create a project here, develop a pocket there–but there is no overall strategic plan to bind these together into something greater than its parts. It is our firm belief that Railroad Park, and the upcoming development surrounding it, will break this cycle. This bridge, if indeed proven feasible, will be part of a rejuvenated 16th Street, a revitalized mixed-use Civil Rights District, and a greenway and bike system stretching east, west, north, and south across the City.

So get ready to embrace a new era, Birmingham. A bridge is just the start.

[thanks to tylerokc for the SkyDance bridge pic]

13 months and counting

This morning’s Design Review Committee unanimously approved building and landscape design for Regions Field, the new downtown home of the Birmingham Barons baseball team (above, Virginia Williams with the Mayor’s office introduces the project).  Looking closely at the colored plan on the easel above, you can see the baseball diamond oriented for optimum home plate and spectator comfort (shade will fall across the stands at almost all times). In pink are the ancillary elements along the 1st Avenue South edge up top and the 14th Street edge to the left; their character was the subject of most of the Committee’s discussion.

As interactive and porous as possible

The main floor plan is shown above (Lead architect HKS and local partner GA Studio). Again, 1st Avenue South is across the top (with Railroad Park directly across the street), and 14th Street to the left (west). 16th Street is to the right (east), and 3rd Avenue at the bottom (south). The project takes up 4 square blocks–15th Street and 2nd Avenue are consumed. The main entry plaza is the corner of 14th and 1st Avenue; along 1st Avenue are a ticket office, Barons merchandise store, and ice-cream shop as you walk east towards B&A Warehouse. Those 3 elements will be open daily to the public (and can be entered from the sidewalk as well as from the interior), regardless of whether the Barons are playing. Along 14th Street is a wide landscaped plaza with tables and chairs, that again will be open to the public regardless of the day. There is a connector of landscape walks, green berms, and children’s playground running on the east around the field which will likewise be open to the public at all times as a promenade connecting UAB campus to the Railroad Park.

Still in need of finesse

As we’ve noted previously, in an ideal world this project, or part of it, would be located at least 1/2 a block south of 1st Avenue, to allow a good, solid street wall of mid-rise development to take advantage of views and real estate premiums afforded by Railroad Park to the north and Regions Field to the south. Given the situation on the ground, while the designers have done a good job aligning several public elements at the street edge–to activate the public realm–there are still large swathes of one story elements, blank walls, and open space as you move from west to east across 1st Avenue (above, moving from right to left). The Committee asked that the details of the ice cream shop be worked on so that it could help continue the energy of the western part of the building in a more layered, vibrant way. Vacant land just behind B&A Warehouse (far left above) is reserved for future development–both a Negro League Museum and others–and hopefully those will go some way to helping densify that corner of the site.

An active public realm

The concern is that the energy of Railroad Park (above, at 15th Street Skate Plaza) won’t be fully leveraged by the edge of Regions Field across the street. Again, given the reality of the siting, the designers have done a pretty good job of incorporating as much as they could–but a ticket office, merchandise shop, and ice cream parlor don’t equate to the potential of continuous mixed-use development with restaurants, shops, and multi-story residences facing the park. The good news is that the baseball park moving downtown is a huge plus; hopefully the surrounding blocks and future development on the site itself will go a long way towards alleviating the current concerns about the edge condition.  We can’t wait for the first game in April 2013.

And just a dozen blocks north...

Which brings us briefly to the other big downtown project underway, also on a fast-track–the BJCC entertainment district and new Westin hotel, above. Unlike the construction site for Regions Field, which is even now surrounded by curious pedestrians, housing, Midtown offices and mixed-use, UAB, and Children’s Hospital (all elements which point to an exciting new Parkside neighborhood), the BJCC site has almost no pedestrian traffic, is bounded by interstate ramps, the convention center, and blocks of empty land cleared for future development to the north. It’s easy to visualize Regions Field integrating into the surrounding fabric; at BJCC, the fear is without integration into the rest of downtown and up to Norwood, the project can’t reach its potential. Hopefully the City is working on these connections. I want to go seamlessly from a baseball game, to a restaurant in Parkside, then to get a beer down at the entertainment district–but right now, its unclear how that would happen.

Bringing it down in scale

Speaking of beer, approval was also granted this morning to Pale Eddie’s Pour House on the 2300 block of Second Avenue North, to extend their existing rear patio (fenced, above) almost to the alley. We welcome more outdoor space to enjoy a drink downtown, and remind ourselves that while the Westin and Regions Field are exciting, we need to keep nurturing our small, entrepreneurial businesses and places like Pale Eddie’s that help keep our city center unique. Cheers.

 

City as artifact

Worth documenting

As the City prepares to demolish the 4-block-plus area between directly south of Railroad Park between 14th and 16th Streets South to prepare for the new ball park for the Birmingham Barons, we are about to lose a good bit of historic, warehouse fabric that’s been little discussed. It is the opinion of this blog that the ball park is a good thing for downtown and the City, and that the old warehouse neighborhood around it (tentatively dubbed Parkside) has vast potential to be revitalized into a vibrant mixed-use district connecting UAB to the park. Before the bulldozers arrive, however, it would be great to try to document the buildings that are about to disappear forever (example above).

Remnant of another era

Some of these old structures serviced prominent retailers located several blocks north in downtown’s shopping district, such as the above warehouse which still has its “Jefferson Home Furniture” sign prominently displayed.

Not something you see here often

In a central city laid out on a relentlessly orthogonal grid, it’s downright shocking to see this curving alley way between two warehouses (above), which followed the curve of a rail spur. Goods could be loaded directly onto rail cars from the warehouse docks. Wouldn’t it be great if the new ball park facility had a graphic display somewhere with images and history relating to this neighborhood and its (unsung) relationship to the better-known areas adjacent to it?

First sign of progress

Once these buildings are documented properly, and their history outlined for the public, we hope that upon completion of the ball park many of the surrounding warehouse-type buildings will be renovated to complement new, infill construction in a district with housing, restaurants, bars, shops, offices, and other amenities. A hint of what could come is seen above at the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue South, where the real estate firm Shannon Waltchack moved from the suburbs into a freshly renovated former National Biscuit Company building (they plan phase 2 with loft apartments next door; architect for the project is Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds).

Yes you are

Only a few years ago, the building across 18th Street from Shannon Waltchack had fully rented storefronts. The tenants left and took the storefronts with them; now all that remains is a (still beautiful) shell. Understanding the value of historic buildings is important, and we hope this one can be returned to service. Part of what will make this neighborhood work are built-from-scratch projects like Railroad Park, the Barons park, and proposed new UAB buildings. Destruction of some existing historic buildings will be inevitable. Let’s get them professionally documented before they go.

Keep the dream alive

Displaced by development

It always seemed a bit too good to be true. Birmingham, which embarassingly for a city its size has no proper central skate park, suddenly got a temporary version right across from Railroad Park in the 1500 block of First Avenue South when Railroad Park opened downtown (above). An almost-forgotten warehouse district was instantly brimming with green and people, and the skate park created a great synergy with its larger neighbor across the street. The balletic activity of the skate park was close enough to be visually compelling, but at just the right distance to not disturb people pic-nicking across the street in the grass. However, the writing was on the wall when the Birmingham Barons baseball team announced its intention to build a new downtown park in the area; the skate park has now been dismantled, awaiting imminent construction of a large baseball park at that location.

A path to success

Enter the A.Skate Foundation, a local non-profit that helps kids with autism through skateboarding. This nationally-recognized group, which holds clinics all over the country, just won a $50,000 grant for design of a new skate park in Birmingham, just a couple months after winning another equal grant for their clinics. This is probably the best opportunity to get an urban skate park built that we’ve had in a while.

Sculptural landscape, urban activity, kids–what’s not to like

Prototypes for the park are illustrated above (real design will start once a location has been selected; the designer is ASD). This is a no-brainer for the City–an opportunity to create a remarkable outdoor space, fulfill a true recreational need, and help kids with autism all at once. Talk about positive publicity. Birmingham should be jumping to identify property in the City Center or immediately adjacent neighborhoods. However, we hear that other metro cities are jumping quicker to assist the potential project. We’d love this park to be somewhere in the metro, period; we think a downtown location is ideal not only for the centrality to all populations, but for creating the best visibility for this very urban sport. We strongly encourage Birmingham to consider this worthy project.

Birmingham, make it happen

For anyone interested in donating to A. Skate’s mission, or who has ideas about possible locations for their new skate park, please contact them here. A skate park is part of any successful city’s urban fabric. Birmingham should be no exception.

[thanks to A.Skate and ASD for the renderings and photos of skate kids]

Play ball (2)

And it's happening

The City’s Design Review Committee conditionally approved demolition of an area just south of Railroad Park to prepare for construction of the new ball park of the Birmingham Barons. The area, pictured above, is four square blocks bounded by First Avenue South (facing the park) and Third Avenue South, and 14th and 16th Streets. The hatched buildings will be taken down; noticeably unhatched is the B&A Warehouse building at the corner of 16th and First Avenue, no longer part of the project.

Conceptual--with the hope of solid urban edges

Brian Wolf of Corporate Realty presented the 2 simple documents–the demo plan and the concept ball park plan, above. The Committee’s main objection was the lack of even schematic drawings illustrating the nature of the street edges of the project. Committee member Cheryl Morgan stated her concern about the importance of the 14th Street corner, and the need for parks to have active, vibrant edges. The rest of the Committee had similar concerns. Mr. Wolf assured the Committee that much time and effort has been put into creating an active street edge, and that he’d come back in January with completed schematics showing this. In the end, given the fast-track schedule and the scale of the project, the vote was to allow only partial demolition to occur, with the remainder waiting until schematics are presented in January. The main concern of this blog has been similar to the Committee’s–having a backside of a ball park fronting a major public park is not good urban planning. That we will get even a small buffer of pedestrian-scaled architecture between sidewalk and ball park is hopeful.

Big improvement

About a year ago we posted on the unfortunate deterioration of an aging strip center in Five Points South at the corner of 19th Street and 11th Avenue South. A massive “Bail Bonds” sign that had gone up without Design Review permission seemed to symbolize the challenges of this historic commercial area’s struggle to rejuvenate. This morning, the above proposal was unanimously passed by the Committee. All existing (and mainly non-conforming) signage will be removed, and a new red sign band created to provide a unified appearance. Needless to say, there was practically cheering in the aisles. (Cohen, Carnaggio, Reynolds are the architects).

More urban amenities = good

Last but not least, the above shows a major renovation of historic structures at the corner of 6th Avenue South and 22nd Street South into a music performance space and lounge, able to hold up to 1000 patrons (design by TRI Architecture and Interior Design). Located within the same block as Workplay, across the street from the Fish Market, and adjacent to the Liv on Fifth lofts, this is a major investment in downtown entertainment. Healthy cities have lots of entertainment options that make urban places attractive to the coveted younger demographic of people in their 20’s and 30’s. We wish Iron City Live Music Hall much success, and hope it inspires additional development in the area.

[thanks to Corporate Realty for the ball park plans; Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds for the Five Points rendering; and TRI for the Iron City Music Hall elevations]

Sharpening the edge

Building a case for more amenities

Week before last, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees declined to include on their meeting agenda UAB‘s proposal for a new on-campus football stadium (shown schematically above at the corner of  13th Street and 6th Avenue South). It seems that despite a seemingly conservative business plan put forward by UAB, and good community support (all luxury skyboxes were rented for 5 years), the stadium, for the moment, won’t be built. While I personally hope the BOT will reconsider and move forward with the stadium, this is a good time to have a brief look at the UAB Master Plan, of which the stadium is a part.

The footprint says it all--big impact

UAB is the largest employer not just in Birmingham, but in the state; it’s impact is immense. All those employees, faculty, and students (as well as the health system complex) are on a Southside campus not much more than 40 years old. The recent Master Plan update (prepared by KPS Group, above)–which is part of a broader UAB strategic plan–shows proposed new construction and green space. The full master plan document states the following as a primary goal: “Encourage Midtown and Five Points town/gown mixed use development and foster interconnection of the campus with these areas.” My guess is this is the first time such a definitive statement has been officially included in a UAB master plan. The timing could not be better.

Critical mass, needs more permeability

Above is 19th Street looking north from 9th Avenue South. Historically, many UAB campus buildings have been impressive in terms of bulk, but are missing key links to the street; in place of welcoming entrances and transparencies, one often sees solid brick walls or immense mechanical vents. Or parking decks with no ground floor retail or contextual facades. The current administration, in part through the master plan, is making an effort to correct these issues by encouraging the “interconnection of the campus” with the surrounding neighborhoods. Rather than only considering buildings as discreet elements, serving  occupants and internal functions, UAB is committed to ensuring its buildings and green spaces tie into pedestrian/bike corridors, relate to existing/proposed neighborhood context, and otherwise weave into the surrounding city. The university’s plan is more extroverted than in the past, a needed quality given the nearby proposed private development around Railroad Park, in Midtown, and in Five Points. That edge–where campus buildings meet public streets and adjacent neighborhoods–is one of the keys to the plan’s success.

Mixed use for happy students

Several universities have taken on the “edge” of their urban campus in innovative ways. One example is Ohio State University (main campus at Columbus), which built the Campus Gateway project several years ago (above). This is a mixed-use complex where parking lots and other underused land at the fringe of campus were reformulated into a 4-block, mid-rise node including housing, office space, retail, restaurants, and a cinema. Extensive time was spent with many parties–from students, to employees, to neighborhood residents–before coming up with the desired mix, density, etc. The result? A rejuvenated neighborhood north of downtown Columbus (existing, adjacent historic commercial structures have also been renovated), a happier university community with dining and entertainment options right next to campus, and an improvement in the “town-gown” relations of Ohio State. In other words, a win-win for everyone. [note that Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm, was hired by Ohio State to design the Gateway project. This is the same firm leading the current Comprehensive Plan for the City of Birmingham].

Despite the football stadium’s current woes, there is much that UAB’s master plan could do to strengthen the existing Five Points commercial district and foster new growth in Midtown and at Railroad Park. With the right amount of smart thinking and strategic implementation, the university can create exciting urban places that improve life on campus–and in the City.

[thanks to intellidryad for the 19th Street pic; ifmuth for the Gateway pic]

Grabbing some inspiration

Looking a bit like the future

Trips to other cities are always inspirational; you can learn firsthand what others are doing to improve public space and to promote good design. First Cambridge, MA, where a huge part of North Cambridge is slated for redevelopment thanks in part to the booming biotech sector cropping up around MIT to the west. Above is the Northpoint development, with recently finished residential midrise buildings facing a park on reclaimed industrial land (designer: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates). While earlier office construction in the area has been criticized for being single-use, with relatively dead streets at night, Northpoint is conceived as a mixed-use neighborhood adjacent to a subway stop and served by bus and bike routes. The feel of the park, and the two buildings constructed thus far, reminded me of Railroad Park here and its own hoped-for future as the center of a mixed-use new neighborhood.

Big thinking

While Northpoint is an example of urban planning on a large scale (model of the proposed full development pictured above), you see results of smaller decisions around Cambridge that also help create a vibrant streetscape. For instance, the city funded the restoration of the sign below in Central Square, deeming it an important part of the urban fabric (the store owner couldn’t afford to do so on his own):

Unique illuminated projecting signs = good

Over in Allston, a Boston neighborhood, Machado and Silvetti have designed new Harvard Graduate Student Housing, a witty reinterpretation of the traditional Harvard Georgian (and neo-Georgian) quad layout. Seen below, Harvard brick is used in a contemporary way, cladding different wings forming a courtyard facing the river. Not too shabby for dorm life.

Provocative architecture bolsters academic reputation

The Institute of Contemporary Art, facing Boston Harbor downtown, is seen in the two shots below. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, its relationship to a (foggy) Boston Harbor is pretty sublime.

Mass and light

Amazing view, even in the fog

Finally, our trusted friend Austin, TX. Treated to a very tasty dinner at Lamberts downtown in the thriving 2nd Street District, below is a pic of the restaurant’s patio facing a downtown street. Charming, casual, and open–the patio’s design captures what Austin itself feels like. Next post–back to Birmingham!

Try the bread pudding

[thanks to iskunk for the Northpoint model pic]

People Power

Now there's a reason to be on Woodward Avenue after 5 PM

Shown above is Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in 2004, this public space has provided a welcome shot in the arm to the beleaguered central city. It’s an example of “placemaking”,  where citizens and stakeholders develop a vision for transforming particular spaces. These spaces in turn can catalyze the surrounding areas, and return a sense of pride and ownership to neighborhoods. Here’s an excellent article about this topic that one of our readers sent in.

The people spoke: take back the streets!

Public input in the design of public spaces has been around for some time. But this newer approach doesn’t use the public as a filter for a preconceived idea, but rather as the primary idea generator. The process can lead to something as simple–yet revolutionary–as reusing part (or all) of a street for pedestrians rather than cars (see Broadway near Times Square in New York City above). It is amazing to be in the middle of New York–where real estate, building costs, and zoning changes are all notoriously expensive and challenging–and enjoy a great public space that’s just asphalt, chairs, and some plantings. No buildings demolished or private property acquired; no expensive design or construction costs. The people wanted to sit in the street and they got it.

Intangible quality

The non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) consults across the world to help developers and cities create great public space, with “placemaking” as a tool. As has been argued here before, every progressive city needs certain things–a modern convention center, good transit, bike lanes, mixed-use zoning, etc. But these items themselves, even when connected through solid holistic planning, don’t necessarily add up to the intangible quality that make a place memorable–drawing attention, businesses, tourists, etc. Court Street in Brooklyn pictured above, with its layers of storefronts, signage, benches, people, and dogs may do as much (or more) for Brooklyn’s image as shiny new condo towers or well-planned bike lanes. PPS helps cities, through people-oriented planning, achieve this quality of place.

It needs to be top-notch, and it needs to avoid the shelf

Which brings us to the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan: the first plan for the City in 50 years that will produce a “policy and strategic framework” that will establish a city-wide vision for the future, how to pursue that vision, and how to get started (full disclosure: your author is on the steering committee for this project). While the initial round of public hearings kicks off Saturday October 22 from 9 AM-1 PM at Birmingham Crossplex, the notion of “placemaking” will most likely be generally, rather than specifically addressed in the Plan. It  will be up to all of us, once the Plan is produced, to insist on great place-making within the individual projects suggested by this Plan.

Civic pride ca. 1971--it didn't last long at this park

Birmingham, like other cities, used top-down approaches to public space for much of its existence. If you have enlightened leaders then this gets you the Olmsted Brothers Park System plan of 1924 (only partially implemented, unfortunately).  Less enlightened leadership and planning departments gave us the redesign of Magnolia (now Brother Bryan) Park, seen above in a 1971 newspaper article. Totally out-of-context A-frame picnic huts, formal reflecting pools, and ugly metal benches were the palette of that era’s City Planning Department. Today these same elements, forlorn and rotting, remain but the public mainly doesn’t care to use this park. What if, instead of the City continuing to spend money annually to keep it up, the park were turned over to a people-powered placemaking process? A vision established, a top designer similar to that used at Railroad Park could be hired to reconstruct this space. The Comprehensive Plan will probably identify Five Points South as a vibrant neighborhood with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness being this park. With the Plan as a roadmap, we can tackle this and other place-making needs around the city by involving good consultants like PPS, and designing from the bottom up, not the top down. Too many good plans have sat on the shelf in this City, from the Olmsted Brothers to the 2004 City Center Master Plan.This time around, actual implementation would be a refreshing change.

The potential for great "place" is here...

A lot of us, despite the challenges and frustrations of the City, have an intuition about the “soul” of Birmingham; the fundamentals of great place-making, we sense, are here. With the right nurturing, we just maybe could turn that long-vaunted “potential” into reality. Hey, if they can ice-skate to Christmas tunes in the middle of Detroit…

[thanks to dig downtown detroit for the Campus Martius pic; Project for Public Spaces for the NYC pics; bhamwiki for the news article; visual2 for the South East Lake neighborhood pic]