David Baker Architects

DBA BLOG

November 2019: The Magic is Back in Birmingham—Part Two, The Turnaround Begins


See all Blog
Fullwidth image

Courtyard of DBA’s Blueprint Building renovation in Birmingham, which houses a restaurant and offices. Photo: Luker Photography

November 2019

By the mid-1970s, the University of Alabama at Birmingham had become the city’s biggest employer. “The University of Alabama at Birmingham grew up in an automobile-centric era,” says James Fowler, former director of planning, design and construction for the university and current director of traffic engineering for the city. The campus master planning and architecture display that fact. Many of the university’s late 1960s and 1970s buildings read as modernist-era ramparts, focused not on the street but rather on the life in the buildings above the streets. Many of the campus’s buildings are connected by pedestrian bridges many stories up, hiding the bustling activity within the buildings from public life. But throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when most new development was happening in the suburbs outside of Birmingham, the university served as an anchor and a consistent beacon of life within downtown.

UAB Hospital. Image via flickr user Wally Argus

Located on a quarter of the land in downtown Birmingham, the university now fully embraces its role as an urban campus and is taking the lead on development and initiatives that prioritize people, multiple modes of transit, and sustainability. “UAB is focusing on dense quality infill development, not outward expansion,” says Fowler. “One of the strategies is to reduce surface parking and provide outlying parking decks for students and employees and encourage other modes of transit through road diets with generous, lush sidewalks and protected bike lanes.” In current construction projects on the south side of down town, the university is rebuilding people-centric main thoroughfares. “People use streets the way that they are designed. We just need to design them differently—for all modes of transit. Dr. Watts, president of the university, values people, and part of that is seen in the investment he and the university is making in green spaces, landscaping, and pedestrian infrastructure.”

The university is also one of the biggest innovators in the state—if not the country—particularly in the realm of medicine. Many of the doctors, work, discoveries and initiatives that come from the university are known globally. Locally, the institution continues to invigorate the south side of downtown by what Fowler describes as “focusing on connections around the edges of campus.” One recently implemented initiative is the Blazer Home Program, which awards employees a forgivable loan of up to $8,000 to buy or renovate a home in the neighborhoods surrounding the university. “The response to the program has been overwhelming,” says Fowler.

Catalytic Projects

In addition to the university’s contributions, two recent projects in particular have served as powerful catalysts for the revitalization of Birmingham’s downtown. The first is Railroad Park, which opened in 2010. Previously, the site had consisted of rail sidings and warehouses alongside an active 11-track rail corridor on an elevated viaduct. The city joined forces with the nonprofit Railroad Park Foundation and brought in TLS Landscape Architecture of Berkeley, California, to turn the site into a 19-acre park with a lake, water features, play areas, walking trails, and amphitheater. “This space had never been anybody’s, and now it is everybody’s,” says Cheryl Morgan, principal of local design firm Cheryl Morgan Design. “It proved we could do something for everyone, and it was so visible and transformative.”

Railroad Park, a conversion of former railyards into a 19 acre public amenity in the heart of Birmingham. image: ArchitectureWorks

The second catalytic project is Regions Field, a stadium for the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team. For years, the Barons played in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. In 2009, Robert Simon, president of local development company Corporate Realty, proposed bringing the team downtown to give workers a reason to stay in the area after work. Simon joined with the city and other developers and investors to create a feasibility study for the park, and the city exchanged land with the university to free up a site across the street from Railroad Park. The stadium opened in 2013 and now draws well over 400,000 fans each year. Railroad Park and Regions Field have been credited with downtown’s revival, spurring construction of multifamily residences, restaurants, and nightclubs. “In Hoover, the Barons had been one-offs, but downtown, they are multipliers,” says Morgan, because at its new site the team has given confidence to new development, reinvigorating a large swath of downtown and creating an economic ripple effect not possible in the suburbs.

Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team, adjacent to Railroad Park. Image via flickr user Nicolas Henderson

For Birmingham, an unprecedented amount of investment and new construction has followed and the vacancy rate has always been low downtown, presumably due to a lack of supply.

In March of 2018, the Birmingham City Council voted to provide $90 million over 30 years to expand downtown’s Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, including renovation of the facility’s Legacy Arena, and to help build a new stadium for the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s football team, the Blazers. The adjacent 50 acres to the stadium is being redeveloped by Corporate Realty to transform the abandoned Carraway Methodist Medical Center into a mixed-use development that could include residences, retail, restaurants, offices, a hotel, and entertainment venues. In April of 2018, the local Red Mountain Theatre Company announced it would construct a new arts campus on a half block in the Southside District.

Now, in addition to downtown itself, downtown-adjacent neighborhoods are blooming, and others are poised to follow. Former gritty, industrial, or dormant neighborhoods like Avondale, Woodlawn, and Lakeview are experiencing an influx of creative office, bars, restaurants, breweries, and new residents. Other neighborhoods are slower to follow but are coming. For example, Ensley, a once-vibrant neighborhood in north Birmingham, can sometimes seem like a ghost town, but seeds are being sown there, and there are signs of new economic life emerging. Brandon Cleveland, founder of local business consultancy The Upstream Group, believes in the potential of neighborhoods like Ensley, so much so that he relocated his business there just this year. “The comeback of Birmingham is like turning on a big spot light: it takes a while to warm up, but when it does, everyone can see it, and it will be bright.” He shares an office with another young socially conscious entrepreneur named Isaac Cooper, chief executive officer of IMC, who does financial consulting and education for low-income families. “We both felt a draw to come to Ensley and be a part of the community and plant roots here,” says Cooper.

Pepper Place in the Lakeview neighborhood of Birmingham, a former light industrial and warehousing district. Sloss Real Estate redeveloped a former Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant into a design and entertainment zone with a famer’s market, restaurants, galleries, and other businesses. Image via flickr user Andy Montgomery

Meanwhile, James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt and his apprentices are fueling a food revolution. Food and beverage providers are filling long-vacant storefronts throughout downtown. A shift in state beer laws in 2016, spurred by a statewide nonprofit organization called “Free the Hops,” opened the floodgates for breweries in Birmingham and more continue to set up shop.

The Kettles at Good People Brewing Company. Image via flickr user Natalie C.

However, the city is still missing affordable housing and diverse mixed-income neighborhoods, and some neighborhoods fear displacement. The new housing stock has been targeted for a narrow demographic: students, medical residents, and young adults with means but no kids. The Birmingham Housing Authority owns many sites in need of maintenance or a complete rethinking and is currently embarking on those efforts. Other organizations are trying to fill the gaps. In 2016, the Woodlawn Foundation, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming and supporting the Woodlawn neighborhood, completed a 64-unit affordable townhouse community. The waitlist stretched to 1,500 people. Local developer Ed Ticheli is converting downtown’s historic 12-story Martin Building into 140 residential micro units, with rents starting at less than $700 a month. Auburn University School of Architecture's Rural Studio, which two decades ago developed 20K Homes—small, inexpensive houses for underserved rural communities—is now testing the concept in some of Birmingham’s neighborhoods. “Birmingham presents a ripe opportunity to create mixed-income neighborhoods and to deliver diverse models of housing,” says Morgan.

This is Part Two of a three part series about DBA Principal Amanda Loper’s journey from San Francisco to her native state of Alabama.

_______________________________________________________________

 

 

Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, established and leads DBA_BHM, our southeastern office in Birmingham, Alabama. Amanda joined the firm in 2006 and was made Principal in 2014. Her diverse projects include affordable housing, market-rate housing, commercial buildings, and policy studies. Amanda focuses on the big-picture potential of sites as well as overseeing details that create unique built environments.  You can contact Amanda here.

Courtyard of DBA’s Blueprint Building renovation in Birmingham, which houses a restaurant and offices. Photo: Luker Photography

UAB Hospital. Image via flickr user Wally Argus

Railroad Park, a conversion of former railyards into a 19 acre public amenity in the heart of Birmingham. image: ArchitectureWorks

Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team, adjacent to Railroad Park. Image via flickr user Nicolas Henderson

Pepper Place in the Lakeview neighborhood of Birmingham, a former light industrial and warehousing district. Sloss Real Estate redeveloped a former Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant into a design and entertainment zone with a famer’s market, restaurants, galleries, and other businesses. Image via flickr user Andy Montgomery

The Kettles at Good People Brewing Company. Image via flickr user Natalie C.