David Baker Architects

July 2020: The Magic is Back in Birmingham Part Three: The Future


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DBA designed the Birmingham outpost of Jeni’s Ice Creams, which is integrated into Pepper Place, a former light industrial and warehousing district in the Lakeview neighborhood that has been revitalized into a vibrant design, arts, dining, and business zone. Image: David Baker Architects

Part Three: The Future

Birmingham brims with opportunity because of its medium size, low rents, and low cost of land, which enables the new generation of developers to experiment with mixed-income and mixed-use projects. In both the public and private sector, a younger generation is taking the reins in Birmingham. In 2017, the city elected its first Millennial mayor, 37-year-old Randall Woodfin, and ousted two incumbents on the City Council in favor of younger newcomers.

The November 2017 swearing-in of Birmingham’s first Millennial Mayor, Randall Woodfin. Via Mayor Randall Woodfin Facebook page.

ARC Realty Co., a local real estate firm founded in 2013, is headed by a seasoned veteran of the industry, Tommy Brigham. His son Grant Brigham and several partners, who are all in their 30s, are developing a project on Railroad Park that will incorporate historic rehabilitation, condominiums, and market-rate apartments (DBA is designing the project in collaboration with local firm ArchitectureWorks). Atlanta-based developer Third & Urban, a real estate company beginning to undertake developments in Birmingham, is also headed by principals in their 30s. “There is a whole generational shift going on in the private and public leadership,” says Ann Florie, recently retired executive director of Leadership Birmingham, an organization that brings together 50 area leaders each year to educate them about current issues and challenges in the region. “I feel better now about Birmingham’s future than I have the entire time I’ve lived here.”

DBA’s design for Parkside Hotel, a collaboration with ARC Realty Co. and Birmingham firm ArchitectureWorks, flanks Railroad Park. Image: David Baker Architects

The younger generation of developers seems willing to try strategies that the more established development companies have avoided. Local firm Orchestra Partners, headed by two principals in their 30s, just completed a three-building mixed-use project, Founders Station, that includes restaurants, retail, office space, and condominiums, including micro-residential units and micro retail spaces, which are relatively unheard of for Birmingham.

Overcoming Challenges

Birmingham has no doubt been both implicated in and impacted by our nation’s history of racial discrimination and the resulting social and economic disparities, yet it has also recently taken steps toward recognition and healing: In 2017, President Obama designated a portion of the Birmingham Civil Rights District in downtown as a national monument. The six-block district was the site of a number of significant events of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a cultural and educational research center promoting understanding of the significance of civil rights, as well as the Civil Rights Trail. In the same year, nearby Montgomery opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, documenting the names of thousands of lynching victims across the South.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute stands adjacent to 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, the site of student demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. Image via flickr user quirkyjazz.

Of course, there is a tremendous amount of work addressing the inequities that continue to exist. A significant number of Birmingham’s citizens live in poverty, approximately 30 percent, which is higher than that of all but a dozen other large U.S. cities. Although unemployment in Alabama is at a historic low, a 2018 study by the national research and policy institute Policy Link found that unemployment rates for Alabama’s people of color tend to be double those of white workers. Birmingham’s workforce diversity does not reflect the population across all occupations: Some communities are being left behind. One of Mayor Woodfin’s promises during the election was to remember the rest of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods and spread the benefit of new investment coming into the city beyond just the downtown core. The desire to create more equitable, people-centered cities is at the heart of DBA’s practice. As my journey as an architect in Birmingham continues to unfold, I remain committed to bringing thoughtful, high-quality design to those in our City who need it most.
Parting Notes

As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, the redevelopment growing pains that we were experiencing in Birmingham just a few months ago may seem trivial. But it is only a matter of time before these challenges are once again in the foreground, bringing the potential pitfalls that rapid growth can entail. We have a chance—before the population shoots up—to establish inclusionary zoning measures, build a robust network of green open spaces, improve the public transit system, paint bike lanes, and find ways to deliver well-designed workforce and affordable housing.

DBA’s design of a Visitor Center for CityWalk BHAM, a new linear public park and connective corridor for the City of Birmingham beneath the I-59/20 bridges. Image: David Baker Architects.

Taking these proactive steps requires a strong political will and a clear vision for an evolving future Birmingham. This is our chance to learn from our past and become known as a vibrant city of inclusivity. This idea should be reflected in the design and program of the streetscape, buildings, and new development that we invite to come to Birmingham. We should set a higher standard for what we expect out of new development, all the while looking out for those in our city who are in need, particularly those in poverty. What Birmingham can offer is something the bigger cities can’t: a high quality of life with an accessible price tag. Like many mid-sized cities across America, Birmingham is coming into its own. Perhaps unlike other cities, it is stepping out of the shadow of its own history. Birmingham is poised to become better than it ever was and already is. As Ann Florie says, “In Birmingham, you can do things because of the scale, and the political will is there.”

It’s been almost four years since we moved back to Alabama and planted roots in Birmingham. The longer I’m here, the more deeply I love it and the more I am moved to participate. I get out of bed every morning motivated by the idea that, in Birmingham, I’m in the right place at the right time, and that as a progressive designer and a true city lover, I have a good chance of making a mark here. I miss San Francisco, but she probably doesn’t even realize I’m gone.

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

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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.

DBA designed the Birmingham outpost of Jeni’s Ice Creams, which is integrated into Pepper Place, a former light industrial and warehousing district in the Lakeview neighborhood that has been revitalized into a vibrant design, arts, dining, and business zone. Image: David Baker Architects

The November 2017 swearing-in of Birmingham’s first Millennial Mayor, Randall Woodfin. Via Mayor Randall Woodfin Facebook page.

DBA’s design for Parkside Hotel, a collaboration with ARC Realty Co. and Birmingham firm ArchitectureWorks, flanks Railroad Park. Image: David Baker Architects

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute stands adjacent to 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, the site of student demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. Image via flickr user quirkyjazz.

DBA’s design of a Visitor Center for CityWalk BHAM, a new linear public park and connective corridor for the City of Birmingham beneath the I-59/20 bridges. Image: David Baker Architects.