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Small but Mighty Acts of Urbanism at Birmingham's Pepper Place


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Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

By Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP


 

We all want to design spaces that benefit those who use them, and often we think that to make a big impact, we have to design a big project. But that’s not always the case. 

It doesn’t require a large budget, a big site, a dense downtown, or a substantial scope to have an impact on the neighborhood. Even small interventions—when done right—have the potential to make a place more people-centric. Modest projects can boost pedestrian traffic and make an area more walkable. They can encourage people to gather and hang out. And they can significantly improve the look, feel, and functionality of the streetscape.

We call these types of interventions “small but mighty acts of urbanism,” and we had the opportunity to carry out a number of such acts recently to energize the Pepper Place Entertainment District in Birmingham, Alabama.

Pepper Place occupies the formerly industrial Lakeview District at the eastern edge of downtown, an area that had fallen into decline by the late 1980s. In 1988, local developer Sloss Real Estate purchased the abandoned Dr. Pepper syrup plant and the Martin Biscuit Building and began adapting them into a design district with a focus on local businesses.

In 2000, Sloss added a farmer’s market in the Pepper Place parking lot with the goal of helping small Alabama farms. Launched with just seven tents, the market eventually came to attract more than 10,000 people on Saturdays during peak months. (When the pandemic struck, it reinvented itself as a highly popular drive-through farmer’s market and is still going strong.)  

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Pepper Place site plan with the Bettola trellis (magenta), the Blueprint building (blue), and Jeni’s Ice Cream (red). Image: David Baker Architects



Without the visionary work of Sloss Real Estate's Cathy Sloss, Pepper Place and the farmer's market would not have become the evolving, lively district it is today. It has grown to encompass more than 350,000 square feet, including a theater, restaurants, galleries, shops, and a host of other businesses. It grew piece by piece over time, changing the area piece incrementally into a vibrant, walkable environment that draws people from all over town.


Bettola Patio

The Bettola trellis and patio help define the restaurant's seating area and delineate the pedestrian walking path. Image: Chris Luker

Bettola Trellis and Patio. Image: Chris Luker

DBA has undertaken a number of small projects at Pepper Place that have had outsized effects. First, we worked with Sloss to enhance a makeshift patio used by the Bettola restaurant in the Martin Biscuit Building. The patio was right alongside a public alley, a parking lot, and a public sidewalk, and there wasn’t much feeling of separation between diners and passersby. The only shade came from scattered canvas sails, which gave the patio a cluttered feeling.

We replaced the sails with a vine-covered weathering steel trellis and inserted a fireplace and lounge area, defining public outdoor “rooms.” A trellis and some vines can make a surprising impact. The changes clearly delineate the restaurant space and the public space. We added a grid of lights to signal this zone along the alley.


Blueprint Building

Little moves, like the bike rack, help hold the street corner and create an inviting entrance to the Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

Next, we took on the adaptation of the 1940s-era Birmingham Blueprint Company building, upgrading the building to house office space and a restaurant by local restaurateur Dean Robb. One of the challenges was to connect the outlying building to Pepper Place as a whole. We negotiated with the City to extend the pedestrian alley and activate it with an open-sided courtyard and landscape improvements that link the site to the rest of the entertainment district.

A new front door with storefront windows and an awning provides a friendlier face on the street. We inserted generous windows, ganging them together for maximum effect. We added benches as well as bicycle racks outside the entrance, creating a place for people to sit at the bus stop directly outside—a small but hospitable touch.


Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion

A custom pattern from Fireclay Tile invigorates a simple facade treatment at Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker

Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker

Our most dramatic intervention at Pepper Place was to create a focal point and place for people to hang out. We created a freestanding pavilion for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, converting six spaces in the main parking lot into a dynamic gathering place. Paired with a building of the same height across the street, the structure makes for a sort of gateway into Pepper Place.

The pavilion incorporates a 640-square-foot “jewel box” that houses the ice cream shop, with an adjacent open-air patio shaded by a graphic weathering steel roof. The building shields the patio from the busy road. Farmer’s market customers can sit on the patio’s bleacher-style seating and listen to live music. The pavilion brings additional traffic to the market, and the welcoming outdoor hang-out spot has proven popular during the pandemic.

We hand-drew the tile pattern based on materials from our frequent collaborator Fireclay Tile. Creating explicit pattern details for the fabricators ensured that the shop’s cladding would have an appealing and varied visual texture. With small moves, details matter.


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Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker



These kinds of interventions cost much less than grand buildings. If we are mindful with every move and detail, we can really make cities about people. We can turn sprawling parking lots into cohesive urban environments, and we can bring additional dynamism to already thriving areas.

There’s something inherently appealing about small but thoughtful changes to the urban realm. We always keep our eye out for these opportunities, and we plan to make a lot more of these small but mighty moves.

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Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at DBA. She established and leads DBA_BHM, our southeastern office in Birmingham, Alabama. Her diverse projects include affordable housing, market-rate housing, commercial buildings, and policy studies. You can contact Amanda here.

 

Image: David Baker Architects

Pepper Place site plan with the Bettola trellis (magenta), the Blueprint building (blue), and Jeni’s Ice Cream (red). Image: David Baker Architects

The Bettola trellis and patio help define the restaurant's seating area and delineate the pedestrian walking path. Image: Chris Luker

Bettola Trellis and Patio. Image: Chris Luker

Little moves, like the bike rack, help hold the street corner and create an inviting entrance to the Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

Blueprint Building. Image: Chris Luker

Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker

A custom pattern from Fireclay Tile invigorates a simple facade treatment at Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker

Jeni’s Ice Cream Pavilion. Image: Chris Luker