I wanted to give some coverage to the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Tower non-profit which is seeking to preserve and restore one of my favorite iconic buildings on the Birmingham skyline. We posted a photo series a couple of years ago on the condition of the building’s interior. Hopefully, this non-profit can return the Hotel to its erstwhile glory.
Gallup Business Journal published a story called “Where You’ll Want to Live in 2032“, in which Alabama fares errr…not well. When West Virginia, a state whose workers are showing up only to have their place of business explode or cripple their lungs, are in better shape…Oh forget it, just take a look:
Move over, Birmingham. Vestavia is also doing a plan for the future. A whole five years of the future. Typically, a “vision plan” is at least a decade, and more typically 15-20 years of planning. Cities evolve over decades, not years, so a 5 year vision plan is a bit like asking a person what the next couple months of their life will look like. Nice, but not particularly useful. That’s not to say the 5 year window isn’t a useful planning window, but not for a vision plan, which focuses on high level goals that are then implemented through more specific and narrowly focused efforts. Also, where’s the web presence for this effort? Will the materials from tonight’s meeting be online for the majority of people who, right or wrong, won’t show up to the event?
Without any graphics of the planning process itself available, I thought this standard chart of the levels of public participation might be an appropriate stand in:
The Birmingham News is reporting that the land swap deal between UAB and the City of Birmingham is going forward. Details of the arrangement are here; in short, UAB is trading a series of parcels near the Railroad Park for parcels around the UAB campus that the City owns. The City also pledged to help UAB move forward with a series of street closures.
[Side note: street closures (also called vacated streets) are often irreversible losses of valuable public networks, and so should be approached with caution. As usual, Portland has a solid explanation of how they handle a vacated street proposal. And as usual, Birmingham will likely not have an explanation until after the fact.]
It’s nice to see the City taking such an active role in shaping redevelopment in the city core. Many of us who care about Birmingham’s future have been championing the idea of a more forward-thinking, active role for the City for a while now. Yet it’s also tragic that such leadership and energy is being squandered on redundant showpieces rather than the systemic improvements and “steady as she goes” developments that would actually address two of the biggest problems in the central city: a lack of quality amenities/activities, and unsatisfactory public service provision (read: schools, transportation networks, municipal solvency).
Yes, there will be more activity with the baseball stadium there. And yes, it will bring people into the City to spend their money. But these will be short bursts of activity: such is the nature of such complexes. This alone cannot sustain or revitalize a district. It cannot create a sense of safety on the streets. It is the equivalent of a flash flood where a steady stream is preferable. Rather than helping push forward these sorts of “flash flood” activity generators, the City should focus on restoring the quality of life amenities that actually attract people to places in steady streams. What are these amenities? Well, diverse housing choices (new & old construction, upscale and affordable, standalone houses and mid-rise apartments), access to daily shopping and other services (beyond proximity, access of course also means quality streets usable for every mode of transit at a network level), and finally a sense of safety. This last one is tricky, because perception is (arguably) more important than reality. But certainly creating places that are active throughout the day are an important step towards creating the sense of safety. Oh and those pesky issues like municipal solvency and school quality (not to mention other public service provision). These aren’t sexy, there are rarely ribbons attached to be cut, and they’re often difficult to solve in an election cycle. But they are the things that keep Birmingham where it is.
steady as she goes: diversified housing in the central city
So step away from the silver bullets, and let’s get to work on addressing these items in the comprehensive plan. In the meantime, make it easier for projects like the Phoenix Lofts or Cityville to get built (although maybe ease up a bit on the retail programming for realism’s sake). Work your ass off to get a grocery store north of 5th Ave S. Work with local business owners to try to keep the city center active after 6:00p. Let’s do something!
I am happy to report that UAB has broken ground on a new visual arts center. The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts is currently scheduled to be opened in June of 2013 and will be the future home of the department of Art and Art History. Totaling 26,000 square feet, the arts center will expand UAB’s current exhibition space, enabling the art department to host larger exhibitions. The site’s proximity to other cultural venues, such as the Alys Stephens Center and the Theater Department will contribute to fostering a coherent arts district for the UAB community. Fortunately, UAB was able to secure funds from private donations so that the UA trustees couldn’t put the kabosh on it. The design was drafted by Los Angeles-based Randall Stout Architects (who worked as Senior Associate to Frank Gehry, whose influence is palpable in the design); with its silver zinc facade and cantilevered volumes it will be an architectural signature for the campus. The art and art history departments are currently housed in the brutalist style monolith of the Humanities Building, so it should be interesting to see how UAB repurposes those vacant spaces, and how they handle parking on the site. Perhaps the English department will expand? The visual arts center is also being constructed on the site where the United Methodist Church was bulldozed a few years back. Despite that, the addition of the Visual Arts Center to UAB’s campus will be an enormous asset for both UAB and the Southside community as a whole.
The architect describes the IVA thus:
“The Institute for the Visual Arts (IVA) design is envisioned as an iconic two-story building that will support the Department of Art and Art History’s vision to be identified as a site of artistic innovation. Located on a prominent campus corner, the IVA will complete UAB’s vision for the arts and create an arts destination for students, faculty, staff and members of the greater Birmingham community.
Programmatically, the IVA will provide exhibition spaces for an active program of regularly changing exhibitions of historic and contemporary art including student and faculty exhibitions that serve as teaching tools for the faculty of the School of Arts and Humanities. The Project will enhance teaching and learning by providing studio and classroom space, and a permanent home for the art history program that is currently housed in temporary quarters. All galleries, classrooms and administrative offices are organized around a two story atrium lobby.In the spirit of the UAB Campus Master Plan, “to enhance the pedestrian qualities of the Campus and build desirable linkages”, the selected site plan includes a Sculpture Plaza to the southwest. The Sculpture Plaza, an extension of the main atrium lobby, will provide a centralized special events gathering space for the entire Arts District. Designed to support a wide range of events from catered dinners to musical, art, and media performances the plaza will add an active, visible, source of energy that will provide a destination for the students and art community.”
Consider donating to the visual arts center campaign.
The blue polygon represents the infill site of the Visual Arts Center. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any site plans online.
UAB has the IVA sited within the clustered ‘Cultural District.’
East and West elevations of the Visual Arts Center.
UAB’s visual arts center has a strong resemblance to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Birmingham is currently undertaking a comprehensive planning process with a twenty year framework, the first since 1961. The City Council approved a $570,000 proposal to retain Goody, Clancy & Associates of Boston with KPS Group as the local consultant.
Beginning with Burnham’s Plan of Chicago 1909 (the first comprehensive planning document), it is rare that a comprehensive plan is implemented in its totality, in part because of issues of temporal and spatial scales, coupled with the evolutive nature of a city’s ever changing needs up against a more or less static document. Comprehensive planning is, nevertheless, a critical part of the visioning process for any community and a comp. plan can be composed such as to permit flexibility and adaptability for changing conditions.
I encourage readers to participate in the visioning process and to browse the documents and maps in the resource library, as well as lobbying the city for a systematic overhaul of the zoning ordinance, which is as obsolete as the original comp. plan. Any comprehensive plan is an iterative process, and the city planning department and its planning consultants need public input to make this a truly comprehensive plan.
The HC has, in the past, been highly critical of silver bullet proposals and vocal in decrying the myth of sports stadiums as a catalyst for economic development. However, upon reading about the nixing of an on-campus football stadium with a seating capacity up to 30,000 by the UA Board of Trustees, I find myself almost chagrined (and I don’t even give a damn about football).
The Board apparently had the following to say in defense of its position: “A majority of the Board believes that an on-campus football stadium is not in the best interest of UAB, the University System or the State,” it said. “It is the Board’s duty to be responsible stewards of the limited resources available for higher education. In these difficult economic times of rising tuition and decreasing state funds, we cannot justify the expenditure of $75 million in borrowed money for an athletic stadium which would only be used a few days each year. The UAB football program has not generated sufficient student, fan or financial support to assure the viability of this project.” The statement called it the “wrong project at the wrong time” and added that the board “remains committed to the important mission and success of the university, the medical school and the hospital for the benefit of UAB students and the State of Alabama.”
UAB’s long range vision has the football stadium sited just east of I-65 and just south of the proposed baseball park, thereby creating an unofficial “sports district,” which could, in theory, work quite well with the right mix of uses. Note that parking is clustered just west of the interstate. If you have to build surface parking, it might as well be by the interstate.
While the debt would take 30 years to service, and UAB certainly has other areas that should be prioritized for improvement (for the time being I’ll refrain from what I think those should be), there is something vaguely punitive about the Board’s ruling, nevermind the fact that Governor Bentley categorically refused to raise taxes for education. At the same time, it very well may be the “wrong project at the wrong time,” but when is it ever the “right time” to invest 75 million dollars in a future many of us won’t experience? Would the Board have balked if UAB proposed a a statue of Bear Bryant to replace Vulcin on the summit of Red Mountain? UAB has been attempting to build a less commuter oriented campus (applause) and, in SEC country, having a viable football program is often part of that. UAB’s campus green was one such project designed to engender a classical campus environment for students and nearby residents. This might be an opportunity for the city and Birmingham to consider redevelopment strategies for Legion Field and UAB’s presence west of the I-65 corridor that acts like a Berlin Wall. Like other large urban campuses, UAB might consider becoming a commercial developer to revitalize areas like 5 Points, which would be a boon for both the campus and the city. “David Fleming, the president of Operation New Birmingham, said he remains optimistic about the growth of the area around Railroad Park, where economic development officials were counting on both the UAB stadium and Birmingham’s new baseball park.” The foregoing quote highlights one of the major flaws in the theory behind Railroad Park and its attendant sports facility developments. Would love to hear from the UAB and Southside communities about their reactions to the Board’s ruling….
Arnold believes in UAB. GO BLAZERS!
“For me life is continuously being hungry” and “Start wide, expand further, and never look back” are quintessential mottoes for UAB’s future development. EXPAND FURTHER
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Kudos to al.com for covering the Occupy Birmingham chapter of Occupy Wall Street, which has been gaining momentum nationwide for more than a month. Birmingham is no stranger to civil unrest and public demonstrations. While I have my own reservations about the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, it is refreshing to see a public space like Railroad Park activated for political expression. Watch out for police dogs and fire hoses out there! If anyone in our readership is attending or participating in the Occupy Birmingham protest we’d love to hear from you.