After a long nap, some holiday downtime has allowed me a chance to get back to posting. Thanks to Amos for holding things down while I was away. For this article, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the Railroad Park. I’ve been mostly silent on the park as there has been more than enough coverage of it among Birmingham urbanists and downtown geeks. I visited it just before it opened (sidenote: those fences were really lacking in security) and was really happy with what’s been done within the park itself. Tom Leader’s office does generally great work, and this project has been no exception.
The Birmingham News recently reported (map above) on the increased signs of development interest in the area, which is to be expected around such a large urban project in a depressed area. Amid all the talk of the park as an economic development engine, a tool for urban revitalization and a general sign of progress in the CBD, I couldn’t help but wonder: is there any plan for the area?
Thus far, I’ve found the following:
- ONB developed a set of design guidelines and some area design firms have drawn up conceptual renderings of what sort of development would occur. These are also packaged into a brochure for prospective developers. However, it is unclear what if any import this has to the local government’s development and planning policies.
- As part of the 2004 Master Plan Update (PDF), Urban Design Associates branded the area as the “Technology and Cultural District” and recommended “mixed use and mid-rise buildings…including research buildings, incubators, loft housing, cultural activities, and supporting retail”, but as this is a master plan update for the downtown area (as opposed to a specific area plan), they understandably stop short of an implementation strategy or detailed guidance.
While both of these efforts are valuable pieces of a redevelopment strategy for an area, neither is sufficient to ensure that future development fulfills the potential of the investment Birmingham has made in the Railroad Park. Redevelopment of such a large area is a complex process, it likely will require infrastructure upgrades, policies to protect the warehouses that define the area today (or are we no longer interested in that?), possibly enact a form-based code, and coordinate the host of other issues that need to be addressed in order to make the renderings, guidelines, or masterplan more than (good) ideas.
For a good example of the sort of coordination I’m referring to, check out the Portland Development Commission’s Pearl District Development Plan. As an area of warehousing, light industry and freight rail adjacent to the downtown, the Pearl District is in many ways a good case study of the potential for Birmingham’s own warehousing district around the Railroad Park. (It should be noted that there are many many structural and contextual differences between Birmingham and Portland that weaken the comparison, so take it with a grain of salt).
Two things stand out to me about the District Plan:
- By the time the district development plan was developed, there had been over 15 years and five different plans or studies done for the area, each building upon the previous and addressing everything from urban design issues to infrastructure provision to financing.
- The goal of the plan was to not only say what should be done, but also to pull together the resources to implement the plan.
In order for the Railroad Park to become more than a beautiful park, these two issues have to be addressed. Waiting until after the ribbon is cut to begin thinking about the surrounding area is far too late. Fortunately the market is slow right now and that buys Birmingham extra time to get it together.Birmingham should create a district plan that sets an agenda for how development should occur in the area and how to utilize city resources (like public service upgrades, standard service provisions, etc) to most effectively build on the park itself.
Also, as the Urban Land Institute recommended in 2002 and UDA echoed in 2004, Birmingham needs a redevelopment authority or other body that can take charge of these large scale urban redevelopment projects, marshaling the resources of the city as well as coordinating with property owners, developers, and other stakeholders. Operation New Birmingham has worked hard for many years, but it is incapable of pushing forward initiatives the way a redevelopment authority could (particularly in a city like Birmingham which has such weak planning resources to begin with). For examples of development authorities, check out the aforementioned Portland Development Commission and the Boston Development Authority.
Not all development is created equal. Without a plan or agency to actively shape the development of the area, the development that will take place around the Railroad Park is unlikely to resemble what has been envisioned above. Finally, if you know of additional resources or plans affecting the area, please comment and let us know. Not everything that gets done ends up online, and it’s certainly possible there’s more work out there that just hasn’t been well-publicized.Tags: boston, portland, railroad park, urban development