I go off the radar for a month or so and look what happens. Chik-fil-a, then the Fire Station, and a whole lot of press about both. There’s been plenty of great coverage by B’ham Architect and others, so I won’t rehash either story. Anyone who’s lived in an urban place (people in jones valley, this applies to you) realizes that a drive thru in an island of walkable urbanism and the demolition of culturally and architecturally significant places in favor of some quick cash for the city and a pelham-approved drug store design is absurd. So I won’t waste my time on those who don’t get what all the fuss is about.
Instead, I’m interested in how things like a drive thru, a miami-style box, and the general erosion of urban fidelity happens without more people going to the mattresses about it. With voter turnout at 26% last election, it’s fair to say apathy is one issue. And certainly not everyone is interesting in nerding out about urbanism like some people. But with so many fired up about the aforementioned recent issues, there is at least a core of residents very much interested in what happens to the city. So why then does it seem like outrage in Birmingham only comes when the property is fenced off and the demolition crews show up?
Although Birmingham has been the subject of study for its neighborhood participation program put into place in the 1970’s, when it comes to land use changes - the very changes that can most impact how a neighborhood functions and feels - there is a lack of information exchange between those departments in the city (council, planning dept, public works, etc) and residents. Neighborhood associations are assumed to fill this void, but neighborhood associations are often insular and at times parochial. Information about what changes are happening to a neighborhood should be available to all residents, not just those that have the time and inclination to join a neighborhood association. There needs to be multiple avenues of communication and the dissemination of information for the public to have a chance at being a part of the decision-making process.
There are many cities that get this. In Seattle, every proposed land use change requires an 18×24″ yellow sign be posted on the property in question. For larger projects that require any sort of environmental review, a large billboard sign must be posted on the property. These signs include simple diagrams/maps, a description of the project, and how the public can get involved. In addition, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development clearly spells out exactly what the zoning approval process is and even offers tips on how to most effectively get involved in the decision making process.
The Seattle Public Process
The Birmingham Public Process
Bad development happens all the time in Seattle (those in B’ham can be thankful the dreaded four-pack hasn’t spread to the South yet), but the process ensures that the public has a legitimate chance to weigh in on decisions. Birmingham, by contrast, lacks this basic process.
Without such a process, it’s no wonder that historic buildings get razed for parking lots, domes become the city’s excuse for a economic redevelopment strategy, and buildings that no one but the developer wants in the neighborhood end up flying through the permitting process intended to represent the public welfare.
Focusing on Walgreen’s or Chik-fil-a or Eleventh Ave or Terminal Station or the dome or the streetcars that were ripped up or the original reed books or the capri or any number of other fiascos is a preoccupation with symptoms rather than diseases. Birmingham needs an overhaul in how it is governed by public officials, how citizens are engaged in the process, and how both communicate with each other.
The dialogue and activism shown over the last month is itself encouraging in Birmingham. But unless the energy stirred up over recent issues is channeled into changing the sorts of deep structural flaws mentioned above, corrupt politicians, ill-conceived plans, and personal agendas will continue to trump any kind of renaissance or even preservation for Birmingham.Tags: public process, suburbanization, walgreens