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Crenshaw Back from Harvard with Big Plans for Birmingham

01.06.2008

Birmingham Business Journal  
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Through the graffiti and asbestos in the long-abandoned Southside office complex, Cathy Crenshaw saw a gem.

The area around it was dilapidated, but Crenshaw and her father - who together run Sloss Real Estate - bought the building anyway with hopes their renovation would spark the rest of Southside and beyond to follow suit.

And it worked. Ridge Park is now surrounded by several other new and renovated office complexes.

Revitalizing the city her family helped build is a passion Crenshaw shares with anyone who will listen - even a European businessman who sat next to her on an airplane.

"I'm a cheerleader for Birmingham," she said with the landscape of the city - and Sloss Furnaces, which her great-great grandfather built more than a century ago - behind her in an almost all-glass-walled office at the top of Ridge Park.

Crenshaw, whose company is best known for building the mixed-income Hope VI housing development Park Place downtown, spent the last year at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, taking courses through the prestigious Loeb Fellowship, which allows urban planners, designers and artists to take courses that touch on just about anything in their field.

"I was like a kid in a candy store," she said.

She graduated last spring with the edict to "go back and change the world of your community."

And in 2008, she plans to do just that.

In the fall, Crenshaw will use what she learned to teach a class at the University of Alabama at Birmingham about designing healthy cities and how to mix public health and urban design. The class fits right into Crenshaw's longtime passion to make communities more walkable, limit suburban flight and encourage residents to live near the city's core.

With a record of renovation like Crenshaw's, president of Operation New Birmingham Michael Calvert said he doesn't doubt she will make a difference in the city's landscape.

"She has done an awful lot for the city and is committed to making progress in the city center," said Calvert, who has worked with her for years as she served as ONB chair and board member.

Now back from her Harvard stay, Crenshaw said she plans to spend more time in Birmingham in 2008 implementing many of the development ideas she came up with during her hiatus.

"That break was a good opportunity to reflect on things," Crenshaw said. "It let me stop and pull back and think about (what I want to do for the city) more objectively."

Her ultimate goal is to "bring the city back to life" and help reverse the damage suburban flight has done to the city center. It's not too late, she said, like it is in many other cities that have over-sprawled, such as Atlanta.

Calvert said he looks forward to hearing her ideas and initiatives that come from her "new perspective" and expects her to be a part of implementing the city's strategic master plan, which she helped create.

"She's definitely one to watch in 2008," he said.

Crenshaw also has captured the attention of newly elected Mayor Larry Langford. During his trip to Harvard for a new mayors seminar last month, she introduced him to many experts who could help him implement the ideas he has floating around in his head to improve Birmingham.

"He has so many great-big ideas," Crenshaw said. "This gives him the resources he can draw on to make it happen."

In 2008, Crenshaw will be working with Langford - at his request - and a group set up to decide the fate of Boutwell Auditorium. The group's plan is to come up with a "common vision" for it, which likely includes razing it and expanding it to take up an entire block in partnership with the Birmingham Museum of Art.

She believes in keeping the integrity of historic buildings and addresses similar projects with the question: "How can I honor what is of this place?" But she also supports knocking down the Boutwell to revitalize the area as a catalyst for other improvements around it.

"I'm a big believer in planning," she said. "If we're clear with what we want to do, then we tend to act and do it."