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Cathy Crenshaw: Downtown Birmingham is a Success Story Waiting to Happen


The Birmingham News - By Cathy Crenshaw
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Downtown Birmingham is a remarkable place. Our City Center is rich in historic character, growing increasingly active and vibrant as new residents and small businesses continue to move in. It has the potential to become an engine for revitalization throughout Birmingham and the surrounding region.

These were among the conclusions of a team of distinguished architects and urban planners who visited Birmingham last month. The group, Loeb Fellows from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, spent a busy three days working with residents and stakeholders in Park Place, the new residential neighborhood on the former site of the Metropolitan Gardens housing project. The objective was to imagine the next phase of Park Place.

The immediate result of this process was the development of specific goals for the neighborhood, along with recommendations for achieving them. The goals and recommendations revolved around three key areas of focus: the "heart" of Park Place (Marconi Park), the neighborhood's "soul" (plans for a community center and interpretation of the Civil Rights history of the former Phillips High School), and its "stomach" (attracting a grocery store to the neighborhood and increasing support for Jones Valley Urban Farm).

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Crenshaw is chief executive of Sloss Real Estate, which specializes in urban renovation and construction projects such as the Park Place development in downtown Birmingham. ]

As the process unfolded, the Loeb group became extremely impressed with the physical layout of Birmingham -- as planners usually are -- and with the opportunities it presents. The group's consideration of Park Place was part of an overarching conversation about promoting better connectivity in the entire downtown area.

Specifically, the group looked at opportunities for connecting Park Place to the Loft District, downtown residents to jobs, downtown workers to restaurants and businesses, and the various neighborhoods and cultural institutions to each other. They recognized the need to create attractive pathways that encourage the 80,000 people that live and work downtown to get out and explore their surroundings.

Think of it this way: The average worker in Birmingham drives 31 miles per day to and from work. They park their car in a deck or lot when they arrive and seldom leave their building until the end of the day. In a very real sense, our attachment to our cars prevents Birmingham from enjoying the kind of urban vitality that is found in numerous other American cities. This is a major obstacle to building a better downtown--but not one that should be difficult to fix. For example, we can:

  • Take substantive steps to continue increasing the number of people living downtown, including creation of a comprehensive residential marketing plan;
  • Reorganize the downtown DART system, creating a 20th Street "elevator," running at five-minute intervals to move people between the BJCC complex and Five Points South;
  • Reorient the relationship of transit and public parking within the downtown area in a way that encourages people to park farther away from their destination and either walk or ride the DART to their offices -- thereby saving money, getting healthier, and both enjoying and contributing to the quality of life in the city;
  • Encourage the use of alternative transportation by restriping selected streets to create a network of bike lanes in the City Center;
  • Incorporate "wayfinding" street signage that provides pedestrians with a conceptual connection between our outstanding downtown cultural institutions, such as the Museum of Art, the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and McWane Center;
  • Update the downtown landscape plan to "freshen up" main pedestrian corridors like 20th Street and Second and Fourth Avenues North;
  • Build on our reputation as a "tree city" by planting shade trees wherever possible downtown.

As our recent visitors noted, downtown Birmingham is a success story waiting to happen. With continued interest and involvement from residents, businesses and neighborhood and community groups -- and strong direction and support from leaders in both the public and private sectors -- we can make it happen.