Sloss Real Estate in the New York Times: "Daughter of Birmingham Plans Revival"

01.26.11

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By:  Donna Paul 
Photos By Meg McKinney For New York Times
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — This city was founded, quite deliberately, in the late 19th century by a group of industrialists who wanted to capitalize on proximity to vast deposits of coal, iron and limestone. But after a period of prosperity and growth, Birmingham was brought to its knees by the Depression and wracked by the end of segregation.


Birmingham has never fully recovered its prominence. Its population today, 230,000, is less than it was in 1930.

Now, a descendant of one of Birmingham’s founders is trying to invigorate a section of the city and bring people and businesses back to the urban core. Catherine Sloss Crenshaw, whose great-great-grandfather James Withers Sloss was a prominent iron manufacturer, has bought numerous properties in the Lakeview district with the goal of creating a design-centered destination.

Lakeview flourished as a light industrial area in the 1930s to the 1960s, but as white flight took hold in the city, and as industry declined, many of its buildings were abandoned. “If you drove down these streets in 1988,” Ms. Crenshaw said, “there was no rhyme or reason to how the buildings related to downtown, or to each other. Now there is a master plan and an identity.”

She has bought the properties through her family company, Sloss Real Estate. The 90-year-old firm was started by Arthur Page Sloss Sr. and today the chairman is A. Page Sloss Jr., 85. His daughter, Ms. Crenshaw, 57, is president of the firm.


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  In Birmingham's Lakeview District, a Revival is Planned 

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Lakeview is southeast of the city center, across the main railroad tracks. The northern border of the 36-square-block district, where Ms. Crenshaw and Sloss Real Estate have focused, is anchored by the Pepper Place development, named for the 1930s-era brick industrial building that was formerly a Dr Pepper syrup plant that closed in 1971. It was vacant until 1988, when Sloss bought it for $400,000. It has nearly 31,000 square feet.


“When I first walked into the Dr Pepper plant,” Ms. Crenshaw said, “I found beautiful bell columns, a classical design and large windows that allowed the most beautiful light to fill the space.” Throughout the 1990s, Sloss bought adjacent buildings totaling approximately 59,000 square feet. Prices were relatively low, she said, averaging $17 per square foot.

In 1999 she bought the 51,000-square-foot Martin Biscuit building, a brick industrial building in the same style as the Dr Pepper plant, for $500,000; it was an empty shell that required $4.75 million in additional investment.

The Dr Pepper plant and Martin Biscuit building were certified as historic by the National Park Service, thereby qualifying them for tax credits that provided 15 to 20 percent of the rehab costs, Ms. Crenshaw said.

Today, the Pepper Place complex has 225,000 square feet, representing an investment of $12.9 million by Sloss. The spaces are rented by design-centric businesses: furniture showrooms, galleries, photography studios, architecture, design and construction firms, a garden shop, a winery and even a small community theater. There are several restaurants, and more are expected. At present, net rents range from $10 to $12 per square foot.

Ms. Sloss did not set out to be an urban redeveloper. She began working with her father at age 21, managing properties in the firm’s portfolio. “For 10 years I toed the line, doing the books, managing buildings, doing it the way things had always been done,” Ms. Crenshaw said.

Her wake-up call came in 1986, she said, when she realized that small farms just 15 to 20 miles from the city center were disappearing. “Where I used to ride horses as a teenager suddenly there were big shopping malls,” she said.

“We had to stop losing the farms and forest land that I saw being eaten up by suburban development,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do something to rebuild these beautiful neighborhoods.’ I knew that if we didn’t rebuild the city we’d also lose the farms.”

In 2006 she supplemented her growing awareness with a Loeb Fellowship to attend the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. Using what she learned there, she developed a master plan for Pepper Place and for a farmer’s market that she had established in 2000.

She returned to Harvard in 2007-8 as a visiting scholar, during which time, she said, “I dug deeper into what makes healthy cities, to really grasp the fundamentals behind good public housing, walkability, green spaces and public transportation.”

Ten blocks to the west of Lakeview along the rail line, a 19-acre section of Railroad Park opened last fall. It is the first phase of a master plan to convert a vacant seam of the city along the railroad to a 100-acre green space that ends at Pepper Place and the old Sloss iron furnaces, now a national historic landmark. Ms. Crenshaw was on the first steering committee for the park 20 years ago.

“Cathy has great intuition for leveraging private development with public goals and objectives,” said William Gilchrist, an architect who is a former director of planning, engineering and permits for the city of Birmingham.

The goal is to leverage the progress made at Pepper Place to other areas. The current master plan for Lakeview was recently completed by fifth-year architecture students at Auburn University’s Urban Studio program, directed by Cheryl Morgan. It shows supermarkets, cinemas, a boutique hotel, and a residential infrastructure.

Gregory Hodges, the president of a marketing agency in Pepper Place, has observed Ms. Crenshaw over the years as a tenant there. “A lot of people are surprised by what happens at Pepper Place,” Mr. Hodges said. “I am not. I’ve seen Cathy discriminated against by businessmen, who thought they could run rings around her. They couldn’t and they didn’t.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 26, 2011, on page B9 of the New York edition.