What top planners are learning from Birmingham about redevelopment

single-meta-cal October 24, 2017
Earlier this month, Birmingham hosted the annual joint planning conference for the Alabama and Mississippi chapters of the American Planning Association. Huntsville’s long-range planner Dennis Madsen attended the gathering and City Blog asked for his impressions about what’s foremost on the minds of southeast planners.

The two-state APA conference is an opportunity for city planners, developers, realtors, public officials, among other professions to convene and share their experiences and expertise on issues facing communities big and small in Alabama and Mississippi.  I was able to spend a few days in Birmingham as part of the conference, and I was struck most by the change in the city, even in the short time since I had last been there a few years ago.  Not unlike Huntsville, their city has seen numerous new and innovative projects spring up.  Notable among them:

Railroad Park – Open for almost eight years (pictured above), it’s a fantastic example of how to create urban open space in a blighted area, and how that open space can generate additional investment

Regions Field – A classic example of an intown ballpark, it was one of the first pieces of revitalization Downtown

The Pizitz Building – A developer repurposed an iconic department store building into a vertical mixed-use project containing apartments, offices, retail and the one-of-a-kind Pizitz Food Hall

Pepper Place  – Working from an old Dr. Pepper syrup and bottle plant, this collection of historic industrial buildings was reimagined as a multi-block mixed-use complex including shops, restaurants, small offices and an outdoor market

The Rotary Trail – Formerly a sunken and abandoned railroad line, this was transformed – via the philanthropy of the Birmingham chapter of the Rotary Club – into a linear park linking Downtown to the Sloss Complex

While there is a lot to like about Birmingham’s renaissance, it is important to understand that it is not a model to be COPIED; rather there are lessons to be learned from Birmingham and reinterpreted for Huntsville.

Be who we are

A walk around Birmingham’s core will make it clear to anyone: Huntsville’s downtown will never be like Birmingham’s.  The larger blocks and the broader area define a center that has much more in common with stereotypical big cities.  The existing boundaries and smaller block sizes constrain our core into an area a fraction the size of the Magic City’s.  Though we have shared traits – a sizeable downtown medical campus, for instance – it’s unlikely we’ll ever be as tall or broad as their core.

And that’s OK.

What makes any city compelling is its ability to tell its own unique story.  Birmingham is telling theirs, through their park, their stadium, their redevelopment.  We are doing that as well in Huntsville, but in our own way: with historic neighborhoods that run right up to the edge of our downtown; with a plan to connect assets like Big Spring Park and the Historic Depot; with a network of alleys that can lead to hidden spaces within the interiors of our downtown blocks.  We will never be Birmingham, and that’s good.  What we want to be is uniquely Huntsville.

Take full advantage of strategic assets

If you spend any time there, it is easy to become jealous of Birmingham’s historic fabric.  It’s almost impossible to walk more than two blocks without passing an old department store, or industrial building, or warehouse.  These make great fodder for redevelopment and reinvestment because they help tell Birmingham’s story at the same time they offer opportunities for growth.  Pepper Place and the Pizitz building are particularly good examples of this.

Huntsville’s challenge is in the fact that – because of when our big expansion period occurred – we don’t have the breadth or depth of Birmingham’s resources.  If we know where to look, however, we can find our own.  In many cases, they’re part of our built environment.  Projects already realized include assets like Lowe Mill, Campus No. 805, Lincoln Mill, and many others.  There are others yet to be developed, like Stovehouse, and the Johnson and Grissom campuses.  We have plenty to work with if we know where to look and are willing to be creative.

But it’s not just about built fabric.  Ditto Landing, Monte Sano State Park, the various creeks and waterways that wind through our core, the pristine mountain views… all of these are an integral part of who we are as a city, and they can be embraced the way Birmingham embraced their warehouses and department stores.

It’s not just about Downtown

Planning conferences often involve “mobile workshops;” these are usually bus tours, but occasionally happen on foot or bike, and they get attendees out of the traditional convention setting and into the real world beyond.  Birmingham had a lot of excellent mobile workshops, and notable among them was a tour of some of the older neighborhoods that lay outside the Downtown.  Focusing on the Avondale and Lakeview communities, the tour underscored the fact that downtowns are part of a broader urban ecosystem, and that smaller, supporting nodes are just as important to the growth and vitality of the city in general.  It was reassuring to see the BIG Picture approach affirmed, that our efforts at catalyzing redevelopment in places like the old Grissom Campus, or on the Berachah site, or around Madison Square Mall, will complement our Downtown, and amplify the benefits for more of our community.

Find community partners

Even a city the size of Birmingham can’t do it alone.  Private money was vital to realizing the dream of Railroad Park, and the Rotary Trail represented an incredible effort by the philanthropic community.  It is incredibly important that the city actively seek and be willing to partner with private sector entities and non-profits to help build the community.  After all, they are as much a part of the development ecosystem as we are.

Livability is key

Regardless of the specific projects undertaken, or who was responsible for implementing them, at the end of the day it is about creating a city where people WANT to be.  Whether it’s parks or trails, cool lofts or hot new restaurants, ballfields or breweries, new apartments or historic offices, the goal – in Huntsville, in Birmingham, in any city really that wants to thrive – is to make a community where people enjoy living, working, worshiping, learning, and being part of something bigger than themselves.