Food Courts and Urban Revival


As the redevelopment of the Pizitz progresses, new details about what will actually be in the building continue to emerge, including more information about the planned food hall.

The Pizitz food hall actually received a shout out in Eater, a site which mostly focuses on the culinary happenings of the major cities in America. I am very happy to see Birmingham positively mentioned in the article, sadly it also gives a backhanded, elitist comment about our city. “Once a trend reaches Birmingham, Alabama, does that mean New Yorkers must be totally over it?“ While I am disappointed that Birmingham can’t simply be mentioned along with the other cities in this article without being considered some last to the table city, the premise of food halls inspired me to write about this development in America and how it relates back to the urban/sub-urban divide.

The term food court conjures up many different thoughts, but I imagine for most Americans good food is not typically one of those thoughts. Enter the new food hall trend, which seeks to take this old concept of a large open area with multiple food vendors and shared seating, transforming it into something that creates great culinary experiences and is a place people actually want to come eat at. But why do we have such a negative view of food courts in the first place, so negative that a new term has to be created to differentiate it from the old? I actually think this ties directly into the effects of urban vs suburban built environments.

If I asked you to name a place that consistently serves bad, overpriced food, what would it be? Not a specific restaurant or food court, but a general type of food establishment you can find all over America. I’m sure people have a lot of place ideas, but mine would be amusement parks. Food is almost always mediocre to terrible and always overpriced. Why? Simple economics. No one goes to an amusement park for the food, they go for entertainment. People eat at amusement parks because they are hungry and have been walking around all day. They buy food because the parks do not let them bring food in. There is an economic term we use to describe this phenomena: easy money. Of course the food at an amusement park is terrible, what are you going to do about it?

While this is an extreme example of consumers having little choice, food courts often fall into a similar, if less extreme, situation. A classic, truly American environment you are guaranteed to find a food court in is the shopping mall. Once again, most of these mall food courts live up to the stereotype of well, being food courts. But a shopping mall is a long way from an amusement park, so why the similar outcome with food? Growing up, I accepted this reality without question. It was not until I traveled to China that I first encountered a food court genuinely worth eating at. The major cities of China also have large shopping malls, and many of these places have food courts. What was surprising was how good the food was and how popular these places are. Having been to China twice and having spent considerable time there, I can safely say this is not a fluke. So why do we in American have such mediocre food courts when food courts in China and many other places in the world are wonderful, tasty options? I think fundamentally this relates back to my analogy of the amusement park and the difference between urban and suburban environments. Simply put, the consumer has far more and more accessible options for eating in an urban environment. Walking into a mall in China, I have already passed many restaurants and food stalls, maybe even some right outside the doors of the mall. This is the result of a dense, urban, pedestrian centric built environment. In contrast, people in American drive to a mall, which is probably not that close, park their cars in a massive parking lot or deck, and then finally enter the mall. If they don’t want to eat mall food, they have to walk back to their cars and drive somewhere else. Access to different food options in such an environment is far less convenient. People go to malls for the primary purpose of shopping, not eating so there is nothing compelling the mall to offer good food.


Ponce City Market

This is why I disagree with the assumption that these new food halls are a fad that will simply pass like frozen yogurt and pop rocks. I think they are a product of the ongoing shift back toward urban built environments in America. The Pizitz food hall needs to be good because people can easily walk down the street and eat somewhere else. Now, you might object to this rationale by pointing out the only food court in downtown right now, Harbert Plaza, which is OK at best. I would argue that this is the result of downtown having very little in the way of true urbanism and food choices until very recently with the revival of the city center. People working at Harbert have to come to work, good food or not. So it’s easy to see why the food court there is by no means a destination, though I do expect it will have to improve as more options become available.


Atlanta’s new “Food Hall”

So don’t expect this “fad” to go away anytime soon. The food court going into the Pizitz looks to be a great option that will continue to add to the expanding list of tasty eateries in the city center.


The Anti-Atlanta

(The case for moving 20/59)


The news and debate over 20/59 continues in Birmingham, even as ALDOT seeks with every muscle in its body to move ahead with plans of expanding the existing roadway. While I am happy to see at least a few people in Birmingham who care enough about the good of the city that they are willing to stand up and try to stop this, it does seem like another case of lost opportunity in the “Magic” city. I want to look at the history of this road and the debate around it and present why I think it should be moved.

The first question that we should ask when we debate the existence of 20/59 is why is this road here in the first place? That might seem like a simple question at first, it is there to move cars, but underneath all the assumptions in that statement is the history of the interstate in America. The interstate is a project begun in the 1950’s to create a national highway system across America. At the time is was the largest construction project in the world and cost more than the Apollo program. The reasoning was simple, create a national network of roads which would connect cities and states across America, allowing for the easy and quick movement of people and goods. There was already a highway system in America but it was more limited and inconsistent, especially in the 1950’s. So the interstate was born. But there was another function that the interstate would assume, one that had nothing to do with moving people across the country.


If you look at the route of the interstate in Alabama (this applies all over the country) you notice a fundamental difference in how the interstate was laid out. In all of the small cities in Alabama (T-Town, Auburn-Opelika, Anniston, Gadsden, Cullman, Decatur), the interstate runs well outside the urban developed center of those towns, especially the urban area at the time the interstate was built. Of course this makes total sense, why would the DOT run the road through the middle of town? The trouble, cost and destruction that would cause would be pointless. Instead, drivers easily exit the interstate and drive into town. This is totally different than how interstates were run in major cities, including Birmingham. 20/59 runs within 500ft of city hall! Clearly it was not easier, cheaper, or less destructive to do this. Quite the opposite, it was orders of magnitude harder given the size, population and value of the land in Birmingham. Why run the interstate through the very center of the city? Birmingham, especially at that time, runs in a very east-west direction. This is because the city was laid along Red Mountain in Jones Valley which runs east-west. Due to this, you could argue that it would have been very difficult to run I-65 around the city, since it would have to veer either far east around Irondale/East Lake or far west around Bessemer. However, 20/59 could have easily run north of the city, avoiding not only downtown but East Lake, West End and Ensley. This would have been vastly easier and cheaper for the DOT, so why did they not do this? Because another purpose for the interstate arose in the automobile age, one that had nothing to do with moving people and goods across country. If you live in Norwood and work downtown, you do not need the interstate. If you live in West End or East Lake or Ensley and work downtown, you can easily take surface streets into the city center . The interstate, built as it was, was designed to quickly and easily move people from their homes to their jobs in the city center. But this was not for the benefit of Birmingham, it was so that people could live far outside the city and commute in. This is why ALDOT went through the enormous effort to squeeze the interstate into the heart of the urban core and why I think at least in part they are still very reluctant to move 20/59 out of the city center.


This is sadly a story you can repeat all over America, cross out Birmingham and insert preferred large metro area. So what makes Birmingham special, other than that I live here and not those other urban areas? Many cities regret sections of their interstate and the negative effects it has on the city center. A few cities have moved/buried/eliminated these roads but most have limited options for improvement. This is where the history of the debate of 20/59 comes in.

I’m sure it didn’t take long after 20/59 was built to realize it had a profound negative effect upon the city center. The people living in the neighborhoods north of downtown probably realized this before it was even finished. It divided the city, cutting off the neighborhoods north of downtown and was a blight on the urban core. Once again, it is a blight on an area less that 500ft from city hall! As a reminder to you the reader of the long term impact of building such roads, the large majority of the people who originally planned and built 20/59 are now dead. The next generation arose, realized the problems of the downtown viaduct and sought a solution. I have read from various articles on the move 20/59 debate that the anticipated failure of this campaign for change rest with a failure of leadership in the city. I do not think this is primarily the case. A plan for changing this road was actually put forth over a decade ago. The fundamental problem was the lack of vision in seeing that this road should never have been here to begin with. Instead, a terrible idea was put forward to sink the road, an idea ALDOT had every right to reject. This brings me back to what makes Birmingham unique. The Big Dig is a word synonymous with massive, over budget and long delayed civil projects and it deserves this stigma because that is exactly what happened. What else could Boston have done? Well, it could have lived with its interstate running through the heart of the city or it could have totally removed it, neither of which were good options. Instead, it chose to pursue the extremely difficult task of burying an interstate. Today, the end result of the project is without a doubt a much better Boston, but imagine what could have been done with all that time and money. Several subway lines probably could have been built.

Why does this matter to Birmingham other than to serve as a warning not to bury 20/59? Birmingham is in a unique position in that 20/59 can be relatively easily moved north of downtown due to the largely unused corridor that exist between downtown and North Birmingham. That ALDOT did not originally use this corridor which is itself very close to the city center shows how fixated planners were in running interstates through the center of the city. While no plan is perfect and some people will be displaced in rerouting the interstate, the scale of impact will be incredibly small in comparison to the “options” most cities have. It also does not have to be extremely divisive and difficult to procure that land as ALDOT claims. This is not the state coming in and saying give us your land. Move20/59 is a grassroots community effort born out of frustrations with the current road system. While it is regrettable that this plan for change was not put forth until such a late hour, that does not mean it should not be pursued. ALDOT wants to portray a narrative that it will take decades just to secure the land rights for this. That might be true if it was building a road no one except for a few land developers wanted and it spent years in court trying to use eminent domain to take that land. But what if the city could come together with the land owners and amicably agree to sell the land? If that could happen, right of way could be achieved in a very short period of time. I think this is an option worth pursuing. Once again, whatever is done, we will have to live with the results of that for most of the remainder of our lives.

A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

(Disclaimer: What I am about to write about Norwood is in no way meant to be a slight against the neighborhood and the people that live there and desire to make Norwood a great place. It is simply to recount the history of the neighborhood and discuss the difficulties that it has faced and how that history relates to other parts of Birmingham.)


Norwood is a neighborhood just to the north and east of downtown. It was founded at the turn of the twentieth century as a neighborhood for the rising rich elite of Birmingham’s industrial complex. Much has been said about Norwood, especially recently with efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. My goal in this article is not to retread that ground but to compare and contrast Norwood with another Birmingham neighborhood, one that in many ways was developed as a mirror image. That neighborhood is Highland Park.



Highland Park during Snowpocalypse

Highland Park, like Norwood, was a neighborhood developed for the rich of Birmingham. It sits across Jones Valley on the south and east side of downtown and developed shortly before Norwood. The original builders and owners of these places basically sat on the hills of Jones Valley across from each other, overlooking the industrial valley they created and owned. The design of these neighborhoods with the housing, central curving streets for use by the streetcar and shared park space are remarkably similar. The early history of these two places is also similar. With the rise of the automobile age the elite of the city realized they no longer needed to live in the polluted Jones Valley and quickly abandoned these neighborhoods for a new, more exclusive and less polluted neighborhood over the mountain. That neighborhood is of course Mountain Brook. Though the 1%ers left, this was by no means the end of these places. Middle to upper income whites moved in and continued to build houses, though they were more modest than the first grand estates. This abandonment by the elite did however create the first fissure, which was that the housing originally built by the rich was simply too large and ornate for your average person to want or afford. Today, ironically, it is many of these greatest and most expensive houses that have fared the worst in Norwood.


Both neighborhoods continued along similar paths until the 60’s, when desegregation and white flight hit. This is where the paths of the two diverge and I want to examine why. Many black families moved into Norwood after whites left for the burbs. These black families had the same desires as their white counterparts, to live in a safe and prosperous community. However, their economic status along with their smaller numbers meant that they simply could not equally replace the much richer whites that had left. A large house is a large house and requires a certain level of income to maintain. Having fewer people with much less income will always lead to neglect and abandonment, regardless of race. Cities are great at scaling up but very bad at scaling down. This is of course a story repeated across much of the city and one I will deal with in a future post. In this regard, Highland Park is more the anomaly and Norwood the norm. But why was Highland Park able to continue to prosper and retain a large population when Norwood was not?


The first and most obvious reason is that Highland Park was able to retain far more white residents that Norwood. This was most likely due to its location; it literally sits on the back end of Mountain Brook on the other side of Red Mountain. It also sits between Forest Park and Southside, other areas of the city that have retained high population densities. This does not mean that a place must have white residents to be prosperous, it simply means that you can’t have a total abandonment of a neighborhood by the majority population and expect the minority population to be able to fill that hole, especially not when that minority population is economically disenfranchised. This only can work if you have a large immigrant population that is able to come in after and fill the void, which Birmingham has not had.


redline map

Redlining map from 1930’s. Even then the neighborhood was being written off as “declining”


The retention of population by Highland Park is in contrast to Norwood, which sits next to Druid Hills, North Birmingham and Collegeville, neighborhoods that have had significant population loss and struggled with crime and poverty. Highland Park is also much better connected to the rest of Birmingham than Norwood and this problem lies most directly with the negative impacts of the Interstate System on Birmingham. I-20/59 cut right through the south of the neighborhood, dividing it from downtown. Much has been made of this recently with the campaign to move I-20/59 and how the neighborhoods north of downtown were negatively affected by the interstate. In comparing Norwood to Highland Park I also thought of another disconnect that has not been discussed, and that is the industrial area just to the east of downtown. This is the area containing Sloss Furnace and once seamlessly flowed into Norwood but was of course cut off by the interstate. Why should this fairly bleak, industrial area have any value for Norwood? Well, look at the mirror image across the tracks and it becomes very apparent. Highland Park seamless flows downhill into Lakeview and then Pepper Place. This area was also of a similar industrial nature but is quickly turning into a vibrant mixed use area with apartments/condos, restaurants/bars and even one of the best farmers markets in the city. The Lakeview/Pepper Place section of Southside, which was once probably viewed more as a detractor to Highland Park is now one of its biggest selling points. In some alternate reality this could have been the case for Norwood, but whatever the different circumstances of that alternate reality, I am sure I-20/59 does not play a part.



Nothing increases property values like an 8 lane highway

The final difference is that Highland Park was able to change. Today, it is the most dense, urban neighborhood in Alabama. This is in stark contrast to when it was first developed as a much lower density development for the rich. High-rise condos and apartments join million dollar mansions and small bungalows to create a truly diverse built environment. This is what allows is to still be affordable and accessible while at the same time desirable to a large segment of Birmingham’s population and is in part why it was named one of America’s 10 best neighborhoods in 2011.



The division continues

Of course Highland Park was able to change because it always had a certain level of demand from people who wanted to live there. This was not the case with Norwood, which struggled to maintain demand. Absent enough demand, a built environment will simply remain static until it disintegrates. So I don’t want to blame Norwood for not changing and adapting, it probably just didn’t have much opportunity to do so. Nor do I think Norwood should be Highland Park. Norwood should be Norwood, however I think both can be dense, diverse, desirable urban neighborhoods that are great places for people to live.


Where the Problem Started


The office park. The term conjures up images of cubicle farms, generic place-less buildings and a sea of cars. Quintessential suburbia. It’s an image and environment immortalized in such movies as Office Space and cartoons like Dilbert. While it might seem like these soulless abodes of white collar America have been around forever, they are actually newer than the transistor computer. So where did the office park come from? What dastardly fiend could have developed such a sinister idea? The answer is surprisingly (or not) local.

The Washington Post ran an article this past summer on the decline of the office park. Across much of America, the vacancy rate of office parks is on the rise. This is due to multiple factors, such as the development of telecommuting. But undeniably the rise of new urbanism is having a major affect upon office parks. Simply, many of these offices were built at the expense of urban office space as society abandoned the city for the suburbs. It’s not that we just stopped building urban city centers and instead once those spaces were filled switched to building suburban office parks to meet demand. Offices in city centers were abandoned in mass for new suburban office space. This ultimately meant that there was a lot more office space in America than demand. This was great for office parks so long as people did not want to work in the city but if that trend were to ever reverse and more people and companies started to move back to the city this would create a fundamental problem for suburban office space. This of course has happened and continues to happen, with the result being more and more empty office parks and no real way to fill all of them.

While reading through this article I found something fascinating, if not terribly surprising. The first office park was actually developed right here in Birmingham! I will give you 3 guesses (two more than you need) for where this office park is located? Yep, Mountain Brook. “The first office park opened in Mountain Brook, Ala., an upper-class white suburb of Birmingham, in the early 1950s as commuters became uneasy with simmering racial tension in city centers.” It was developed in 1955 by Ervin Jackson & Newman H Waters. I then searched for more information and one of the first articles to pop up was actually a piece on detailing a planned historical marker for the office park.

I had to find this plaque and so this past weekend took a drive over the mountain in search of America’s first office park. It was easy to find, just leave Mountain Brook Village going south on Cahaba Road and it will be on the right. The street is aptly named Office Park Cir. It’s a very standard office park and looks its age. The plaque is on the right where the road splits, you can’t miss it. Check out some pictures I took below.





If only they had left it at just one.

Get Out the Vote


News out this week includes an interview with HealthSouth CEO, Jay Grinney, on his company’s move from 280 to Liberty Park. Bhamarchitect covered this on his blog, however, I would like to delve further into the story. While interesting, the story is also disappointing and I want to examine Mr. Grinney’s reasoning for the move and share a similar, personal story about a company staying in downtown.

HealthSouth, in planning for a new office, considered moving to an area in the Parkside/Southside district of downtown. They instead have decided to move to Liberty Park. Nothing groundbreaking about that. What is interesting about this story is that the company surveyed their employees and asked  if they would rather work in Downtown or Liberty Park. The response was a large majority wanting to work in Liberty Park. Despite the recent positive developments in downtown, I am in no way surprised by the response from Mr. Grinney’s employees. Why? Do HealthSouth employees hate downtown? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but that is not the main reason why they voted against moving to Parkside. HealthSouth’s office is currently on 280 at Grandview Parkway. The majority of these employees live in this area or around the greater 459 corridor. Of course they are not going to want to have to commute further to get to their jobs. Even those that would otherwise be ok with working downtown do not want the dreaded commute that is simply known by the numbers: 2 & 80.

What makes me angry about this article is that Mr. Grinney passes the blame for this to the city! He laments that if an elevated toll road had been built on 280 that “we probably would be going downtown, because traffic congestion would be a moot point.” Ha! That is nonsense. The elevated “expressway” on 280 was a terrible idea that only would have benefit Chelsea and further suburban sprawl and made life worse for those that would have to live next to the expressway and deal with the increased traffic, noise, pollution and difficulty of navigating around it. There is also enormous pressure for suburban sprawl in that area and induced demand would mean that in 10 or 20 years traffic would be even worse, not better. What people fail to understand is that traffic on 280 is not terrible because of any poor design with the road, it is terrible because so many people live on south 280 and commute to the city for work. Currently, the traffic on 280 deters more people from moving to the surrounding areas; this is a positive. Recently there has been much discussion about induced demand with roads, how expanding roadways often does not make traffic better in the long run. This has even been talked about with the 20/59 expansion. What is less discussed is how expanding roads under such conditions actually makes driving far more miserable. I was reminded of this last weekend when I visited Atlanta. Would you rather drive on a 4 lane highway with terrible traffic or a 10 lane highway with terrible traffic?

Having the 280 elevated expressway would not change employees desire to be as close as possible to work. If Birmingham is to grow and prosper, it must be attractional not just to businesses but residents. If people live in the city, jobs will follow. I will deal with this topic in future post, but Birmingham in some respects doesn’t need more jobs. Of course more jobs and more companies locating downtown is great and is welcomed, but Birmingham already has far more jobs than residents. This is why so many people commute to Birmingham. What Birmingham really needs is more residents.


This brings me to my own experience with a company polling its employees in regards to office location. This company is actually where my wife works, Atlas RFID Solutions. They are currently in the Innovation Depot and have transitioned from start-up to “resident mentor” and now are graduating to their own office space. Atlas asked its employees where the new office should be, giving several OTM choices and downtown. I personally know that a large majority of those employees live OTM. So what was the vote? To stay in downtown. They will move next year to the Booker T. Washington building once renovations are finished. Why did even many of those that live OTM vote to stay downtown? I think it’s because they recognize working downtown has allowed the company to grow and foster a creative, fun work environment. While locating OTM might give some of them an easier commute, it might also jeopardize the unique work environment Atlas has built and keep the company from retaining and attracting the kind of talent it needs to be successful.

gray-construction 750xx10140-5698-0-0

UAB’s New Master Plan-Part 1


I had originally intended on titling this piece The Broken Grid, in homage to a now defunct blog I used to read called The Heaviest Corner. This was a great blog that took a sharp and informative look at Birmingham and its built environment. One article was titled The Broken Grid and it looked at how Birmingham was built upon an amazingly well designed grid but how over the course of time and poor urban development the grid had become more and more “broken” through super blocking and other developments such as the interstate. This is very important for urbanism because a good grid provides the foundation for a well functioning city. I will deal with this topic more in a future post but I personally think it is nearly impossible to build walkable, human scaled urbanism if you don’t have a grid originally designed for that.

UAB Master PlanThe old master plan map

I wanted to steal this title because I planned on talking about UAB’s master plan and some serious problems I saw with it. Chief among those was UAB’s plan to superblock the west end of 5th Ave from 15th St. to I-65. Such a change is unacceptable to me since I often use that segment of road, both driving and biking and find it very valuable for getting around. I am also just in general very critical of superblocking. But in doing research for this post I learned UAB has just released a new draft master plan. This new draft plan actually reverses that serious issue I had with the old plan. This new plan is huge and covers a lot of info that is very relevant to this blog. So lets take a look at this new plan and what the future holds for downtown.

2015-11-10_14575th Ave S No More

It cannot be understated how valuable UAB has been for Birmingham. Honestly, without UAB I’m not sure there would be much left of the city. The economy that built Birmingham up from nothing and turned it into one of the largest cities in the South is today basically dead. If not for the development of UAB at a time when Birmingham needed it most, things would be far worse for the city. It should also be said that overall UAB has been very beneficial not just for the economy of the city as a whole but also for the built environment of downtown. UAB could have been developed somewhere else, even within the city limits and its absence from downtown would be huge. Downtown is much more urban and alive today because of UAB. Another topic for another day is how this city’s economy lends itself much more to urbanism than other cities in the state because so many of the jobs are centered in downtown. That being said, the development of UAB’s built environment has been anything but ideal and often has been very anti-urban.

DSC04156It’s kind of like a big stone block fell from the sky and landed on the corner.

As stated in the master plan, UAB takes up a quarter of downtown Birmingham. This is enormous and is the cause for my first and most serious problem with the campus. One building does not make a built environment, but 25% of all the buildings do. UAB’s shear size means it has significant effects upon downtown. The problem with putting any campus that large downtown is that a college campus is by definition monolithic. This is a problem for good urbanism because cities require diversity of the built environment. Suburbia is single use: a strip mall here, a school there, single family houses scattered about. But all those things can exist in a single building in a city. Even in really good cities, the CBD can often be very mundane and devoid of life because it has nothing but high rent offices in it.

UAB certainly did not start out trying to make a good urban built environment. Its actually amazing it didn’t develop a far worse and more anti-urban one. Hospitals are huge. They are very monolithic and often make for poor urban envronments. That UAB didn’t superblock more of downtown is actually quite amazing since I can’t imagine there would have been much resistance in it doing so. Its network of skybridges that traverse Southside is a testament to how much superblocking UAB could have attempted. Nevertheless, is has created significant superblocking and many of its buildings have as much charm and street presence as a factory. They are almost all single use. One of the few exceptions is the building with Sitar on the corner of University and 20th. I think this is a great example of what many of the buildings could be. It comes flush to the sidewalk, has great street presence and offers retail on the ground floor. Does UAB need their buildings to have this? No. But making them like this makes for good urbanism. The school campus has also been criticized for not being well designed. While they have long recognized the need to make a more attractive and cohesive college campus and have developed such areas as UAB Green for this, the campus remains very spread out and dominated with surface level parking. Trying to make a better college campus can actually make things worse because your typical college campus doesn’t fit in an urban setting and trying to emulate that for UAB has not made for good urbanism.

The good news is UAB is recognizing its mistakes and is seeking to make changes to create a better built environment. Lets look at some of the things in the new master plan that deal with this.

UAB_2015_Campus_Master_PLan2015 Campus Master Plan Map

The plan wastes no time addressing issues relevant to good urbanism. The introduction states “Our campus should be walkable, safe for cyclists, transit-friendly, and easily accessible for visitors. We should be well-integrated with the business community around us and we should be aggressive drivers of innovation. Just as importantly, we should be great partners with all of our many neighbors within our central urban setting.” These are all crucial goals for developing a better built environment. Having lived in China where all schools are walled and gated, I do really appreciate the intention to be “well-integrated” and “easily accessible”. The plans vision includes:

  • An urban campus of quality places and spaces interconnected by walkable streets and paths
  • A network of vibrant open spaces for active and passive recreation, gathering, and learning
  • Compelling architecture that frames and engages memorable outdoor places
  • Integrated parking and multimodal transportation systems that provide convenient access and movement across the campus

These are all good goals that I think reflect a significant change in how UAB is seeking to build its campus and broader changes in the culture of the city and what our expectations are from UAB.

The plan states that the last master plan was developed in 2001. Of course there has been significant positive change in the city since that time and I am glad to see this plan recognizing that. One of the most obvious recent developments it recognizes is this:

The university’s location within the southern half of downtown—which is rapidly changing to a more urban, walkable and mixed-use setting—offers an advantageous, immersive and dynamic physical environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors. To capitalize on that advantage, future campus development must likewise be more deliberately urban.

“Instituting a more urban development pattern offers direct benefits to the university. It enables more efficient investment in and management of campus infrastructure and utilities. By densifying areas of the campus through adaptive reuse, addition or redevelopment, the University can reduce the need for outward growth that would entail property acquisition in the midst of rising downtown land values, costly extension of infrastructure, and expansion of operational staff and services to maintain, police and provide transit service for a spread-out campus.”

UAB was built at a time when the value of downtown land was plummeting and the city was actually becoming less dense because people were simply leaving for the burbs. It was easy for it to expand and acquire large amounts of land and it didn’t have to be bothered with making good use of the land it had. This led to the bad design we see today. Thankfully things are changing and this will force UAB to change for the better. The development of Parkside is an enormous change that has removed blocks and blocks of land that the university could have bought and developed for any purpose it desired. Parkside is great for the school because it makes the school much more attractive. Dwelling in a city that is active, well used and has high property value and street life is far better than being surrounding by nothing but abandoned buildings. However, it forces the school to fundamentally change its development pattern.


I was a student at Auburn University in the 2000’s when they first began to change how they approached development and people’s interaction with the campus. They had come to realize they needed to make much better use of their space in order to continue to grow and develop. It wasn’t for the purpose of making great urbanism, there are still cows on the south end of campus; it was simply because they were running out of space. Their solution was simple, they cannibalized large amounts of open unused space and surface parking. But in order to do this they had to change how students moved around campus. They were no longer going to be able to drive and park their cars close by the buildings they needed to go to. Instead they would need to either walk, ride a bike or use the newly formed Tiger Transit. Developing transit was huge and allowed them to basically slowly revoke much of the student parking and develop that land. I think this had a profound psychological effect on both students and faculty. At one point the school was talking about tearing down Foy (the old student center) to build a parking deck. But today Foy is thankfully still standing, in part because people realized it didn’t need to be torn down. It’s a great building and certainly way better than a parking deck.

Auburn has some major differences with UAB that allowed it to radically change how students got to campus. The large bulk of people at Auburn are students. Most students live at or near school and it was easy to bus those students because of this. UAB is a commuter school and the level of parking it has reflects this. The amount of parking decks is enormous. I’m not sure if Auburn had any other parking deck besides the library deck when I first arrived there. It now has more but still nothing compared to UAB. This is not just because UAB is in a large city. Auburn has more students than UAB and they like to drive just like UAB students. Auburn was simply able to force its students to walk or take the bus. The students living on campus were forced to park their cars far away from the dorms on the edge of campus.


UAB of course cannot develop a true transit system like Auburn which kept cars from being driven to campus and it is ultimately the city’s failure in developing transit that has made this an issue in the first place. UAB is developing a good system, which it calls transit but what I simply call a shuttle system. That is because it is mostly taking people from their cars parked on the edge of campus to the buildings they need to go to. While some students living on campus do use the system, because most students and almost everyone who works there live off campus, the bus system mostly operates as a means of moving people around once they have arrived at UAB. Nevertheless, I think it is great and absolutely necessary for UAB to have such a system in order to develop a dense urban campus by reducing parking and more efficiently using the parking it has. This topic is covered in the master plan under transit.

Along with transit is the issue of parking. Once again, parking and dense urbanism are mortal enemies so fixing this issue is fundamental. I mean fixing because UAB has ridiculous amounts of parking. I see this every time I walk down 11th Ave to 5 points. So much of the space on that street is parking. I recognize that without much more fundamental changes in the way people move around our city, parking will continue to dominate and hinder good urbanism. However, the master plan does seem to recognize some of this and is seeking to make positive changes. “The provision and management of parking will be an important factor as the University transitions from a commuter campus to one that is accessible by alternative modes.” Lots of good points here that I hope are taken seriously.

  • Locate surface lots away from the center of the campus
  • Use structured parking in the center of campus
  • Encourage denser, more compact development within and around campus
  • Establish a parking rate structure that reflects the level of convenience provided

City_Block_parkingA whole city block in the middle of Southside that is just surface parking.

Another point I hope is seriously pursued whenever parking is built is this: “Wherever possible, parking structures should include other uses at ground level to enhance the pedestrian environment and generate activity. Otherwise, the facades of parking structures should be designed to properly “meet the street,” harmonize with architectural context, and visually de-emphasize their parking function.” I can’t tell you how many times I look at a parking deck in the city and think “they couldn’t even make the ground floor commercial space?!” Of course if you have no concept of what makes for a good city and your only goal is “I have a hospital on this block and I need to put parking on the adjacent block” then it will never enter your mind that maybe the ground floor could be made for people and not cars. So I am happy to see UAB state this as their goal.

Below is an example of this new philosophy. According to the new campus map the block above which is currently nothing but surface parking and some nice trees will be developed with several buildings and a park. I think this is a great change and hopefully one that will be enacted soon.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of UAB’s master plan including the proposed new trail system and FOOTBALL!!

The Ugliest Word in the English Language

Cahaba_Heights_DevelopmentContinuing on a similar idea from my previous post, let’s look at the ugliest word in the English language. No, that that N word, silly. NIMBY.

WBRC FOX 6 reported last week that Cahaba Height residents have formed a group to fight a planned mixed-use development on Cahaba Height Rd. This is actually a battle that has been going on for a while now and the developer has already downsized the plan to appease local residents.

“When I pulled my application last time I said I wanted to work with the community and that’s what I’ve done,” said Hydinger. “I’ve gone from 150 units to 81, so right off the bat that would double the amount of retail we had originally.  I’ve gotten rid of the parking deck. I mean, I’ve made major changes all due to community input.”

As reported by FOX 6, resident complaints include: “potential negative impacts related to property supervision, students who walk to and from school, impact on carpool lines, safety and security, and future campus design.”

“We don’t feel like a highly dense development is going to be the right neighbor for the school.  But we are in no way opposed to development.  We would love to see our community become the walkable village that we were promised in our master plan.”

Another resident was quoted as saying “Whether this development is three stories or four stories or five stories, it’s still an apartment complex,”.

As someone who has lived in China, I laugh to myself whenever I hear people in America say “highly dense development.” However, I will confess that I do not live in Cahaba Heights and am not intimately familiar with all of the planning issues that might exist with this development. I also cannot speak to the merits of its urban design (probably not that good given this is Cahaba Heights) since I haven’t found much info. But just taking a brief glance at this, it appears to be just another classic case of nimby-ism. Let’s look at some of the reasoning that has been reported. In my opinion, the most “valid” reason development is often opposed is traffic. This can be a real issue since suburban design often creates, even in very low density areas, congested roadways. When everyone is forced to drive everywhere and only a few main roads connect endless suburban, cul-de-sac neighborhoods this is an inevitable outcome. But according to what has been reported, traffic doesn’t seem to be the only or even primary concern. Let’s looks at these other quoted concerns:

“Property supervision”

I’m really not sure what is meant by this. Whoever owns the property will supervise it, correct? Isn’t that the value of private property rights?

“Student’s who walk to school”

I think creating a dense, pedestrian friendly, urban neighborhood would be very advantageous for this goal. Not many children walk to school in the burbs. I don’t see how this project would negatively affect anyone walking other that the issue of traffic, which at least from a pedestrian point of view can be handled by effective urban design including sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic calming measures. I think it’s ironic that the opposition is quoted as wanting a walkable village but is opposing the primary means by which that would become reality. Unless you allow developers to come in a change the design and built environment to be more urban and walkable it will remain the same.

“Future campus design”

I assume they mean the school campus? Can anyone explain how this will adversely affect campus design? If the campus is on one property and the development is on another how are they going to affect each other? The developer can’t steal the school’s land.

“Safety and Security”

This will be the first time I say this on this blog but it will certainly not be the last. The more people, the safer you are. That is a page ripped straight out of Jane Jacobs. When you have busy areas with lots of foot traffic and eyes on the street this creates safety. Making an area denser helps. People get mugged in back alleys because those areas are hidden from public view. When you walk the street all alone at night with no one around is when you feel most vulnerable. Adding a mixed use development facing the road creates foot traffic and more eyes to watch the street. So I am not sure why safety is getting brought up unless that is really just code word for something else, which brings us to the real topic of this post.

This opposition is not an isolated incident but a common pattern in many suburban neighborhoods. Residents are opposed to this because they do not want apartments or condos built in their neighborhood. Why? Part of the reason is people have the foolish expectation that they are entitled to live in small, quiet single family detached housing neighborhoods, even if they live in a huge city. This area is next door to the Summit, one of the largest shopping districts in the state and two of the most heavily traveled roads-280 and 459. You would expect there to be a lot of development/traffic/people. Another reason is because people that live in big suburban houses view apartments with suspicion for attracting the wrong “elements.” Classic racism and classism. No matter that these apartments will be anything but cheap or that there is currently huge demand for apartments which this developer is simply responding to. In the eyes of many sub-urbanites, allowing your neighborhood to build apartments is allowing it to go “down hill”.

Another development recently got axed by NIMBYs and this example is a particularly sad one to me. A developer named Mark Gold bought the Mountain Brook swim and tennis club and wanted to turn it into a mixed use space with condos and retail. A great way to redevelop a vacant piece of property? Not according to Irondale who rejected the plans. It didn’t matter that Mark Gold had invested millions in the Crestwood and Station at Grants Mill shopping centers, trying to turn them from vacant blight to places people in Irondale would want to go and be proud of. Nor did it matter that Irondale could definitely use “almost” any development it can get given the decades of flight and abandonment that has occurred in that area, culminating in the colossal failure of the Crestwood Mall.


One resident opposed to the project was quoted “We are a community of single-family dwellings and we want to keep it that way,” This is a common excuse for why development like this should not happen. “This area has always been suburban, detached housing, not mixed use/town home/condos”. Just because you want to live in that type of housing doesn’t mean everyone else wants to, but when you keep developers from building the housing people want people are forced to live in the housing you want and suburbia becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. This is the hard reality many people in cities need to understand: cities change. Residents can be proactive in advocating that they change for the better, but they will change. Irondale has changed. It was once a booming suburban development. But those days are long over. People can recognize this and try to reinvent Irondale as something better, or they can continue to let Irondale die. In economic terms, it’s about leveraging your assets and minimizing your liabilities. Irondale long ago lost its ability to compete with newer, further out burbs such as Trussville. But is has huge advantages, such as having a very easy drive into downtown. It can redevelop and become a denser, mixed used urban-suburban neighborhood that people want to live in.

So ultimately, what does this mean for the city of Birmingham? In the words of Napoleon, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Ok, so enemy might be a little too harsh a word for the burbs, but I do think this this is great, at least in the short term, for Bham. Why? Because downtown is quickly turning into the only place developers can build anything other than sprawl. For an entire generation developers focused on building the next suburb and only had to contend with how many trees needed to be cut down. But now developers need to build in already built urban areas. If the burbs won’t let them, Birmingham will be happy to take their money.


Update: Check out this excellent article by John Archibald on Hoover blocking apartment developments.


A Disclaimer for the Past


This is a blog that will critically examine the present and look to the future for how we can improve the built environment of our city. But in looking to the future we must first understand the past and how we arrived at our present state. I’m sure that I will often be guilty of portraying a very black and white view of past=good/present=bad. From an urbanism standpoint I have many good reasons to view our city this way. However, we should not forget that the Birmingham of the past had many grievous problems, chief among those being racial segregation. The Birmingham of the past might have been a grand city, a very urban city, but sadly it was also a divided city.

I will look into the history and nature of racism and segregation in coming post. How it both allowed Birmingham to be built up and how it ultimately tore it down. So I want to be careful in writing this blog to say I realize that of the many good things that existed in the past, many of those good things were reserved only for whites. And of the many mistakes this city has made in the past half century, rejecting racism and segregation is not one of them. Whatever serious issues of racism exist today (and of course there are still many), we should be thankful that signs like the one above no longer exist.