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.
The 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.
5th 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.
It’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.
2015 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
A 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!!