Comeback Town: the transformation of Birmingham city center

by David Sher BackCity to give voice to the people of Birmingham and Alabama.

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Today’s guest columnist is Michael Calvert.

Predictions are always risky, especially for the future, but here are my predictions for Downtown and the wider Downtown.

In 1982, when I became CEO of Operation New Birmingham, the predecessor of REV, many people asked me if I would bring back department stores and other retailers. I said that downtown has evolved beyond its past as a shopping center.

The city center as an office center

The city center was becoming an office center. Park Place Tower, Financial Center, Regions Harbert Building, SouthTrust Tower and other office towers built in the 80s and 90s were occupied by banks, lawyers and accountants, and this continued into the new century.

In 2020, Covid has accelerated the trend towards remote working, but I think most office workers will opt for a combination of office and home working. Some personal interaction is necessary for building effective working relationships, advancing in the company, and socializing with office friends.

Much more diverse

Now, office towers are attracting growing technology companies. Shipt’s occupation of the famed Wells Fargo Tower and Landing’s location in the John Hand Building are a harbinger for other tech companies. Tech companies will also be attracted to low-rise buildings with historic character and usable outdoor spaces in the new Switch District anchored by the Innovation Depot, the Parkside District, the area east of 20th Street and north of the RR tracks. , Lakeview and throughout the city. Center.

The dynamic and pedestrian environment that is emerging in the city center helps companies to recruit young creative talents. A recent mover on First Avenue North, Oncentive, and advertising agency Luckie, in the Parkside district, cited recruitment as a key reason for moving to the city centre. In turn, employment opportunities enhance the appeal of downtown living.

Over the next 10 years, Downtown and Downtown will increasingly define itself as a diverse center of urban life as well as office and retail.

Of course, UAB is a huge engine of growth. The 3,400 students in dormitories contribute greatly to the vitality of the city center. Enrollments have increased by 22% since 2015. The number of researchers has increased by 25% in the last five years, and the goal is 4-6% per year. Southern Research recently announced plans to add 500 new jobs here.

The downtown population will double

More than 10,000 people now live in the city center. REV reports that more than 2,500 apartments and condos are opening this year, either under construction or firmly committed. Occupancy and demand remain high. Continuing this pace of development will easily double the downtown population in less than 10 years. Many new residents will come from the suburbs, but the Birmingham area desperately needs job growth to strengthen the city center and Birmingham’s overall economy.

The Parkside District will soon expand to I-65 with Orchestra Partner’s “Urban Supply” commercial project and Sherman Industries concrete plant residential development. Corporate Realty is redeveloping the Southtown public housing project and former Carraway Hospital complex for approximately 1,000 mixed-income residences and office/retail uses.

Apartments are currently under construction near the Red Mountain Highway and the Rotary Trail. Other new and renovated apartment buildings will emerge east of UAB and in Lakeview, where several multi-story apartment buildings are under development. Three new high-rise buildings at Five Points South reinforce this historic downtown district. Renovating the American Life Building and former Red Cross headquarters for several hundred affordable workforce housing units is a welcome addition to downtown.

A new look for the city center

Residents of downtown, surrounding city neighborhoods and nearby suburban communities will support a growing number of restaurants, bars, cafes, art galleries, breweries, specialty shops, beer gardens and other street businesses. lively landscapes with fountains, street performers and public art. This scene will become the image of the city center.

This trend is well under way. Despite the pandemic, Helen, Aviné, Le Fresca and Bocca have recently joined other restaurants on Second Avenue North and are doing well, due to difficulty getting reservations. Several new hotels with their own bars and restaurants have opened. The announcement of a multi-screen cinema and entertainment complex in the former Alabama Power steam plant is another indication of downtown’s evolution.

David Fleming, my capable successor at REV since 2011, has been working with the City and many public and private partners to make downtown and downtown a place that exudes “vibrance,” a hallmark of successful urban places. It also emphasizes “authenticity,” a key ingredient in the secret sauce of thriving downtown.

Historic buildings and urban locations cannot be successfully replicated by suburban developers. I read somewhere that a new antique can’t be made, that’s an oxymoron. Reproductions may be possible, but have much less value and appeal.

Just as downtown has evolved from department stores to offices, downtown and downtown are emerging as a vibrant center of urban life with traditional offices, technological business opportunities, exciting living spaces and a dynamic and authentic urban environment.

Michael A. Calvert, an urban planner who retired in 2011 after 28 years as CEO of Operation New Birmingham, REV predecessor. He and his wife, Susan Matlock, live downtown in the John Hand Building.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of BackCity. He has served as Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham) and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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