Heavy handed tactics lead to regrettable I-20/59 decision

Temple Tutwiler & Dixon Brooke
Temple Tutwiler & Dixon Brooke

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest bloggers are Temple Tutwiler, III and Dixon Brooke.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

We are disappointed in Judge Ott’s recent ruling in favor of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) regarding the rebuilding of I20/59.

While the plaintiffs lose this round, it’s the citizens of Birmingham who are the true losers.  It is a sad day for our community to have such a huge missed opportunity to make our community better for everyone. 

I20/59 racially divides Birmingham

The city of Birmingham has dealt with numerous divisions over the years. But one that is often overlooked is actually the most obvious, because it is a physical division that tens of thousands of residents see every day.

For nearly a half-century, Birmingham has been severed by the 1.3-mile-long elevated section of Interstate 20/59 that cuts through the northern edge of downtown and effectively separates the city center from the predominantly African-American northern neighborhoods of Druid Hills, Fountain Heights, and Norwood. The differences between the two sides of the interstate are stark. Downtown and the areas immediately to the south and east have experienced an economic revival in recent years, while much of historic north Birmingham continues to struggle with poverty, structural decay and an overall lack of business activity.

“We’re being totally blocked from the rest of Birmingham,” Fountain Heights resident Dorothy Calhoun said. “We never have any improvements around here. No one wants to come into this area. No one wants to invest anything here.”

An economic development disaster

In addition, there are nearly 100 acres of space in the immediate area of the I-20/59 viaduct that currently is basically being wasted. An economic impact report developed by nationally respected W-ZHA, LLC and in collaboration with Goody Clancy, was presented in September to the Birmingham Public Safety & Transportation Committee concluded that the area has the potential to hold 4 million to 6 million square feet of new commercial and residential development, land with appraised value of $519 million to $753 million, the creation of 2,500 to 3,600 housing units, 420,000 to 607,000 square feet of retail space, and 1 million to 1.5 million square feet of office space that could result in 4,300 to 6,300 new jobs.  These improvements could generate anywhere from $138 million to $216 million in tax revenue over a 10-year period.

So when ADOT announced a few years ago that it planned to replace the elevated section of I-20/59 because of safety and capacity concerns (that stretch of highway currently handles twice the amount of daily vehicle traffic as originally intended), we and a number of other Birmingham business leaders and citizens groups saw an opportunity. We felt this was an ideal time to eliminate this structure entirely from the city landscape – either by rerouting it or lowering it below ground level – and usher in a new wave of economic growth for both the area around the Civic Center Complex and Uptown, as well as for the long-neglected northern neighborhoods.

There is nothing in Birmingham that could be as transformative as this. Nothing. It’s a chance to sew the city back together.

ALDOT has gotten it all wrong

ALDOT, however, apparently does not see things that way. Not only does the agency plan to replace the current structure with another elevated highway, but it will be even larger, expanding from six lanes to 10. ALDOT originally estimated that the project – which has already started and will be conducted in three phases – will take four years to complete and cost approximately $450 million, though local groups contend the final total will likely exceed $600 million.

ALDOT director John Cooper has insisted numerous times that replacing the structure with another elevated highway is the only feasible plan. ALDOT ran a full-page ad in several publications earlier this year stating that the agency “does not believe it is possible to re-route or bury the interstate.” And in an editorial for al.com in January, Cooper wrote that he is “convinced that the plan to replace and improve the bridges is not only the best option, it is the only viable solution from among many that have been considered.”

Several local groups insist that is not the case. They point out that lowering the roadway has been seen as a legitimate possibility for more than a decade, beginning with the Urban Design Associates’ 2004 update of the Birmingham City master plan. Under that plan, which was endorsed by Operation New Birmingham (now REV Birmingham) and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the interstate would dip slightly below ground level and parts of it would be topped with pedestrian walkways, commercial buildings, greenspaces and downtown roadways. Similar projects have been completed in recent years in downtown Dallas, near the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, and along the Cincinnati waterfront.

In 2009, engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff – which was founded in 1885 and has offices in nearly 40 countries – was commissioned to conduct a study on whether lowering the roadway was feasible from an engineering and design perspective. The company concluded that such a project was indeed possible, putting the cost at a little less than $700 million. The report estimated that the project would take approximately three years to complete, during which time the corridor could remain open to traffic. Additionally, the company stated that such a project would result in long-term economic benefits for the city.

“In ALDOT’s eyes, the project is largely just about building roads and bridges and moving vehicles. It’s not about utilizing that infrastructure to improve the city,” said Darrell O’Quinn, Executive Director of the Move I-20/59 organization that is advocating for a different approach to ALDOT’s replacement proposal. “It’s going to reinforce for the next few generations the barrier-effect problem of that highway, which has been an issue in the city ever since it was put there. What our group is saying is if you’re going to make that sort of huge investment, it needs to be done in a way that reaps the most possible reward for Birmingham.”

A great opportunity for Birmingham

Led by the millennial generation, downtowns across the United States have experienced a resurgence in activity in recent years beyond the 9-to-5 work week, as an increasing number of young professionals are choosing to live and play in the city center rather than in the surrounding suburbs. This change already is evident in many parts of Birmingham, highlighted by all the development that has taken place near Railroad Park and in the Avondale neighborhood. Many local leaders believe the removal of the elevated stretch of I-20/59 would provide an even greater opportunity for development that would continue to entice young professionals to Birmingham.

“Cities that are growing and attracting that younger generation are concentrating on place-making. They’re redesigning and building their cities as great places to live and play, and not just to work,” O’Quinn said. “What we’re saying is, this is not just about a highway and moving vehicles. We should be viewing this as an opportunity to accomplish that goal of place-making and investing in our future.”

ALDOT’S heavy handed tactics

Perhaps this experience will serve to further expose ALDOT’s heavy handed tactics in pursuit of its own agenda without appropriate regard to the harmful impact their actions have on the very communities it is serving.  It is most unfortunate that ALDOT refused to engage with our community in good faith with a genuine dialog on alternatives, and by pushing forward with this project they dismiss viable options as unworkable even though the facts show otherwise.

Birmingham is the economic engine of the State, so one can only wonder why ALDOT refuses to even consider the significant economic impact and consequences this project has on our community for the next 50 years. How ironic and sad for our community to miss on all the advantages offered by lowering this roadway when the estimated cost to lower it is reportedly very similar to ALDOTs vastly expanded plan.

Temple Tutwiler, III, serves as President of Shades Creek Real-Estate & Investment Co., as a general partner in Tutwiler Properties, Ltd., and as an officer of or partner in several other family-controlled entities. 

Dixon Brooke is a longtime businessman and community leader who served as President and CEO of EBSCO Industries, Inc., Alabama’s largest privately held corporation, from 2005 until his retirement in 2014.

This article was written in cooperation with Cary Estes of Bham Now’

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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8 thoughts on “Heavy handed tactics lead to regrettable I-20/59 decision”

  1. Mr. Sher and guest writers: Thank you for this article. But you left out one important piece – The business community, and specifically the Birmingham Business Alliance., has been completely silent and de facto complicit in this boondoggle that only serves to harm Birmingham. Why don’t the CEO’s of the companies in the tall buildings around the highway murmur even a word in defense of an alternate plan?

    Furthermore you write “Birmingham is the economic engine of the State, so one can only wonder why ALDOT refuses to even consider the significant economic impact and consequences this project has on our community for the next 50 years”. The answer is simple – the state of Alabama government would rather see Birmingham implode into a sinkhole than spend 1 cent or 1 second improving Birmingham. That has been the case for 50+ years and will not change soon…unless perhaps the anemic, farcical Birmingham business community puts even a shred of its weight behind supporting Birmingham.

    1. Yes, where is BBA on this decision that is so detrimental to the future of my town? I believe this ruling could have/would have been different had the “movers and shakers” spoken up rather than ignore one of the most important infracture decisions ever made regarding our city. Wake up BBA!! You seem to sink into the pavement when the real challenges appear. Seems like we no longer have the support we once enjoyed with a pro-active and involved Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce …SAD.

  2. I don’t buy the argument that I20/59 blocks people from downtown or divides the city. Using that logic only people north of I20/59 can use or have access to Uptown or the BJCC complex. I am often downtown for business and have no problem driving under the elevated interstate to get to Uptown.

    If the folks who back the plan for rerouting or an underground system came up with a viable plan I could support it. My support would be contingent on those folks coming up with any additional monies needed above the projected $600 price tag. So I simply say, “Put your money where your mouth is…”

  3. A really thoughtful and well written piece. Regrettably, Birmingham suffers as a part of the most backward thinking and myopic states in the nation. And the comments about the lack of leadership from the business community strikes a chord with me. The blessing that “Cities are what we make them” turns out to be a curse. So sad. Another opportunity lost.

    And, Mr. Black, infrastructure projects that build great cities and great nations are not supposed to be privately funded. All citizens of our region would enjoy the benefits that inure to living in a great City. That is why we pay taxes.

  4. I agree with Mr. Black. I have no problem traveling from South of the Interstate to any point north of it. Stating that it divides Birmingham racially is not a matter of physical barriers. Now is there a physiological or cultural barrier for which the Interstate is being used? Yes. I see the lack of development north of the Interstate as a direct result of the commercial flight out of Birmingham that began in the ’80s. Almost all big companies who could leave, left. The “big building” owners are just shadows of the original companies who build them. I believe, had major commercial (not entertainment) interests stayed in Birmingham, then development would have naturally expanded across the Interstate as well. I am actually surprised to hear the BBA is still in business. It may have lost the battle in the ’80s to hold Birmingham’s business community together, but at least the old Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce tried.

  5. I have, from the start, agreed that underground would be the best resolution for Birmingham. Now consider this, the same folks who gave us the absolutely beautiful 24th street viaduct are now going to redo the 21st street one. Can they make it even more unattractive than the 24st street one. And while we are at it can we spruce up the 5th ave tunnel under the old terminal station area. It is a true disgrace, and one of the first things visitors see coming from the airport. Can’t we take just a little pride in our city? (I’m avoiding putting the whole maintenance list here.)

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