The backstory on what saved downtown Birmingham

Michael Calvert
Michael Calvert

Today’s guest blogger is Michael Calvert.

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Everyone’s thrilled with our highly energized downtown.

Downtown Birmingham was dying.

Now there’s construction everywhere.

What happened?

Here’s the backstory. 

Loft apartments rescued downtown Birmingham.

In the 1980’s department stores—Loveman’s, Blach’s, and Pizitz—were closing, and shoe stores, dress shops, and other stores were following them to suburban malls.

Vacant storefronts proliferated. Boarded buildings reinforced perceptions of crime. A sensational murder led to the failure of clubs and restaurants on Morris Avenue. The memory of racial confrontations lingered. Downtown was in decline.

“We’ll have to build a new downtown over the mountain,” a prominent business leader told me in 1982 soon after I moved from Baltimore to head Operation New Birmingham, REV Birmingham’s predecessor.

A bit daunted, I proceeded to identify downtown’s assets. One was the intact blocks of historic buildings, particularly the multistory warehouses on Morris, First, and Second Avenues North, once Birmingham’s garment district.

Unfortunately they were obsolete as warehouses, largely vacant, and likely to be demolished. However, similar buildings in New York had been converted to artists’ studios / apartments in recent years, and Memphis and Seattle were beginning to develop downtown loft apartments.

When I proposed this for Birmingham, I was met with strong skepticism. “That might work in New York City, but this is the South,” said  John Lauriello, the leading downtown developer.  He noted that leafy neighborhoods were only a 15-minute commute from downtown. Another developer  shook his head and said “Downtown is dangerous. No one would live there.”

Somewhat daunted but still hopeful, we surveyed downtown employees who could walk to their office from a loft and more than a thousand were interested in downtown living.

While skeptics scoffed, ONB’s historic preservationist, Linda Nelson, brought together some optimistic young professionals under the leadership of Dorothy Shaw to pursue creation of a Loft District. Scott Shepard, Pizitz Department Store’s controller, researched the new federal tax credits for historic renovation projects. Realtor Bo Grisham optioned the long vacant Calder’s Furniture on First Avenue North, and architect Bob Burns designed floor plans and sketched renderings for 15 lofts there.

When we applied for financing, however, Southtrust bank politely, but firmly declined, saying there was no market for lofts. Yet we all knew people who were enthusiastic about living in a loft. So we decided to invite those people and everyone we thought might share this enthusiasm to a “leasing party.”

Two or three hundred people came and received xerox copies of renderings, floor plans, and lease prices. Red masking tape on the warehouse floor delineated the apartments. Dozens asked for additional information. In a few days, we returned to Southtrust with signed leases for all apartments and left with the promise of a loan. Renovation proceeded.

Other developers converted warehouses to lofts on Morris Avenue, Second Avenue North, and elsewhere downtown. All were fully rented before renovation was completed. Word spread through word-of-mouth, newspaper articles, and TV stories. Birmingham had a Loft District.

Lofts steadily changed the image of downtown to a hip, vibrant area like the neighborhoods depicted in TV shows Friends, Seinfeld, and Will and Grace instead of Hill Street Blues and Law and Order.

Young people flocked to lofts with exposed brick walls and high ceilings. The number of single people in their twenties doubled as young people delayed marriage until 25 for women and 30 for men, and they preferred downtown lofts to suburban apartments. Some “empty nesters” also sold large, old houses with big lawns and moved into loft condos.

Now 13,000 people live in lofts and newly constructed buildings in downtown and near the Railroad Park. The downtown population is the fastest growing area in the city—without any displacement or gentrification. In addition to warehouses, high-rise buildings like City Federal and the Thomas Jefferson have been saved, and the former BellSouth headquarters will soon become residential.

The proposed City Center Master Plan projects an additional 7,500 people over the next decade. UAB and tech businesses have found an exciting downtown is an asset in competing for talent locally and nationally.

All the new residents have attracted restaurants, bars, service businesses, and increasingly retailers that bring jobs and strengthen the City’s taxes—property taxes, occupational taxes, and sales taxes—that supplement taxes from lofts and new residential buildings themselves.  Perhaps even more important is Birmingham’s enhanced image as an exciting, vibrant city.

These days no one is talking about building a new downtown over the mountain.

Michael A. Calvert is an urban planner and was CEO of Operation New Birmingham for 28 years.

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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 for free about a better Birmingham.

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11 thoughts on “The backstory on what saved downtown Birmingham”

  1. Mike we have known each other for decades and hats off to you for your vision which is now reality for Downtown Birmingham. Keep the vision going for Birmingham. Operation New Birmingham birth the new growth. I still would like a little more water theme in the locations most traveled downtown. Just wanted share that to you and David.

  2. Very important to have these back stories told by those who were at the table. Thanks Mike for doing such. Odd most of the banks in this city still refuse to invest in these inner city neighborhoods.

  3. Great story … I really like the persistence and positive attitude!!!! from a Birmingham native, Steve Elliott

  4. Thanks Mike for reminding us of the history of loft living downtown. My “take away” is that it only takes a few persistent souls with a good idea to start a revolution. And, if the nay sayers can be overcome and you can achieve a critical mass, then good things can happen.

  5. I met Michael Calvert once a few years ago at a meeting and one thing stuck out about him to me, he genuinely cares.

  6. It is clear that thoughtful little moves if given the right time can get momentum going, leading to a large impact. I remember these things and how effective they have been. It is quite visible. Good report.

  7. Michael,

    You (and Susan Matlock) were among several true visionaries who helped save Bham from the junk heap. I remember working with you thru the old Chamber of Commerce. Your commentary is spot-on.

    While he first made his money building suburban shopping centers, Jeff Bayer also needs some credit investing in downtown, albeit somewhat late to the downtown game. I want to see more groceries, pharmacies, entertainment venues, cleaners, clothing stores, etc. reclaim downtown like in the early 1980s.

    If we are seeking the “Seinfeld” vibe…we need a LOT more service businesses for the apartment dwellers and condo owners. Downtown can’t exist on bars, breweries, and restaurants alone.

  8. I have been away from the Birmingham Alabama area fot past thirty years I didn’t know that Birmingham had grown so bad

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