Today’s guest columnist is Michael Calvert.
Predictions are always risky—especially about the future—but here are my predictions for downtown and the larger City Center.
In 1982, when I became CEO of Operation New Birmingham, REV’s predecessor, many people asked if I would bring back department stores and other retailers. I said downtown had evolved beyond its past as a retail center.
Downtown as an office center
Downtown was becoming an office center. Park Place Tower, the Financial Center, the 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 accelerated the trend for working remotely, but I believe most office workers will opt for some combination of working in the office and from home. Some personal interaction is needed for establishing effective working relationships, getting ahead in the firm, and socializing with office friends.
Much more diversified
Now office towers are attracting growing tech firms. Shipt’s occupancy of the renamed Wells Fargo Tower, and Landing’s location in the John Hand Building is a harbinger for other tech firms. Tech businesses will also be drawn to low buildings with historic character and usable outdoor space 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 vibrant, walkable environment emerging in the City Center helps businesses recruit creative, young talent. A recent arrival on First Avenue North, Oncentive, and ad agency, Luckie, in the Parkside District cited recruitment as a key reason to locate in the City Center. In turn, job opportunities strengthen the attraction of downtown living.
Within the next 10 years, downtown and the City Center will be defined increasingly as a diversified center of urban living as well as offices and businesses.
Of course, UAB is a huge engine of growth. The 3,400 students in dorms greatly contribute to vitality in the City Center. Enrollment has increased by 22% since 2015. The number of research investigators has grown by 25% in the last five years, and the goal is a 4-6% annually. Southern Research recently announced plans to add 500 hundred new jobs here.
Downtown population to double
Over 10,000 people now live in the City Center. REV reports that more than 2,500 apartments and condos are opening this year, under construction, or firmly committed. Occupancy and demand remain high. Continuation of this rate of development will easily double the population of the City Center 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 the overall Birmingham economy.
The Parkside District will soon extend to I-65 with Orchestra Partner’s “Urban Supply” commercial project and the residential development of the Sherman Industries concrete plant. Corporate Realty is redeveloping the Southtown public housing project and the former Carraway Hospital complex for about 1,000 mixed-income residences and office/retail uses.
Apartments are now under construction near the Red Mountain Expressway and Rotary Trail. Additional new and renovated apartment buildings will emerge east of UAB and in Lakeview where several multi-story residential buildings are under development. Three new high-rise buildings in Five Points South are strengthening this City Center historic area. The renovation of the American Life Building and the former Red Cross headquarters for several hundred units of affordable workforce housing is a welcome addition to downtown.
A new look for downtown
Residents of the City Center, nearby city neighborhoods, and close-in suburban communities will support a growing number of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, art galleries, brew pubs, specialty shops, outdoor cafés, and other businesses on lively landscaped streets with fountains, street performers, and public art. This scene will become the image of the City Center.
This trend is well underway. Despite the pandemic, Helen, Aviné, Le Fresca, and Bocca have recently joined other restaurants on Second Avenue North, and are doing well—based on how hard it is to get reservations. Several new hotels with their own bars and restaurants have opened. The announcement of a multi-screen cinema and entertainment complex in Alabama Power’s former steam plant is another indication of the evolution of the City Center.
David Fleming, my capable successor at REV since 2011, is working with the City and many public and private partners to make downtown and the City Center a place that exudes “vibrancy,” a hallmark of successful urban places. He also emphasizes “authenticity,” a key ingredient in thriving downtown’s secret sauce.
Historic buildings and urban places cannot be successfully replicated by suburban developers. I read somewhere that a new antique cannot be made—it’s an oxymoron. Reproductions may be possible, but have much less value and appeal.
Just as downtown evolved from department stores to offices, downtown and the City Center are emerging as a dynamic center of urban living with traditional offices, tech business opportunities, exciting places to live, and a vibrant, authentic urban environment.
Michael A. Calvert, an urban planner who retired in 2011 after 28 years as CEO of Operation New Birmingham, REV’s predecessor. He and his wife, Susan Matlock, live downtown in the John Hand Building.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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