Monthly Archives: September 2007

Election '07: Improved transit should be a no-brainer

It appears that transit is about to become a top priority of the Jefferson County Commission. Probably about the time this post appears online a meeting will either have just finished or still be going on with hopes of beginning the discussion about a truly regional mass transit system for grater Birmingham.

The three commissioners that attended this year’s Regional Chamber of Commerce BIG trip returned with visions of bringing regional cooperation to the forefront of economic development efforts here in Birmingham. This is while the governor speaks about introducing more toll roads into the state to handle the increasing traffic on the state’s busiest roads, including Highway 280.

There are some that believe that Commissioners Carns and Humphreys and Commission President Collins are sincere, yet some are also cynical about their chances of success. They have every reason to think that way. If the issue becomes one of partisan politics instead of one about improving the quality of life not just for the Birmingham region, but for the entire state, then it will certainly see a steep uphill battle. If it is brought to the people of the entire state for a vote as being only about Birmingham and not as an opportunity to demonstrate what can happen in the entire state, it will fail to be approved.

As the regional population ages and transplants and “boomerangs” move into our metropolitan area, the issue of reliable transit will become more and more important and relevant. The mayor and council at the center of the region have good intentions about how to assist our transit authority, though it appears that any true progress in providing temporary support to a transit system in need will now have to wait until it is determined who will be in a runoff for the city’s top job.

Those that agreed to be interviewed for our Your Questions, Their Answers series all agreed that Montgomery did not necessarily understand the importance of this issue to the people of metro Birmingham and the state in general. They all agreed that the mayor should take a larger role in advancing the issue. Whoever gets elected should find ways to work with the commission and keep them motivated to follow through on their commitment to moving the region forward.

For a city that used to boast one of the world’s larger streetcar systems, it should be a no-brainer to return to a reliance of alternative transportation options. Gas prices continue to climb and many are realizing that the commute time could be just a little more productive than it is now if they weren’t having to drive so much. But we do dare defend our rights, particularly against the issue of more taxation. Unfortunately, better quality will not come about in this case until we realize that we cannot more if we are not willing to pay more for it.

This may finally be the time when we stop being provincial in terms of selfishness and with regards to the thought of failure and we take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate how something like a regional or even statewide transit system can help us bring more jobs into the state and allow more of our residents and visitors to enjoy what the state has to offer.

I’ve learned in my short time living here that the words taxes and transit should not be spoken depending on where you are. People need to use those words with frequency if this city is to regain the infrastructure needed to truly enjoy its urban fabric.

Are there enough voices?

Editor’s Note: I received the following letter from Jeremy C. Erdreich this afternoon. Erdreich is the principal of Erdreich Architecture, PC. It was written in response to this post on our city’s urban fabric. If anyone else has comments on the post, either comment directly to the post or submit your letter to – ACN


Great job with The Terminal. I peruse it daily, as do friends of mine.

I want to commend you particularly on your editorial regarding the city’s attitude towards its history and its sense of urban place. As you know, we’ve always had a weak sense of the public, of the collective, and of urbanity here. I am very disheartened by the destruction of the Birmingham News building – as much about the lack of debate of other options as the actual demolition.

I witnessed a similar demolition request at Design Review this morning for the Parliament House Hotel on 20th Street. The committee focused only on how the parking deck’s alley face would be patched once the connector to the hotel was removed. The loss of the building itself was never addressed in discussion. Only at the very end did [design review committee] chair Sam Frazier say something like “You know, this is actually an historic building. Doris Day stayed here; President Nixon slept here. Is this building defined as historic?” He posed the question to Karla Calvert, the city historic officer, who demurred: “I’m not sure; I don’t think so.” Sam asked her for a yes or a no, but she would not give one. So he gave up, the demolition passed, and in a few years the city’s best example of late “Miami Beach” Modern will ostensibly be replaced by a mediocre, boxy, red brick UAB building of some sort or another.

History is subjective, and what we define as “historic” is subjective. But is was just sad that whether in the case of the News, or the Parliament House, there are only a few lone voices speaking out, if at all, and no movement to at least hold owners and developers more accountable to the community for their plans.

Again, thanks for your enlightened editorial.


What I Learned from Atlanta

Editor’s note: After reading my recent editorial and making a visit to Atlanta, Terminal contributor Charles Buchanan decided to type a few words about his most recent trip to Atlanta. He originally wrote this piece for his personal blog, Pop Goes the City. – ACN

Last weekend I journeyed to Atlanta for the East Atlanta Village Strut, a little festival/artist market in a regenerating area of the city, east of downtown and south of Interstate 20. It was a part of the city I hadn’t really explored before, and I was fascinated by the things happening there–things that might be a good fit for Birmingham as well.

Infill housing: In every neighborhood I visited, it seemed that abandoned houses and vacant lots were being wiped away in favor of new single-family homes, lofts, or condos. The new residences were sized and designed to fit their streets–nothing tall or styled like a French chateau. I’m a fan of the infill housing concept because it helps preserve communities, remove eyesores, and hopefully reduce some sprawl. Of course, it’s not without its problems; I would imagine that the lower-income residents of those neighborhoods get squeezed out by the newcomers, with no hope of affording the new houses.

Infill retail: I got in a traffic jam between East Atlanta and Five Points. The cause? A mini-Summit-style shopping center smack in the middle of town, with a Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and other familiar big box stores. I could tell it was a draw for people from miles around, yet it didn’t seem to be causing trouble for the independent stores in East Atlanta and Five Points, which were doing a good business the day I was there. Now I know Atlanta has more population density than central Birmingham, but this center demonstrated that big retail can work within the city. Perhaps the proposed Wal-Mart shopping center in Titusville could open the door for this type of development here.

Midtown Mile: This isn’t as likely to work here, but I like the concept: Atlanta is trying to create its own version of Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile”–a city street that becomes a shopping magnet, pulling big-name stores (Apple, Nike, designer clothing, etc.) out of the malls and into storefronts, with hotels and restaurants to follow. Atlanta is targeting Peachtree St. in Midtown for this makeover, and it seems that many building developers like the idea, because they’re planning towers with plenty of space for curbside retail. Like I said, it would be tougher to pull off here, but perhaps we could encourage more developers–particularly downtown and around the Railroad Reservation Park–to add streetside retail when they construct or renovate.

Transit: Atlanta was already way ahead of us on this one, but now there’s talk of two streetcar lines (with modern monorail-looking streetcars; nothing like the trolleys of old). One would run up Peachtree, from downtown to Buckhead, and the other would make a downtown loop. Planning is still in the early stages, but we should be taking notes on how to make such a system happen. (Another plus is that our streets are already wide enough to accommodate streetcars, unlike Atlanta’s.)

Birmingham loves to compare itself to Atlanta. We used to be envious. Now I think many of us believe bigger isn’t always better. But either way, I think we can look at our eastern neighbor and learn what works–and what doesn’t–at keeping a core city alive and well. What have you learned from your trips to Atlanta or other cities? What could work in Birmingham?

Election '07: definitions needed for urban success

Birmingham News building - Sept. 2007 Former SMN building

This first installment has less to do with comparing as it does with providing a backdrop for an interesting opinion.

There’s a distinct difference between the picture on your left and the one on your right.

The image on the left shows the former home of The Birmingham News in our city center being gutted for purposes of demolition. This will provide a net gain of 30 parking spaces after construction of what many would agree is a beautiful addition to the downtown Birmingham building stock directly across the street.

The image on the right shows the former Savannah Morning News building in downtown Savannah after being completely gutted for purposes of being used for mixed use development in their downtown district called News Place on Ellis Square. To develop it the City of Savannah had to demolish a parking deck on the site of the old City Market and replace it with underground parking, a project that will now provide more than 1,000 spaces to visitors and residents visiting one of the city’s busier districts.

The second example is one that will be part of a region that will have the same population as metro Birmingham in the next 20 years (when you include the portions of South Carolina that are never included in these studies). Some think that prediction could be a little on the conservative side. The first is the one that we currently reside in; one that will become a larger metropolitan area but not necessarily be that urban environment that we all hope and strive for if projects like The News’ continue to occur.

Before someone tells me that I’m using the term incorrectly, I’ll say that urban for me is when you can walk down the street in several neighborhoods and get what you need. It means reliable mass transit that gives you an excuse not to drive. It means not necessarily building taller but building smarter. There are some that have said that we need to build taller buildings just because Mobile built one. My question is response to theirs is, ‘Do we need it now or later?

The idea of losing another beautiful historic building in the name of progress disturbs me, but not in the way you might think. It is what that demolition means, or what it should trigger. See, I’m still not sure that losing building like the News’ former home or our namesake Terminal Station will ever really stir the emotion that is needed to fully realize an urban revitalization renaissance in Birmingham.

I’ve been accused of wanting to save too much, but hear me out. Every time I hand out a business card or show someone one of our t-shirts, they all say “It’s a shame what happened to Terminal Station… I wish that we could bring it back.” There are those that say “I wish we’d done more to save (insert building name here)” when the reason it wasn’t saved was because no one made it an issue, or at least not one that would stir up emotions from both sides. Those feelings are necessary for a city to move forward. I realize that there is a past that few want to remember. There are several pasts that I’m sure many of the specters do not want us to forget in fear that we will repeat them. Some would say we already have.

So what actually makes Birmingham what it is? Why is it that when people fly in and see Vulcan and a now-lit City Federal sign that they marvel at how much there is to do? Perhaps its some of those same things that we think are outdated – the remnants of our urban fabric, or at least the potential for the urban lifestyle that so many seek when they sign on the dotted line to live in our city center and our neighborhoods nowadays. As an aside, we must also remember that the urban lifestyle sought by those that are new to it is not all that it is made up to be on television (but that’s a topic for another time).

Why save buildings? Why not ask those cities that we are always trying to compare ourselves with. Despite their new tall glass towers and their one of their key characteristics is their ability to hold onto a piece of their past. For every building that is torn down, one that evokes the same memories that Loveman’s or Pizitz does for this city adapted for a new use.

You do not have to save every building. What you do need to do is be sure that you’re not going to leave a hole in the fabric of a city’s history that is too large to be mended.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. You may contact him directly at andre[at]