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Election '07: definitions needed for urban success

09.19.2007 by André Natta · → Leave a comment

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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]bhamterminal.com.

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Filed under: Alabama · Birmingham · Commentary · Election '07 · regional

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