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Is it time for a cultural river through Birmingham?

12.11.2012 by André Natta · → 1 Comment

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There are a lot of people looking to tomorrow, 12/12/12, as a day of significance. It could be a day that marks a new chapter and an evolutionary leap for a community.

I’d argue a decision of that significance for the future of Birmingham was made late Tuesday morning when the Birmingham City Council reconsidered agenda item 34 at the end of their meeting.

That’s when they decided to unanimously approve the sale of Lot D, the site used as the muse for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham‘s Prize 2 The Future idea competition last year, to Alabama Power for $2.95 million– based on a recommendation from the city’s Budget and Finance committee. The redevelopment project that has been hinted at when talking about this purchase could include a conversion of the soon-to-be dormant steam plant currently operated across the street by the utility.

Many would find it hard to not agree the property’s location is not ideal or pivotal to the current level of activity underway south of the railroad tracks. Despite years of some disliking when Southside was referred to as downtown, it may become an essential part of its genetic makeup fairly soon. Those who remember the residential development known as The Standard originally slated to go across from Railroad Park at 18th St. well before the urban oasis was completed may notice soil is being moved, perhaps suggesting it may yet move forward, in some form, soon. Keep in mind that Rev Birmingham (formerly ONB/MSB) has promised upcoming announcements about two residential projects close to the park in their recent newsletter.

It got me wondering about what kind of project could be capable of continuing the transform the City of Birmingham. I started thinking about the areas surrounding the parks that Railroad Park are often compared with and found a common theme – one that could lead to a proposal as transformative as the ones considered during last year’s idea competition.

While folks like to compare Railroad Park to New York City’s Central Park, there are many native New Yorkers who’d find Bryant Park a better comparison and one that leads to far more potential. The park acts and looks like more of a living room than most, allowing for an outdoor reading room, movie screenings, fashion shows. The first use included in that list is made possible in part because of the park’s next door neighbor, the main branch of The New York Public Library.

A similar situation is found at Chicago’s Millennium Park, as its eastern edge is defined by The Art Institute of Chicago. There are other examples of civic cultural institutions anchoring gathering spaces throughout the country.

This is why seeing two people who were in attendance at today’s meeting made me think of a crazy idea for  Alabama Power’s rumored project – Kate Nielsen, the Community Foundation’s executive director, and Gail Andrews, the director for the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Ms. Nielsen spoke in support of the sale of the property at Monday’s committee meeting, with the Foundation posting a supportive statement on its site yesterday afternoon. Ms. Andrews enjoys overseeing the largest municipal museum of art in the Southeast, though at times at least 60% of the collection is not available for viewing. An expanded home or an opportunity to establish a second location (similar to what the Guggenheim Museum was able to do in New York years ago), would be extremely beneficial, especially as the eyes of the world turn to Birmingham in the coming months.

Birmingham's Railroad SkylineThere are others that could benefit from such an opportunity – including the Birmingham History Center (though it would still be pretty cool to see them end up at The Powell School long term). All in all, it would enable a cultural stream to run through the middle of our greater downtown area – the ballpark, Railroad Park, Line Park, Sloss Furnaces – connecting our city’s present (an expanding medical-based economy) with the heart of it’s central business district. Now think about it expanding west…

You may not be able to float down that stream per se, but imagine the potential dreamers such an idea could influence and inspire in our fair city? It’s potentially enough to help drive a transformation…

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com

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1 comments
Erin Stephenson
Erin Stephenson

Well said, Andre. What you're talking about is, as you know, what Tom Leader always had in mind when putting together the RR district conceptual plan several years ago. Will be interesting to watch what happens in the coming months!