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Why is the downtown Publix really a game-changer?

05.22.2014 by André Natta · → Leave a comment

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newPublixbldgThe term “game-changer” has been batted about metro Birmingham a lot in recent days as news of a planned mixed-use development anchored by a Publix grocery store on the city’s Southside spread like wild fire. For those who haven’t heard yet, an article in the May 18 edition of The Birmingham News revealed the Lakeland, FL-based grocer as the main tenant of a $30 million development proposed to sit on the northwest corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue South.

Now, I’ve lived in the greater downtown area since 2004, and I’ve always had as few as four and as many as six major options available to choose from within 2 miles, but I had to drive to them. When people ask me “Where and how do you get groceries?” I admit I’ve long ago started replying by asking them, “Well, where and how do you get yours?” I get a stunned look, but most times they seem to get what I’m saying. That said, it’s not an option readily or easily available to a significant number of our city’s residents.

This leads to my first reason why it’s a game-changer:

It’s more about WALKING now than DRIVING. Yes, there’s a parking deck that will sit between the ground floor space and the 36 “loft-style” apartments planned for the top the building. The vehicles using these spaces though will be off-street and out of sight. The idea of needing to circle forever to find a spot or the installation of a surface parking lot to handle capacity doesn’t even come up in conversation – and that’s a great thing. It suggests developers realize there will be enough people within walking distance to support its operation. It takes away reliance on an automobile to make a development like this one work.

It means it should be easier to get other national and regional retailers to consider locating a business downtown. It also makes it easier to get those same retailers to start looking at options in neighborhoods throughout the city. It could potentially make the issue of placing parking immediately adjacent to their business less of a sticking point. Dare it be suggested it could also be the first step toward a re-write of the city’s parking regulations and a rethinking of its minimum requirements?

It’s downtown. Actually, this may be an even bigger issue for me and one I’m excited about watching evolve. The proposed building is sitting along 20th Street South. When I first moved here nearly ten years ago, I referred to that area as being downtown while having a conversation with a native; I was chastised immediately because “it was not downtown, it was Southside. Downtown starts on the other side of the tracks.”

It was weird, as most New Yorkers refer to pretty much all of Manhattan as “downtown” no matter which of the other four boroughs you live. I’d also moved here after working for an agency charged with the revitalization of “greater Downtown” Savannah, not just its famous historic district. As a result, I’ve long considered the areas surrounding the city center part of greater downtown Birmingham. It makes sense especially when you get a chance to see just how small the expanded area still is in relation to the rest of the city.

The announcement of this grocery store lends itself to a new approach involving population growth in the urban core focused on eventually seeing people choosing to live in the single-family home dense portions of Druid Hills, Fountain Heights, and Norwood (in addition to others like Titusville, Smithfield, and College Hills) after spending a couple of years living in an apartment located nearby in the city center. Every major news outlet in the city referred to the project’s location area as downtown, suggesting the shift in perspective (one long championed by REV Birmingham and its predecessors) is finally starting to happen. The change in perspective also means a realization about the choices available to someone thinking about their next move.

The changes that come as a result of this and other projects will be quick. The changes at face value will be good for the city. The question right now as we get ready to start watching this happen is “Are we ready for what we’ve been asking for all of these years?”

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

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