Tag Archives: editorial

A network to build a future of Birmingham on

UPDATE: The plan and its name – The Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System – was announced this evening – along with a website that allows you to see the entire plan.

A possible Norwood greenway gatewayThe photo you’re looking at off to your left probably doesn’t mean a lot to you right now. But it may mean something to you a little later on, especially if you feel like dreaming…

It’s safe to assume that this evening (Tuesday) a large crowd will be gathered in the Steiner Auditorium at the Birmingham Museum of Art. They’ll be there to witness the unveiling of the Freshwater Land Trust’s “Our One Mile” plan. They’ll also be among the first to learn the name of the system – the result of a contest held at the end of last year. The level of excitement filling the space will undoubtedly be insane.

Well, this is where I bring up one more thing to keep in your mind as we get started – the under-construction Greenwood Park. Folks that normally travel along I-20/59 westbound that have wondered why all those bulldozers have been active just after you pass Tallapoosa St., here’s your reminder. This new green space could be viewed as a trail head for the 26-mile Village Creek Greenway, a project viewed by many as an integral part of the Our One Mile initiative.

You’re starting to connect the dots, aren’t you? These first two have been brought up before, courtesy of the Norwood Plan developed by Auburn University’s Urban Studio back in 2006.

The park would connect with the greenway, which could hypothetically have another touch point along Vanderbilt Road. That connection would just happen to be about ¼ of a mile from the easternmost edge of Norwood Blvd – and be right about where that photo I told you to pay attention to at the beginning of this piece was taken.

Assuming there’s access to the greenway at Vanderbilt, it’d only be a little over ½ a mile along the creek to get to the edge of Greenwood Park that touches Coosa Street. I’m not even focusing on the fact that this could potentially bring a whole new group of users over to Patton Park on the other side of the Interstate.

What does all of this mean?

It means more once you include the recent donation by Red Diamond – their former headquarters on Vanderbilt Road (valued at approximately $2 million in an online listing) to the Birmingham YMCA.

The distance from the edge of Norwood Blvd. to 1701 Vanderbilt Road is approximately half a mile. If you’re running, this means you’re probably no more than 5-7 minutes away.

It could be the jump start  needed to encourage potential investors to take a look at the section of Norwood referred to by some in the neighborhood as “the bottoms” as an option for renovation projects. It’s safe to say there would be several young professionals that aren’t looking for a mortgage but instead for an inexpensive place that’s relatively close to downtown and some of those intangible quality of life benefits.

It might also lead to some changes in traffic flow in the area surrounding all of these things – changes that could influence whether or not we see significant development along 12th Avenue North, particularly the eastern end of the street. The western edge may already see some influence from a entertainment district that will soon go from dream to reality in the coming months.

It’s just an example of what happens when the dreams of a community are thought through and given the potential to be realized. It’s all out there – including pieces like Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain Park, and the (soon-to-be-added-onto) Shades Creek Greenway. Now it’s simply time to see if folks want to connect those dots all the way.

Many of these thoughts about the northside are assuming that the YMCA decides that it can move ahead and make the additional improvements to their newest piece of property – suddenly the largest of the properties held by the organization. It also depends on how empowered and motivated the citizens of metro Birmingham get to make this greenway plan presented this evening a reality.

That last sentence is probably the most important one. As Wendy Jackson said in this morning’s Birmingham News piece by Thomas Spencer,

People need to be a voice for their greenways.

The days of people waiting for someone to take the lead need to end soon. As former UAB president Dr. Joseph Volker once stated, “We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too-little dreams.”

This greenway – and many projects like it currently in the pipeline – are probably what Volker may have been thinking of as he spoke. It’s now up to the general public to lead the leaders to the city they want, rather than have a disjointed one given to them instead.

Maybe coming out to the event tonight’s a good first step.

André Natta is the stationmaster of bhamterminal.com.

Parking problem? Depends on where you have to go

Time out on parking meterIs parking availability really a major issue in Birmingham, AL?

An issue that has drawn considerable attention in recent months is the number of broken parking meters that currently exist in downtown Birmingham.

I recently stumbled across a couple of posts that suggested that Birmingham has a parking issue – one that would serve as a great reason for not considering a downtown baseball park. We’ll talk about the ballpark later on in this series…

We have a parking problem, but not the kind that will keep people from coming downtown because they can’t find a parking space.

Besides the obvious fact that we like to park right in front of the place we’re going and don’t like having to place our cars out of view, we also are having an issue collecting the total potential revenue that these spaces are supposed to be providing (which could be an issue unto itself).

As the city faces a budget deficit from this year and the City Council looks to the city’s reserve funds as part of a possible solution for the coming year, some have turned to the vandalized parking meters as a symbol for what’s wrong.

The lack of revenue due to several people (including LKW and myself) taking advantage of the “free” parking available on-street makes the situation the perfect poster child. If you remember, the plan was once to increase parking ticket fees and increase revenue coming into the city’s coffers.

It’s ironically something that most states do not encourage as parking meters are meant to be a way to regulate parking options and not to be viewed as a source of income. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for parking meters provides several examples of how the revenue argument does not hold up in a court of law even if it would in the court of public opinion.

It was also a shame to learn just how many resources were available to deal with the issue earlier this month while reading Kyle Whitmire’s account on Second Front .

Despite the city’s reliance on the automobile, it would be safe to say that people are becoming more strategic about when and where they drive, especially as gasoline prices fluctuate and some choose to boycott some stations due to the crisis in the Gulf.

A quick drive around any section of the city not called the UAB campus shows that parking options are plenty. For those wondering if there are enough parking decks available in the city to handle the number of vehicles, a recent Heaviest Corner post should put those worries to rest (and give you a heads up on where to consider parking next time you’re downtown).

Perhaps increasing the urban tree canopy would make walking a couple of blocks farther just a little more bearable if you had to park a couple of blocks away from your destination. Encouraging the city or an organization to take on a project similar to New York’s MillionTreesNYC may help us reach that goal. The more comfortable and enjoyable it is to talk, the more likely some of these beliefs of parking issues may start to dissipate.

There are other potential solutions, but I’ll save some of them for inclusion in tomorrow’s piece.

We could also use this need to replace our current collection of meters in certain sections of the city with pay and display units, moving some of these newer units into sections of the city that are not seeing a heavy demand on parking. It would allow for individuals to pay for parking on the street using credit cards and dollar bills, perhaps dissuading the desire to break into the units for money (it wouldn’t necessarily stop those just doing it for the fun of it all – as stupid as that is).

Money is still needed to implement improvements to our network of parking management solutions as well as its maintenance. The issue may warrant a serious look in the budget and perhaps an examination of whether or not the city’s parking authority should take over on-street parking as well (something currently not officially in their purview).

One day parking availability will be a major issue in the City of Birmingham; I just don’t think it’s there yet compared to the other issues facing the city. We’ve got a parking infrastructure issue (and a psychological one) to deal with first.

What do you think?

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

What's next YPs?

2007 YP ExpoThis evening, organizers have planned for approximately 1,000 people to pass through the Birmingham Museum of Art to participate in the 3rd annual YP Expo. Approximately 30 young professional organizations and many of their memberships will have the chance to interact with one another and see what everyone else is doing (or learn that an organization that you’ve wanted to start already exists), much in the same way that the folks pictured here at the first one held in 2007 at the Innovation Depot did.

The original idea behind the Expo was to provide a starting point on two different fronts:

  • the opportunity for newcomers and long time residents of metro Birmingham to learn more about the existing organizations
  • to give the existing organizations a chance to talk with each other and determine ways that they can work together

The question posed by the press release for this year’s event is the right one, “What’s next?”

Introducing young professionals to the existence of these organizations is an important first step, though it is equally as important to make our established leadership aware of the presence of these energetic people in our community. They are ambassadors to the outside world about the potential and the successes that exist in Birmingham. Connecting them to each other is essential; not just for folks attempting to pad their resume with the now necessary community outreach opportunities, but for those that want to know that when they speak of the good that is happening in Birmingham, it is not the only voice in the forest doing so.

When I recently wrote about brain drain, it was more to see if folks thought it existed (I think it’s become more of a trickle myself). What happens after the sign up lists are entered into the databases and the business card swapping ends tonight is the key for those that think that the phenomenon does exist.

The offline interaction and tangibles that come from shaking hands with someone who is as passionate as you are about the future of The Magic City will encourage most to move any obstacle that stands before them. It will be interesting this year to see how many of these organizations choose to work together on projects, pooling resources and talent to help move Birmingham forward the way that they want to see it happen.

I’ll unfortunately show up late tonight and leave early; heading home to play in the dirt in front of the house in advance of a trip out of town tomorrow. I’m hoping that the seeds planted tonight among Birmingham’s rising class of young professionals grow pretty strong… and fast.

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com.

Photo: 2007 YP Expo. André Natta/bhamterminal.com

Understanding the brain drain in Birmingham

NOTE: Don’t forget to share your thoughts on whether or not we have a brain drain in Birmingham over on MCQ.

So apparently when The J. Clyde owner Jerry Hartley and Birmingham mayor Larry Langford had their disagreement yesterday tat the end of the Five Points South Merchants Association meeting, they weren’t arguing about that album by The Ramones. They also weren’t approaching the comments from the same perspective based on the varying accounts of the story. Though based on what’s been going on around the region for the past few years, they should have been.

Perhaps if Hartley had used the term human capital flight instead of brain drain Mayor Langford would have understood his point more clearly. Funny thing is I’ve sat in several meetings both here in Birmingham and elsewhere where the term brain drain has been used with most people agreeing that it is the case. It’s not necessarily a knock on the city’s residents, but the causes for the drain are something to consider when you look at the tools needed to showcase the magic that Mayor Langford says is happening right now in town and needs to continue to happen.

This would be why organizations like the local chapter of the Harvard Club created a program called “Stop the Brain Drain” and several organizations, including  our Regional Chamber of Commerce (it’s on page 2) and Empower Alabama (under education) use the term to describe our community’s perception that we cannot retain our college-educated individuals.

People have been working for years to combat the issue; in 2002, then CEO of CTS Steve Atkins told the Birmingham Business Journal that “we strive to keep these kids here by getting them involved in challenging and interesting projects and actually help with the brain-drain problem.”

When revealing their Top 40 under 40 in 2008, the BBJ reported that according to available data, Birmingham was the only city in Alabama that didn’t show a brain drain.

Even with those efforts and results, we should not be content with just getting by on our efforts to make the region more welcoming and inviting for those young professionals looking for somewhere to call home at the beginning (and hopefully throughout) their careers or to those that want to advance in their career considering metro Birmingham as an option. I’ll aim my comments towards the young professional angle.

There are a lot of active young people in Birmingham, AL nowadays. They are finding a way to have their voices heard, however we are still hearing them say that they need to go somewhere else to advance their careers. They want to make an impact now and have their voices heard; they’re willing to sit on a junior board and wait their turn, though they hope that they are being used as effectively as possible. If they find that they aren’t, they are more willing to disconnect from the rest of the community, depriving us of that one person that could take us to the next level. Sometimes that disconnection doesn’t necessarily mean leaving town but just leaving the high society life that many feel is the only way to become a leader.

We should not just look to young people as prospective members of a junior board or as people who can offer opinions on suggestions but not the reccommendations themselves. There is still a level of disconnection among young professional organizations, despite significant efforts for that not to be the case. There are also young people that don’t necessarily know how they can contribute nor do they feel as though they are going to be allowed to. Communication should be strengthened – which means more than just sharing what’s going on but figuring out how folks can work together to effective move Birmingham forward faster than it’s currently happening and that we’re actually working together and not functioning on two different planets of reality.

Our region’s future is dependent upon everyone being on the same page about the issues. Let’s hope that the buzz surrounding this exchange that exists online already ensures we’ve gotten to that point and that we can move forward to effectively deal with the problem, instead of spending more time hoping that the overlap that needs to be happening for meaningful progress to be made does.

André Natta is the stationmaster of bhamterminal.com.

Birmingham's internal battle has got to stop

Yesterday’s debacle at the BJCC board meeting shines a bright light on some of the issues still facing our region despite having attempted to put on a face to the outside world that we’ve overcome.

Even more disturbing were the comments that have been appearing after hearing about the exchange between Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford and State Representative Mary Moore. The underlying tone of the discussion seems to insinuate that all African-American contractors do bad work (not to mention the fact that other minority contractors don’t seem to exist) and that the facility shouldn’t even be built because we can’t support a professional sports team.

I’d ask those throwing that second stone all the time to take note that in most cases, the problem has not been lack of community support for the team but the lack of success of the league. In many cases, the city led league attendance figures. Plus, if we do so poorly supporting sports teams, why do we even get considered for things like U.S. Soccer and the upcoming Davis Cup matches. More importantly, the facility should not be seen as only being used for those 8-10 sporting events a year.

Our convention center needs the space, period. Whether we want to admit that or not, it’s true. Despite the fact that the new facility will never fully recoup its construction or operating costs for itself, it is something that can provide long term jobs and revenue for this region. We spend so much time in this city taking pot shots at each other and not realizing that the true change is going on despite what loud mouths with bully pulpits say (and I’m not talking about Larry). As we continue to grow and change regionally, we must start to act our age and put the petty bickering behind us.

The fact that a state constitutional amendment can be introduced at the whim of someone feeling that there is not enough being done is absurd and speaks to the issue of self-rule and why the 1901 Constitution should be replaced as soon as possible. This is an example of wasting taxpayer dollars on an issue that should be settled locally without having to run to Montgomery to have Daddy or Mommy fix it for us. The mayor is correct – he represents the city on the board. Having council members appointed may take us down a very slippery slope, especially considering some of the positioning that people are starting to do now for 2011. It should not be political and should serve the best interests of Birmingham and the community.

While in Washington for the Inauguration, I was surrounded by people of all races and creeds. I was part of a mass of humanity that did not have one incident or arrest (save for that one person falling from a tree trying to see The Mall). The issue of race, at least in that corner of the world, was there but ceded to the idea that we had to work together to solve problems without finger pointing and the We do need to do something that will allow for more minority contractors and minority businesses in general getting that foot in the door so that they can achieve the American Dream. It is our duty to help change things to make them better. However to ignore those groups that are truly minorities when looking at the numbers in Birmingham and the surrounding area while doing it makes it shallow and pointless.

But maybe that means that I’m not Black enough…

André Natta is the managing editor of The Terminal.

Be you, Birmingham

As you read this, I’ll be in downtown Philadelphia (arriving yesterday via a really cool bus service), beginning the final chapter of what was supposed to be a four-day trip out of town on business. It started out as a trip out to Colorado and became an unplanned visit home to New York because of my mother’s unexpected triple bypass surgery. For those interested, she’s doing better now and her first follow up is scheduled for early next week. A quick thank you to the folks at New York Presbyterian – you have no idea how much my brother and I appreciate you right now.

This was the second time in the last 11 months that I’ve had to make a detour up to the Big Apple. In January, my father luckily survived a bout with kidney failure. I’ve learned some valuable lessons as a result of these trips. First and foremost is that it’s true about folks in the medical profession being among the most stubborn of patients.

I’ve learned that there are a few folks out there that still may not get why this website exists but will volunteer to let folks know that it’s alive and kicking. I was told earlier this year by a former contributor that I didn’t show enough appreciation; I only hope that the ones that stepped up while I’ve been out of town to help us show signs of life know how I truly feel.

There may be some that may be expecting me to say something about learning to shut it all down and walk away. The weird thing is I’ve known that the entire time the site’s been up. I would say that I would build on that lesson and offer this bit of advice as you enter the New Year – BE YOU. 

That message can be applied to individuals as well as to this great city, once the largest in the Southeast. To paraphrase a phrase I’ve seen floating about town, WE are Birmingham.

Despite the egos, the attitudes, the negativity and the economic downturn, we are a community that can be empowered to do great things. Every once in a while, someone shows their ass for their face and makes me realize just why those local attitudes are what they are – because of outsiders who take pot shots just because they can and they have the platform to do so. BTW – I know that I will always been viewed as an outsider as well, no matter how long I decide to call Birmingham home.

For those waiting for me to take a greater dig at Dashiell‘s “retaliation post” on Deadspin, all I will say is his ignorance is bliss. We are not a perfect city, but I’m from what’s known as the Greatest City in the World and you should hear what we say about it. (we’re pretty hard on ourselves too).

Well maybe one more thing – if people continue to take stances like his without some commentary from those who truly love the city, warts and all, – hint, hint – then it is much easier for many to continue to discredit the importance of blogs to continuing conversations.

I can say that The Terminal is definitely going to be what we need to be in 2009 and not worry about criticism… yet.

So it’s a quiet week here at Birmingham’s hub and for those expecting more, you may be waiting for a while. I hope you will help us ring in the New Year in belated fashion on January 8 as we host a Terminally Happy Hour at The Bottletree (and hope that you hang out for the show afterwards).

If you want to talk to me before then, I’ll be back in town on Friday afternoon – meaning that Saturday morning I’ll be in the corner at okafes! by about 9:30 a.m., catching up on the world that’s always passing us by, so long as my mind remembers that I’m back in Central after spending some time in Eastern and Mountain.

If 2009’s going to be a revolution, this site’s ready to take the lead… are you ready to step up too?

André Natta is the managing editor of The Terminal.

Riding towards the right solution

I have this one habit that came to light when I worked for my previous employer that’s always led to some fun conversations (and smiling faces) when expense reports from trips came in. The best example of it was when we were planning for our first trip to Baltimore, MD. My boss decided that he needed to rent a car for the trip, while I said that I’d have no problem getting around on ground transit. I ended up riding in from BWI on their light rail service, eventually pulling up in front of Camden Yards (where I caught half an inning through the gates). I then rode the bus from the ballpark to the city’s Fell’s Point neighborhood, where I got a chance to explore one of the very communities I would be learning about during that conference while getting to our hotel. I walked the rest of the time there.

By the time he met me for dinner that evening, he’d sat in “baseball traffic” for more than 2 hours while trying to get in from the airport. I’d gotten into town in about 40 minutes (including a walk that could have easily been a transfer to another bus to get me there).

My trip to Seattle, WA was already booked before I resigned from that job, so I attended the conference anyway (looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made). Residents in that region enjoy knowing that you can take an express or a local bus from the airport into downtown for $1.25 – each way. My counterparts were paying $15 each way to get into the city using a charter bus service. People from all walks were on the bus – flight attendants, business people heading to the Boeing plant, travelers and residents all sitting next to each other. Yes, they were building a light rail line from SEA-TAC, but it was due primarily because of the impressive use of the bus service already available, which was slated to continue.

While I’ve always had to scramble to find a ride to get to and from the airport here, since I’ve lived here I’ve never not used mass transit to get where I need to from the airports of the cities I’ve flown into.

Growing up in New York probably helped shape my belief that buses are fine way to get around (if they can get you where you want to go). For many people in my hometown, despite the availability of subway service in some of the denser areas of the city, the bus is an important piece of their commutes. It’s safe to say that they are the workhorses of most mass transit networks. Some communities appear to want the cart before the horse, including ours.

At the end of Regional Planning Commission director of transportation and community planning Bill Foisy’s presentation to attendees at Thursday’s ONB Breakfast Briefing about work being done to deal with increasing traffic congestion in Birmingham, someone raised their hand and asked if we would ever see light rail service in Birmingham. Foisy tried to explain that normally you’d see such services connecting cities and not just within a city and that any rail system that returned to metro Birmingham (we did have a pretty well-respected streetcar system at one point) would not be successful until we fixed our bus system. I’m still picturing those faces among the crowd having this puzzled “Well, why can’t we just replace the buses with light rail; they’re cooler?” looks on their faces.

It doesn’t make sense to build a system if those that need to be riding don’t use the current system. If those that need to be riding look down on the current system as something not good enough for them. If they don’t realize that the buses will give them a way to get from that light rail station to their homes if needed.

Call me crazy, but normally if a city wasn’t built like a New York or a Chicago by rail service you normally look to light rail as an upgrade to a system that is functional and that enjoys fair ridership. As far as who is to blame for Birmingham’s current system’s plight, I’ll leave that to everybody else and I won’t even get into whether or not those that currently ride the system are treated fairly or given adequate service.

My point is that fixing the problems with our system (especially with gas prices poised to rise), whether they be new buses, revamping the routes taken by buses, their frequency and their reliability is more important now than ever. It must be addressed and those riding now satisfied before delusions of grandeur are sought that we are not prepared for. We can’t build our way out of traffic issues either, and since our funds are beginning to dry up, wouldn’t a shift in philosophy towards assisting in transit improvements be better?

I’ll be thinking about that during my trip to Chicago in the spring, as I ride in from the airport on the El – and then take the bus.

André Natta is the managing editor of bhamterminal.com.