I went for a run recently at Railroad Park – the newness of being able to say that still hasn’t quite worn off yet. I tend to stay on the cushioned portion of the trail circling the four-block urban oasis. I decided I’d stop at the stairs that take you down to the portion of the trail that leads you along the lawn before rising again. It’s approximately where Mayor Bell’s bridge would connect 16th Street North with the park and Southside.
After I stopped thinking about how crazy it would be to run through the potential foot traffic, I started wondering what other reasons there could be for constructing this bridge – provided the feasibility study recently approved by the Birmingham City Council says it makes sense and the funding sources are identified and tapped. It’d be nice for tourism, but there are some more practical reasons that can be shared with the community that speak to its long term effects.
Here are a few that came to mind:
A symbolic gesture towards the future. Yes, this is the case already being presented by its proponents. Next year the spotlight will be focused on Alabama’s Magic City as people from across the country and around the world look to see what’s changed since September 1963. There will be just as many wondering who’ve never paid attention before wondering what’s happening in this city. Even though it wouldn’t be finished in time, it would be the type of civic project that could be pointed to when asked how things are progressing (though Railroad Park and the baseball field would do a pretty good job on their own). That’s nice, but it’s probably more of a symbolic gesture for the region’s residents than it is for outsiders.
Despite the best efforts of some locals, the days of the city’s central business district alone serving as the city’s downtown is over. It is “greater downtown Birmingham” nowadays, and it includes Southside. If we’re not going to be able to get an interstate sunk, we’re still going to want to go over something to claim success of truly connecting our city – and showing what else is possible as these cracks continue to be repaired. It also gives us a way to hearken images of the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga as we cross our “river” running through the center of town (I know that’s running through some minds out there, admit it).
It’s a businessperson’s special. When I lived downtown, I used to prefer running over the 22nd St. bridge to attempting to go under the railroad tracks on 20th St., despite that being where signs currently live guiding runners new to the city through it. Considering I could run a little faster when I first moved here, occasionally switching up the route didn’t phase me that much – especially on hot evenings where it did provide a cool respite. Now imagine a bunch of folks who drive into town solely to work in the city’s central business district who’d rather walk over something rather than under while in town for a game – and who’d rather park somewhere familiar to them. It suddenly opens up a lot more parking options for the ballpark too, doesn’t it? Not to mention the potential foot traffic. This leads to…
The UAB/Bridge to the future angle. The state’s largest employer occupies a significant portion of the property south of the railroad tracks and a concerted effort needs to be made to encourage those associated with UAB to travel just a little farther north. This becomes much more important as people begin to realize how much land is available for redevelopment in the area known as the Entrepreneurial District – a portion of the city center with an easternmost boundary of 16th Street North. As efforts begin to encourage additional, denser development of the area, you’d love to offer them a really cool way to get to those games in addition to giving students and employees a reason to head towards downtown on foot – and thereby providing additional numbers to consider when attracting new businesses.
I’m really not saying we should or we shouldn’t do this bridge; I’m asking folks to be willing to look at several reasons for the project and to start having slightly deeper conversations about it and everything else you hear about going on in town right now. We already seem to be building a bridge to somewhere for this city. It’d be nice to start taking a look at just where it can possibly go and where it can take us once we’ve built it. This study is the latest step in that movement.
It also doesn’t hurt that each of these reasons point to a group that could help the mayor win re-election next year – provided he runs…
I just offered up three of the crazy reasons I thought of just standing there. Perhaps you’ve got some others (or maybe you think mine are silly). If so, share those thoughts and ideas below.
André Natta is The Terminal’s stationmaster.