As someone who loves Birmingham dearly, but also went to school with the specific desire to be a real estate developer, I am a little divided on the Fire Station No. 22/Bogues/Walgreens situation that is going on right now. However, in seeing how other people are reacting to the situation, I don't think that most of them are thinking about the situation very objectively. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject. **Warning: Likely to not be a popular opinion**
While I certainly don't think that it is a good idea to flippantly tear down historic buildings, the former fire station building is completely out of any sort of "historic" context based on the other buildings around it (um, giant Fiserv building across the street, anyone?), and is really kind of an ugly building that happens to have some Spanish Colonial Revival styling. If people love this old fire station so much, why has the city owned it for so long? Why didn't someone else come to the City and offer them $200,000 for it?
From 32nd Street South, the fire station does look fairly nice.
But from Clairmont Avenue, the fire station looks like a Spanish Colonial Revival snout-house.
People are also really concerned about tearing down the Bogues building. First off, while Bogues is a good restaurant, I'm not denying that, it is just a restaurant and can move elsewhere. After all, people go to the restaurant for the food, right? I haven't heard anyone complain about how the food at the old Fish Market location used to be so much better than the food at the new one. Second of all, neither the inside nor the outside of the Bogues building have any sort of character or architectural merit, and it sits in the middle of a big, ugly parking lot. Trying to argue otherwise is silly.
Good breakfast? Yes. Good building? No.
In between these buildings sits a large eyesore of a mechanic's shop, as well as some other gross brown building. None of these buildings (aside from the fire station, maybe) offer any sort of character to the block other than highlighting the fact that it is run-down. Just because something is more than 25 years old doesn't mean it automatically has character, and in fact, some of the ugliest buildings were built between the 1950s and 1970s. Additionally, unlike parts of the block father to the west, there are absolutely no trees along the street in front of these buildings. It's not like the block would be losing a valuable streetscape either.
Would a Walgreens be more attractive than this? I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb by saying "yes."
Do I support putting a Walgreens on this site? Not necessarily. I do agree that most Walgreens contribute little more to their surroundings than a suburban blandness. But to date, no one else has stepped up to assemble this land in order to build a beautiful mixed-use building on the site, and in the end, cities are kept alive by redevelopment. Cities cost money to run, and that money doesn't grow on trees.
I think that there have been examples within past several years of cities being strong about what sort of site layout and design elements they want and forcing national retailers to comply (there are an increasing number of examples of Walmart doing this). The chain pharmacy stores do extensive research about what locations they want and have shown time and again that when they find a site that they like, they are willing to do just about whatever it takes to secure that site (including paying very high land prices). In other words, I don't think that signing online petitions and starting Facebook groups is really going to stop Walgreens from moving forward if that's what they want to do. Instead, I think effort should be made to work with Walgreens to build a store that will, as they state, bring additional tax revenue to the city, but also be an attractive building that contributes to the character of the street. The latter shouldn't be that hard considering how little character already exists on that block right now.
But at the end of the day, why shouldn't Walgreens be allowed to build here, and build a drive-through while they're at it? They provide a good service, they are likely in compliance with current zoning, and they build moderately attractive (if not architecturally uninspired) buildings. It's not like someone is proposing to put a strip club here, it's just a pharmacy. And it's not like this particular block is a core, pedestrian-oriented part of downtown Birmingham surrounded by numerous other historic buildings.
Our cities are not museums. They are living, breathing things. They get old, they get sick, and if they're not taken care of, they will eventually die. Unlike people and animals, though, cities can be revived. But in the way that trees have to be pruned to get the most fruit, sometimes older buildings have to be torn down to be able to make an area better.
I worked in the planning department at Birmingham-based KPS Group for over a year-and-a-half and believe that I learned principles of good design and planning there. With the "greedy developer" perspective that I developed in grad school, maybe I am missing something. However, I think that I am being pretty objective and realistic here. Based on all of the knee-jerk reactions that I have read so far, I wish that others would calm down for a second and consider it from another perspective. Regardless, I will be interested to see how this all plays out.
(All images from Google Streetview. Maybe I will take some real pictures when I am in Birmingham this weekend to replace these).
Postscript- I recognize that that is my first post after my "hiatus." Yes, I do hope to resume blogging on a regular basis again, and have some ideas lined up for some new posts. Thank you to everyone for their kind words.
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