Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Opinion on the Fire Station No. 22/Bogues/Walgreen situation in Birmingham

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.


Kim said...

I don't live in Birmingham, but I can say that Walgreens put a store just off the Marietta Square and the tweaked their design to make it fit in better with the historic buildings. And everybody was happy to have it since the last drugstore on the Square closed about 15 years ago.

Sometimes things are just old enough to be old...change is good if done sensibly.

Eric said...


Dan Monroe said...

Trip, your well-reasoned discussion certainly has merit. And some of the points you've made have crossed my mind. For the record, I'm the guy who started the FB group; so let me take a moment to share my perspective.

My reaction to Walgreens’ plan is mostly emotional. I admit that. In fact, I started the FB group in a moment of ire. I grew up going to Bogues (still do). I toured the fire station as a 5-year-old wide-eyed kindergartner. I don’t want to see them gone. And I look around that area and I can see so so many other corners that woefully need redeveloping more than that one. So, I started the group, half thinking that my nostalgia – some fifty years in the making – might be joined by a hundred souls or so who would complain, a gnash our teeth, and feel at least a little better about the inevitable Walgreens that we did so. I’m stunned by the turnout. Apparently, these places have touched more folks than just this Birminghamian.

Now… to the buildings… I believe the fire station has more architectural merit than you credit it for having. I'm a partner in a small advertising agency and we'd have loved to consider buying this building when we were looking - about 13 months ago. Timing is everything. I don't know what it looks like on the inside. But, assuming it's salvageable, I can imagine it as a number of things: a very cool small advertising agency office for starters! Perhaps an interesting restaurant, a neighborhood pub venue for live music, a professional office (Mr. Schaeffer…where are you??) It's close enough to Lakeview to begin to extend the critical mass of what's going on there eastward. It’s unattractiveness owes much to its need for TLC.

That block has potential. Highland music is housed in another structure of interest. Bogues is in what I consider and interesting building that screams 1930s. You're right... the gas station and the brown building aren't much to talk about... nor are most of the buildings west of Bogues. The irony is that most of those ugly little buildings were thrown up for much the same reason this Walgreens very likely will be built: the city doesn't care. Urban planning in Birmingham leaves much to be desired. Pockets of energy happen here despite the city. Avondale. Lakeview. 2nd Avenue. These places are happening because developers took the care to embrace the essential character of the neighborhoods in which they redeveloped. Walgreens, (and I have nothing against them as a company) will likely pay lip service to the essential character of the Lakeview neighborhood. They'll throw up a building that will try to fit in; and it will be unremarkable. And this neighborhood along with much of Birmingham will continue its slide toward mediocrity.

The bones of Birmingham are good. We have beautiful old structures and businesses that should be nourished. Burying them under asphalt so that we can have one more drug store is not the answer.

LK Whitney said...

What I hear in all this is more than the mere facade of a building and it goes even deeper than the emotional nostalgia. The City of Birmingham is making rapid, ill-developed decisions that directly affect the integrity of our neighborhoods. Residents are taking it personally, and it's inspiring to see how strong the collective dialogue of this community has become.

I hear the sounds civic accountability and an empowered community. This City needs the support and energy from its residents. If progress is to be made, it begins here, at the grassroots level.

The structures are not the totality of this movement...the heart and soul of the city are at the core. And I want to be a part of it!

Unknown said...

You make some good points, but this is a major entry point into two very important (if I may say so) neighborhoods in the Birmingham community. The idea that a box store should sit directly in that entry way is not a good planning idea and should not sit well with anyone that has a planning background. I can't imagine that most of the folks that work at KPS would feel the way you do about this specific situation!

thesot said...

Screw Walgreens. I say tear it all down and build a prison to house all the dirty elected officials. Move Bogues to downtown Bham where people who have real jobs can walk there for lunch.

Anonymous said...


In general, you present a reasonable argument. I agree - the fire station is not incredibly attractive (though I do believe it possesses some architectural merit). If this Walgreens proposal becomes reality, it will not be near as devastating to Birmingham's character as the proposed Chick-Fil-A and accompanying drive-thru.

That said, the current Walgreens proposal is horrible. It offers NO relationship to the street. While the current street view is far from gorgeous, Walgreens' proposal will hardly ameliorate the situation. What does Birmingham gain by this development? Bogue's will be destroyed and the nearby CVS will likely be put out of business. Even if the CVS remains, Walgreens will offer no services that cannot already be found at CVS.

If the fire station has to be demolished, it should be replaced by something that actually contributes positively to the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

A bit late to the party.
I'm not from Alabama, but have fam there that I see often. (i'm in atlanta)

Just my objective, on the spot reactions:

The fire station should stay. The first pic seems nice.
As for the second photo: A lawn of grass is one of the least attractive and most high maintenance things one could plant. What it is missing are big or small trees and shrubs, maybe even vines one might usually see accompany such a building. With better curb appeal, I'm sure it would get snatched up.

The restaurant is known for its food. As long as the cooks/ownership stays the same, it wouldn't matter if they were serving out of someone's backyard.
I don't know the building up close and personal, though. The place is looking rather lonely out there, too.

You've already outlined what Walgreens needs to do and also the reasons why they'd do it. I agree.

Ashlyn Stallings said...

ah, you speaketh the truth.

i've often wondered about that fire station.

but bogue's is delightful.

welcome back to the 'ham! for a while at least :)

Anonymous said...

Having voted many times at said Fire Station # 22, I would hate to see it get torn down. That being said, living in Atlanta now, I had no idea that the firestation wasn't being used as such anymore. We have a firestation in VaHi that isn't what you would call beautiful, but if they wanted to tear it down for a Walgreens, I'd flip out.

What I don't understand about box stores is that they NEVER seem to use what might be available. They always want to build new. Look at the vacant commercial properties around the South, and ask "Why is WalMart/Walgreens/ETC. building a new facility when there is hundreds of thousands of square feet already available?"

Jeremy Erdreich said...

Thanks for your post. While I feel strongly about the historic integrity of the Fire Station--and its designation on the National Register reflects this--this is more than about just a building or 2. It's about how we form urban space, and value local business vs. out-of-state chains. A generic, big-box pharmacy at such a "gateway" corner is just not good planning.

Also, I wanted to point out that the fire station was only vacated perhaps 1 1/2 years ago--the City was mute about its intentions, until we all woke up to find out an obscure RFP had been answered by Walgreen's. The community had no knowledge of the RFP, and there are some very nosy, informed people around here. The City should do a much better job of publicizing the sale of an historic structure.