By Cary Estes
The view from the corner of 23rd Street and 14th Avenue North is actually quite lovely. That is, as long as you keep your gaze fixed in the direction of the downtown skyline and don’t look at the area immediately around you.
This part of Birmingham sits atop a small bluff, providing a nice panoramic view of the downtown buildings barely a mile to the south and the ridge of Red Mountain off in the distance. But turn around and you are greeted with the sight of a dilapidated abandoned house.
A half-block to the west, tall weeds fill an empty lot as trash – including a stained mattress –piles up along the side of the street.
While much of downtown Birmingham and the area to the south and east of the city center has been thriving in recent years, most of the communities in north Birmingham such as Druid Hills, Fountain Heights and Norwood remain stagnant. This region contains a number of historic homes, and some of them have been lovingly maintained or restored by people committed to the neighborhoods. But many others houses are falling apart, and commercial activity is practically non-existent.
Factors vary as to why this part of town has been left behind when it comes to economic development, though one reason seems to literally loom larger than the rest. That would be the elevated portion of the I-20/59 interstate that slices through the northern edge of downtown, effectively creating a noisy, high-speed barrier between the city center and these nearby neighborhoods.
“We’re being totally blocked from the rest of Birmingham,” Fountain Heights resident Dorothy Calhoun said. “We never have any improvements around here. No one wants to come into this area. No one wants to invest anything here.”
Several local business and citizen groups say the city now has an opportunity to remove this barrier. That section of interstate is nearly 50 years old and currently handles twice as much daily vehicle traffic as originally intended, which is why the Alabama Department of Transportation (ADOT) has announced that it plans to replace the structure. But ALDOT’s proposal is simply to construct a larger, wider version of the current elevated highway, a decision that critics say is a major mistake.
“It’s going to reinforce for the next few generations the barrier-effect problem of that highway, which has been an issue in the city ever since it was put there,” said Darrell O’Quinn, Executive Director of the Move I-20/59 organization that is advocating for a different approach to ALDOT’s replacement proposal. “What our group is saying is if you’re going to make that sort of huge investment, it needs to be done in a way that reaps the most possible reward for Birmingham.”
“In ALDOT’s eyes, the project is largely just about building roads and bridges and moving vehicles. It’s not about utilizing that infrastructure to improve the city. But there are places just a few blocks north of this corridor that are in a very blighted area. We see the potential that this project could be done in such a way that it really drives revitalization in those areas.”
There are two primary alternatives being discussed. One is to reroute the interstate entirely, perhaps incorporating the existing Finley Boulevard corridor. Under this plan, the interstate would shift north at the Arkadelphia Road exit near Birmingham-Southern College and reconnect with the current pathway somewhere close to the airport near Tallapoosa Street. However, there are several issues with this proposal, including the cost of land acquisition and the removal of some homes and businesses along the way.
Another possibility is to lower the interstate below grade level, an idea that was originally outlined in the 2004 Birmingham City Center Master Plan. This would allow for downtown streets, pedestrians walkways, commercial buildings and greenspaces to be built along and over the top of the roadway. Similar projects have been completed in recent years in downtown Dallas, near the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, and along the Cincinnati waterfront (an issue we will explore further in the third and final part of this series).
Advocates maintain that not only would the removal of the elevated highway help reconnect the northern neighborhoods with downtown, but it would open up nearly 100 acres of land that currently is basically wasted space underneath the viaduct.
According to a report presented in September by Sarah Woodworth, Managing Member of W-ZHA, LLC, a national development advisory firm, to the Birmingham Public Safety & Transportation Committee, such a change could have a substantial economic impact on the city, including:
- The potential for 4 million to 6 million square feet of new development on land that has an appraised value of $519M to $753M.
- The creation of 2,500 to 3,600 housing units; 420,000 to 607,000 square feet of retail space and 1 million to 1.5 million square feet of office space that could hold 4,300 to 6,300 employees.
- The creation of 5,100 – 7,400 jobs in new office, retail and entertainment businesses with estimated payroll of $275M – $400M per year.
- The generation of $138M to $216M in tax revenue over a 10-year period.
A 2009 study by the engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff concluded that lowering the interstate is a viable option. “There are no insurmountable challenges in feasibility or construction,” the company stated in a 30-page report. “No additional right of ways to be acquired, no displacement of residents or businesses expected … and north Birmingham neighborhoods will be positively impacted.” Local advocates believe the alternative to lower the roadway accomplishes the goals of all parties, but ALDOT does not appear willing to seriously consider and inexplicably denies it is even possible to lower the roadway.
Parsons Brinckerhoff estimated that the project would cost nearly $700 million and take three years to complete, during which time the corridor could remain open to traffic. ALDOT, meanwhile, estimates that its proposed replacement plan will cost $450 million, though local groups state the actual cost will be more than $600 million. Besides, for a project of this extreme importance to Birmingham, O’Quinn said money should not be the overriding consideration.
“There are many other factors besides the cost of concrete and steel and labor,” O’Quinn said. “We could do something that would help correct some historic problems in our city. How much is it going to cost us in terms of trying to revitalize those northern neighborhoods? How much is it going to cost us in terms of being able to attract people to that area? None of those things have been taken into consideration. ALDOT is not looking at the potential benefit to Birmingham.”
And that is the major source of frustration for local groups who maintain that ALDOT is not giving serious consideration to any alternatives.
“This is a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a positive difference in the community,” said former EBSCO Industries CEO Dixon Brooke Jr., who is part of a local group that wants the elevated highway removed. “For too long, this roadway has created a dividing line in our city. It’s been a social barrier between downtown Birmingham and the neighborhoods to the north.”
“Removing the elevated highway creates a condition where people will actually be willing to invest money to that area north of the interstate. Dallas and Atlanta both offer great examples of what’s possible. Right now it’s barren and blighted. Those homes used to be as nice as any in the city. And the view from there can be fantastic, looking back toward downtown. But the elevated highway just has everything shut down.”
“This is an opportunity with tremendous economic development ramifications. This is a 50-year decision, and we feel strongly that the people of Birmingham should have a voice in what happens, because we’re the ones who are going to be stuck with the outcome,” says Brook.
In a 2015 WBHM interview with Andrew Yeager, John Cooper, the Executive Director of ALDOT, said; “That’s not my role to make those determinations. My role is transportation. You’re asking me to respond to an issue that’s a broad, long term issue for the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County. And I think people who are closer to those problems should respond to that than me.” This frustrates local groups who say they want to be heard, but that ALDOT does not appear to be willing to listen
Our third and final piece on this series will cover examples and inspiration from other areas where alternative highway structures have been adopted.
Did you miss part 1? Why Should You Care about the I20/59 Debate?