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In 2012, the city of Vestavia Hills put forth a bold vision for its redevelopment of Highway 31. The plan envisioned the addition of a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, a greenway along Patton Creek and the transformation of the interchange at Interstate 65 to serve as a gateway to the city. That was six years ago. Where do we stand today?
Bham Now interviewed Vestavia Hills City Manager Jeff Downes to bring you the latest.
1. It’s been six years since the redevelopment plan came out. What’s the progress so far?
Short Answer: Momentum is building. Investments by the city of Vestavia Hills totaling $65 million since 2012 have led to the redevelopment of key properties and new revenue-generating businesses.
Tangible results of the redevelopment of Highway 31 through Vestavia Hills since 2012 include:
- The grand opening of the new Vestavia Hills City Hall in 2015, including City Hall Green, a public green space and amphitheater
- Vestavia Hills’ first Sprouts Farmers Market
- Chick-fil-A on the site of the former city hall
- America’s First Federal Credit Union on the site of a dilapidated old library
- Purchase and demolition of the former Party Time building, adjacent to Sprouts
- $400,000 investment in landscaping at the interchange of Interstate 65 and Highway 31 to create a gateway entrance to the city of Vestavia Hills
- New York-based Katz Properties’ purchase of Vestavia Hills City Center for $60.3M
“As the city put an interest and effort into its master plan, there always was the thought that you had to create some momentum. The momentum can hopefully capitalize private investment and lead to further sustainability of the Highway 31 corridor.”—Jeff Downes
2. What future developments can we expect?
Short Answer: Lots!
Plans are in the works for:
- A city recreation center at the site of the former Gold’s Gym, adjacent to city hall
- The revitalization of Wald Park
- A Baumhower’s Victory Grille adjacent to Wald Park
- Potentially, a luxury-style renovation of the movie theater in Vestavia Hills City Center
Side note for movie fans: If plans to renovate the Vestavia Hills City Center movie theater come to fruition, moviegoers will be able to dine, sip alcoholic drinks and enjoy movies from comfortable reclining seats. It will be the area’s first MacGuffins, a concept by AMC Theatres. But it is not the only luxury movie theater coming to the greater Birmingham area soon.
3. Why is redevelopment needed at all?
Short answer: The Highway 31 corridor is Vestavia Hills’ biggest revenue generator and has been since 1950 when the city was founded. Keeping the area vibrant supports the city’s overall economic health.
“It’s the epicenter of activity when we look at the volume of cars, the amount of commerce and the exposure that the city gets,” Downes said. “It’s the most populous area and the most economically important to the city as far as volume of tax dollars that it generates.
“While every area of the city is important to us, you want to make sure you take care of the portion that carries the heaviest load economically for your city.”
4. What challenges has Vestavia Hills faced in implementing the redevelopment of Highway 31?
Short answer: Topography, geotechnical issues and per capita revenue, especially in year 2012 when the plan came out.
Topography and flood plain:
“The challenge of Highway 31 and its redevelopment is our landscape, that is, our topography. Highway 31 is between two ridge lines that funnel water to the lower part. That makes it a flood plain in some portions,” Downes said.
“Also, over the course of time, it has been difficult to develop along this section of Vestavia Hills because of the geotechnical issues associated with development. The dirt, the rock and the fill areas make development not only difficult but very costly. So those variables drive implementation.
Per capita revenue:
“When you look at 2012, which was post recession, and you look at the finances and revenue streams of the city, we had less per capita revenue than many comparable cities around. Vestavia Hills per capita revenue was just over $1,000 a person. Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Bessemer—they’re pushing $2,000 per capita.”
“We had less money to deal with, so we have to be very strategic in how we invest what limited funds we have.”—Jeff Downes
Ultimately, that means the city is a ways off from fulfilling plans for a greenway and trail along Patton Creek.
“If we’re going to purchase land and develop, it has to produce a tangible return on investment. Buying excess land for the purpose of green space has to be done strategically and at the right time,” Downes said.
For the time being, the city is investing in a green space project it can afford—the revitalization of Wald Park, which it already owns.
5. How has the city overcome challenges to redevelopment?
Short answer: (1) reduced sale prices of city-owned properties, (2) public-private partnerships and (3) strategic investments to build momentum and revenue.
Reduced sale prices:
The city reduced the price of properties now occupied by Chick-fil-A and America’s First Federal Credit Union by about $200,000 each. The incentives made the cost of demolishing old city structures, cleanup and site work more manageable for the developers.
For similar reasons, the city worked out a public-private partnership with Sprouts based on future sales taxes to be generated by that location, Downes said.
“To create momentum, early in our plan we had to generate revenue. We had to do that through public-private partnerships and through creating a catalyst project that would spin off commerce.”—Jeff Downes
Strategic city investments (and their spin offs):
- The multimillion dollar investment in the new city hall helped entice Sprouts to open its location across the street.
- The pending revitalization of Wald Park begot the investment in the future Baumhower’s Victory Grille.
6. Bottom line, when the Vestavia Hills redevelopment of Highway 31 is complete, will the final product look like the 2012 plan?
Short answer: Yes and no.
The 2012 vision and the 2018 reality of Vestavia Hills are both about attracting customers and businesses and creating a more viable, prosperous city.
While today is about building momentum, progress could eventually lead to funding some of the niceties envisioned in the 2012 plan, such as purchasing land for the greenway along Patton Creek.
There a some parts of the 2012 plan that will never happen, according to Downes. For instance, the plan proposed a much larger project to create a gateway to the city at the interchange of Interstate 65 and Highway 31. If plans had been carried out as envisioned, the existing Royal Automotive, a top tax-paying entity, would have had to relocate. The city scratched that part of the plan.
“Why would we want to displace such an important part of our economic basis of our city in that particular location? I don’t see that as reality.”—Jeff Downes
The city still created the gateway, but the revised plan did not require relocation of the dealership. The city also partnered with Royal Automotive to improve the Buick dealership’s future, Downes said.
So while citizens of Vestavia Hills and greater Birmingham will see aspects of the 2012 plan come to life, there will be tweaking. Follow Bham Now for future updates as developments unfold.