Birmingham’s 5 most impactful re-developments according to former Auburn Design Studio Director Cheryl Morgan

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Photos courtesy of Birmingham Landmarks

Perhaps no one in Birmingham has had a better front row seat to witness the Magic City’s renaissance, both downtown and in the surrounding areas, than Urban Land Institute Alabama member and former longtime director of the Auburn Urban Design Studio, Cheryl Morgan.

Since 1992, as an architect/planner and educator, Morgan has watched and participated in what she calls Birmingham’s growing “sense of possibility.”

Cheryl Morgan, FAIA. Photo by Jeffrey Reese

Recently, Bham Now sat down with Morgan to talk about the most impactful redevelopment projects in Birmingham over the past 30 years.

ULI Alabama Guideposts

Using Urban Land Institute’s mission (healthy and thriving communities, sustainability and innovative design) as guideposts, Morgan identified five re-development projects that have created great places for people to work, do business, live, and play.

“We want vibrant places.”

Here is her list of Birmingham’s 5 most impactful re-development projects:

Loft district

Wooster Building (on left) and corridor of lofts on 1st Ave. North. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

According to Morgan, early adopters like Southpace’s John Lauriello and Engel Realty’s Bo Grisham (who is now with the Brookmont Realty Group) pioneered the earliest downtown redevelopment. The first loft conversion, the Wooster Building in 1986, was done by Engel. The loft district, which is located east of 20th Street along and between Morris Avenue and the 1st and 2nd Avenue North Corridor is filled today with lofts, restaurants, and bars.

“For me, one of the most important indicators of a city you want live in, is that it is activated by people. Of course the heart of our city is populated by people that work there. Between the University and the Business district, we have about 80,000 people working in the downtown,” said Morgan. “The idea of having a place to live as well, means there are more opportunities for active downtown nights and weekends. The early re-development of existing historic buildings in our downtown into residential lofts developments gave us a chance to build that living population that attracts restaurants, cafes, all the things that make good livable cities.”

Pepper Place

Pete Sloss and his daughter Cathy Jones at Pepper Place. Image courtesy of Pepper Place

Pepper Place, located at the old Dr. Pepper bottling Company, transformed the Lakeview District. Before the creation of Pepper Place, in the late 80s, that particular area of the city was filled with light industry, manufacturing, and automotive services. The conversion of the old bottling company and the Martin Biscuit buildings, by Sloss Real Estate, gave focus to an emerging design district that could attract restaurants and niche retail.

“The development of the Pepper Place and then the Farmers Market, made this part of our city more vibrant and interesting. The adaptive re-use of these old industrial buildings created an important destination for our city attracting over 10,000 people during the height of summer.”

Birmingham Alabama
The Market at Pepper Place

The Urban Land Institute Atlanta agreed, presenting Pepper Place their Awards for Excellence in 2013.

Railroad Park

Before the construction of Railroad Park. Photo courtesy of Railroad Park
Railroad Park today. Photo courtesy of Railroad Park

Railroad Park turned 4 vacant and deserted city blocks into “Birmingham’s front yard.”

“This was a different kind of re-development,” stated Morgan. “It’s not adaptively re-using a building. It took a part of our city that was lying dormant and transformed it into a place where we all come together as a community. In many ways, the fact that it had not been part of a neighborhood, is why it was so available to become a park that is not just for the people who live and work downtown but could be a for park the entire city. It became OUR park.”

Highly visible and beautifully designed, the public/private investment in Railroad Park helped to stimulate lots of other development downtown. It was an anchor development that helped leverage investment, helping bring the Birmingham Barons back to the city and as well as new residential/mixed use construction.

“Railroad Park was the beginning of a new sense of possibility for our city.”

Nationally, Railroad Park was ULI’s 2012 Urban Open Space Award winner, beating out the High Line in NYC.

Innovation Depot

Via Innovation Depot’s Facebook

Innovation Depot was once a Sears & Roebuck store that was built using a suburban model right on the edge of downtown on the 1st Ave. North corridor. It was one of Operation New Birmingham‘s [now REV] “12 Most Wanted”: prominent, neglected downtown buildings singled out as those whose redevelopment could help transform surrounding properties.

Reusing the old Sears building was a challenge. It’s large windowless footprint was not viable for many types of reuse that were being developed downtown. It wasn’t until UAB was seeking out a downtown location for its research incubator that there seemed to be a good fit.

Designs by the architecture firm Williams Blackstock included a central atrium that brought light in. Along with new exterior windows the building could be perceived as a place of innovation and exciting discovery.

“Not only is this a good example of overcoming a non-urban building type and finding a good use for it, this new use has brought/kept the best and brightest innovators and entrepreneurs in our downtown,” said Morgan.

Lyric and Alabama Theatres

Lyric Theatre before re-development. Photo courtesy of Birmingham Landmarks
Lyric Theatre after re-development. Photo courtesy of Birmingham Landmarks

The most impactful re-developments do not always have to be something new. The Alabama and Lyric Theatres are being used for what they were originally designed for.

Morgan recognized the importance of the two theatres. “Both of these are showpieces, they are great examples of a time in our city when we invested in and built great buildings. Reinvestment in that heritage and quality building is something to be proud of. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Birmingham Landmarks and Cecil Whitmire for saving the Alabama with a care and integrity that carried over to the exquisite restoration of the Lyric.”

The Alabama Theatre is considered one of the great old movie houses of the South. Today, hosting a broad array of activities, it draws people into downtown contributing to that vitality that makes a city liveable.

Birmingham Alabama
Alabama Theatre sign on 18th before 1957 – photo by Bham Now
The oppulent Alabama Theatre. Via-

“The recent remarkable fundraising effort that led to the restoration of the Lyric Theatre was one of those times in our city when everyone had such pride in the fact that ‘we could do it.’ And we had another reason to believe that our downtown could be the vibrant, active, peopled place that we admire in other great cities.”

Best use of land

One of the Urban Land Institute’s central concepts is to reuse buildings and land whenever possible instead of taking greenfields. Birmingham’s 5 most impactful re-developments chosen by ULI member Cheryl Morgan have not only resulted in beautiful and creative re-developments, they have leveraged additional investments and helped to build vibrant places.

As Morgan so aptly puts it, “A place with a sense of possibility.”

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Bham Now ULI

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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