How one small family business’s efforts have helped shape Birmingham’s revival

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Birmingham, Alabama, Watts Realty
The Flats on 4th boutique apartment complex is one of Watts Realty’s main additions to Birmingham’s growing Parkside district. Photo submitted

When David Watts was growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1980s, people often told him that he should never venture downtown. It was too dangerous, and besides, there was nothing to do.

This always struck David as being a bit odd, since his family had long been invested in downtown Birmingham through their business, Watts Realty. In fact, at the same time that David was being warned away from the city, Watts Realty was opening the 44,000-square-foot Arlington Business Center amidst blocks of warehouses near UAB.

Arlington Business Center

Arlington Business Center. Click image for more information. Photo submitted

“Arlington was way out of character with what was down here at that time,” recalls David, who now serves as Watts Realty’s vice president. “It was flexible office space, which was unheard of in this area. Other than UAB, this was just straight warehousing.”

But Watts Realty never wavered, and that faith in Birmingham has paid off over the past decade as the city center has undergone an amazing transformation. When it was announced that Railroad Park and Regions Field were going to be built along First Avenue South, Watts Realty was already in place nearby, contributing to the city’s revival from their office on Third Avenue South and 15th Street.

“I’ve been thinking about what we could do around here for a long time” says Bill Watts, the company’s current Chairman of the Board and grandson of founder W.A. Watts. “I’d draw out all these ideas on napkins. To see Birmingham finally come back like this has been amazing.”

Flats on 4th/ Children’s of Alabama Women and Infants Center

Birmingham, Alabama, Watts Realty
The creation of Railroad Park and Regions Field sparked the development of the Parkside district, and both places can be seen from the picturesque club patio atop Flats on 4th. Photo submitted

Watts Realty has certainly played a role in that comeback, beginning with the Arlington Business Center, which has constantly hovered above 95 percent occupancy since opening in 1984.

Watts was responsible for the creation of the Flats on 4th boutique apartment complex, and worked with both UAB and Children’s of Alabama in acquiring the properties used for the construction of their new hospitals as well as the Women & Infants Center.

Birmingham, Alabama, Watts Realty
 Flats on 4th offers amenities few could have imagined in this area just a decade ago, when the surrounding blocks were filled mostly with warehouses. Photo submitted.

Many Landmarks

In addition, Watts Realty represented Children’s Hospital of Alabama in the sale of a vacant land on Second Avenue South and 17th Street that is now site of the Hilton Garden Inn and Home2 Suites, Birmingham’s first dual-branded hotel.

Birmingham, Alabama, Watts Realty
Watts Realty was responsible for the sale of the Thomas Jefferson Tower, also once called Leer Tower, not once but twice. Photo submitted

Watts also helped sell the land on Seventh Avenue South and 19th Street where the new Veterans Administration facility is located. And in an oddity, company president Chip Watts was the selling agent for the Thomas Jefferson Tower not once but twice, leading to the historic building’s current use as a luxury apartment complex.

“We’re both vested and invested in Birmingham,” Chip Watts says. “What’s going on around here is a tremendous renaissance. Birmingham has changed and expanded and become much more vibrant. And as Birmingham goes, so goes our business.”

Granted, it took a few decades for all this progress to truly kick into high gear, but Watts Realty was willing to be patient. After all, Birmingham has been the family’s home for four generations, and the company has been doing its part to improve the city for more than 100 years.

“We’re not looking to buy something and then just turn around and resell it for a profit,” Bill Watts says. “We like to own or develop long term.”

Everybody Wants to Be Downtown

The result is a city that looks nothing like the supposedly scary place David Watts was told to avoid back in the 1980s.

“Now everybody wants to be downtown,” David says with a smile. “People who live in the suburbs will get a hotel room downtown for a weekend getaway. Nobody would have ever thought about doing that when I was growing up.”

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Watts Realty