A private-public partnership formed by the merger of Operation New Birmingham and Main Street Birmingham, REV Birmingham (REV) is an economic development organization that stimulates growth and improves the quality of life in Birmingham’s city center and its neighborhood commercial centers.
An initiative supported by REV, and inspired by the new urbanism concept that short-term actions can effect long-term change, REVIVE Birmingham: The Street Life Project aimed to bring the Birmingham streets to life by activating empty storefronts and side-walks with pop-up food and retail shops—as well as art and performance installations—showcasing potential business and community opportunities. As part of the effort, five target commercial districts were identified to hold weeklong celebrations each for five consecu-tive weeks. GS&P volunteered both time and skills to develop concepts to support this unique urban renaissance, and were assigned the Third Avenue North 1800 block—a once bustling city street, now underscored by its vacated storefronts.
“A ‘pop-up’ is essentially the short-term occupation of vacant space in an area that’s been identified for revitalization,” explains GS&P architect Jennifer Carr. “REVIVE Birmingham took this idea a little further and expanded the concept into a larger scale to what they referred to as a ‘pop-up on steroids,’ and partnered with community leaders, building owners, entrepreneurs and artists to activate the vacant spaces and sidewalks in these designated districts.
“GS&P’s allocated city block was only steps away from the heart of the theatre district, but was in dire need of a cleanup and face-lift. So our team really had to come together, determine how we could use our design expertise, and then demonstrate our thought leadership to organize and strategize what would help achieve a stronger sense of place and create a vibrant destination. We ultimately came up with a comprehensive and thoughtful plan that was realistic and could be implemented. And we came at it with a whole dif-ferent approach than perhaps some of the boutique design firms.”
Challenged with an aggressive four-month schedule and relying on volunteers and donations from the community, GS&P had to re-spond swiftly to keep the project moving forward. Realizing that organized, prompt delivery of information in tandem with creative, budget-conscious solutions was the only way to truly be successful, GS&P outlined a schedule of information sharing and meetings. As part of this process, the firm’s entire office came together as a united and collaborative in-house team comprised of architects, interior designers, water resources engineers, transportation engineers and civil engineers, all of whom would be volunteering their personal time to the effort.
Since there was no clear direction on deliverables, the team had to devise and lead an organized process to determine what they could produce to help REV achieve its overarching goals for the revitalization. This process entailed organizing a design charrette to identify client goals and deliverables; supporting short-term activities with graphics; a vision for long-term opportunities with graphic exhibits; and participating in event activities.
Prior to the design charrette, REV Birmingham staff took the GS&P team on a walking tour of their designated downtown block to provide a description of each building, its history and its current property owners. GS&P then led the effort to identify key implementable goals during the following work session.
“The charrette was the jump-start for bringing in the REV team as well as everyone in the Birmingham office who wanted to participate,” explains project coordinator Claire Neely. “Because of the short turnaround time, we felt it was the most efficient and expeditious way to unify our ideas with the client’s goals.
“We held the charrette in an empty downtown loft and retail space on the project street, which was not only an effective and inspiring location, but it also allowed us to engage the end team in a unique and collaborative way. We kicked off the work session by asking the client to identify three or four primary goals for the effort, and then broke out into three separate groups to focus on those specific goals.”
“Some of the goals identified included determining pop-up spaces along the block and evaluating preferred business types that would make up this sector,” adds Carr. “And it was a high priority for REV to discuss social interaction as well as the opportunities that these businesses created for the area.”
By the design charrette’s completion, the unified team had clearlyidentified three overarching goals: implementable short-term physical improvements; implementable short-term social improvements; and a future long-term vision.
Short-Term Physical and Social Improvements
Thinking in the short term, GS&P’s recommendations for physical improvements included cleaning up sidewalks and building facades; removing and replacing existing seating; replacing trash receptacles; adding color and decoration to storefronts; removing dilapidated signage; installing bike racks; repairing existing street lighting; trimming trees; and adding accent plants.
“All the short-term improvements we recommended were relatively simple surface fixes,” explains Carr. “But we knew they would instantly provide people with a better sense that the street was safe and well-cared for.”
To achieve these short-term objectives, the GS&P team created a site plan and a photomontage of the north and south street elevations. These drawings not only detailed the extent of the improvements, but also served as a tangible way to demonstrate to the City, property owners and potential donors that their time, effort and money were leading to a distinct vision.
Representatives from GS&P also attended meetings with City leadership, where practical discussions regarding street cleanup, occupancy considerations and safety requirements took place.
When it came to long-term social improvements, the summary of goals identified in the work session comprised maximizing street-life vitality to promote social interaction; encouraging performing and visual art installations to enhance culture; and fostering a “can-do” mindset to disprove potential cynics of the initiative.
“In support of the short-term social activities, we provided research through pictures and documentation of successful elements that created social interaction on previously vacant streets in other urban revival movements around the world,” explains GS&P architect Tim Anson. “We also offered a list of potential activities, artists and prospective pop-up occupants to support the weeklong activities.
“All concepts were encouraged, and there was no such thing as a ‘bad’ idea. In fact, the idea sharing was very free-flowing, and the overall project actually allowed us to do things that we did in school, like color and draft and draw freehand sketches, which was a lot of fun.”
Creating a Long-Term Vision
Public safety, vehicular traffic pattern improvements, ongoing city maintenance, sustainability, signage and building identity improvements were all a part of a long-term vision for the streets of downtown Birmingham. To accomplish these goals, the GS&P team had discussions with REV Birmingham and generated graphics that outlined a distinctive conceptual vision of what could be achieved in the city center.
“Through the long-term vision, we really wanted to create a feeling of safety and comfort,” says Carr. “We supported that through increased police control, integration of security cameras, improved lighting, and increased pedestrian activity through social and business opportunities.”
“Adopt a Street” incentives to aid in maintenance and perception, along with the creation of a neighborhood watch, would also provide an increased sense of security. Vehicular concerns were addressed by graphics that outlined design features—such as mid-road speed bumps and reduced traffic lanes—which slow down both car and bus traffic. For added safety, GS&P’s design concept provides separation of cars and pedestrians, and creates a protected bike lane.
Sustainable design recommendations for the long-term included creative stormwater management—partly through the use of large planters and pervious pavers—as well as green and living wall facades, the use of recycled building criteria, and the integration of the protected bike lane.
As the long-term viability of activity in the corridor would be heavily reliant on the types of tenants that were drawn to the buildings, the GS&P team recommended there be a variety of occupants for the weeklong celebration. These included clothing retailers, restaurants, an ice-cream parlor, a performance studio and even a bar, which all supported the long-term vision for the downtown revival.
Other long-term opportunities identified (through GS&P’s graphic exhibits) included the branding of the area as a gateway to the theater district, wayfinding elements and street furnishings.
“Birmingham has a lot of momentum right now,” says Neely. “And being able to jump on that train and help our city is truly gratifying. “When you drive around the town, you can see the incredible potential it has. And by making a small impact on this street through our volunteer efforts, our team is helping Birmingham take baby steps to becoming an even greater destination.”
Excited by GS&P’s short-term efforts, REV Birmingham solicited the team’s design input on replacement benches that were being donated by a local neighborhood association and a resident ironsmith. Only two stipulations were outlined by REV for the design—that it be special, and at the same time represent the city of Birmingham.
“As a tribute to the city’s industrial and steel heritage, they wanted the new benches to be constructed of iron,” says Neely. “It was actually a side project for us, but something they needed immediately. So we got everyone in the office to contribute ideas, and we then put a package together and let REV pick what they felt best served their vision.”
Created by Neely, the final design features a silhouetted image of the Birmingham skyline. The distinctive benches have now become a permanent downtown fixture.
Setting the Standard
Transforming downtown Birmingham’s empty storefronts into a vibrant center for business, art and the community, GS&P’s collaboration with REV Birmingham resulted in a successful weeklong set of activities that culminated in a block party celebration that drew thousands of participants.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect with the block party,” says Anson. “I was worried that we were going to promote the event only to have 20 people show up. But there were thousands of people in attendance. And there was literally music in the streets—almost a house party atmosphere—featuring dance troupes and performance installations that included a piano so people could make their own music. I even took a turn!”
Thanks to injecting a new energy into the area, there’s been renewed interest in the Third Avenue North block, with two of the initial occupants remaining in their spaces long after the weeklong event, and ongoing discussions for occupancy of the vacant space where the design charrette was held.
“People seemed genuinely excited about downtown Birmingham again,” says Anson. “And what was equally exciting for GS&P was seeing all our in-house disciplines come together for this project. We relied on our own expertise to show REV what the long-term for downtown Birmingham might look like, and our collaboration combined with this multi-disciplined approach prompted the client to tell us that we set the standard for future studies of this kind in Birmingham.”
“One of the key things the project achieved was it brought to life the possibilities for our city, and showcased that with continued effort and teamwork, streets full of life, energy and business opportunity can become a reality,” adds Carr. “It also demonstrated that GS&P truly cares about the community and wanted to be involved.
“My favorite part—not as a design professional but personally—is that my children saw me donating my time and energy to the effort as well as attending these events. And we didn’t just go to the one we participated in—I took them to all the other weeklong events and showed them the importance of being a part of the community, donating your time, and simply making your part of the world a better place.”