Will Fancy New Park Inspire Urban Renewal?

Posted: September 23, 2010 in Getting away, Urban Design, Urban Lifestyle

Local journalist John Archibald of the Birmingham News writes about the local scene in a witty and entertaining way, often exposing the nonsense that seems to define Birmingham’s politics and policies. Recently, he writes about the completion of Birmingham’s new Railroad Park in midtown Birmingham in a very hopeful way. You can read his article here.

The Birmingham Railroad Park is the latest example of several similar projects built by the city over the last four decades that were meant to attract new development and Urban renewal.  Some succeeded and some failed. So far , the new railroad park looks like it has  much, but perhaps not all, of what is needed to succeed.

Other  parks projects from the past that succeeded in spurring redevelopment include the renovation of Highland Avenue, which saved the Highland Park area from decay and continues to attract a young urban and professional demographic as well as retirees and single households.  The positive improvements on Highland avenue did much to rescue Highland park, Forest park and the Redmont neighborhoods from decline and have helped make them among the most desirable of Birmingham’s traditional neighborhoods. These neighborhoods started our with an abundance of mature trees, walkable streets and rich turn of the century architecture that the new streetscape and park renovations served to enhance.  A renovation of Avondale Park could do the same for the Avondale area, but is, so far, just a dream.

The renovation of East Lake has done much to anchor that part of town and provide a much needed family playground. However, a poor school system and high crime are driving working class families from town, overcoming the nice amenity of a landscaped park with a stocked  fishing pond.

Renovations of twentieth Street,  anchored at the ends by the renovated Linn Park  and the Five Points South hub have helped anchor nearby businesses and shops, but have failed to impact much more than the immediate area. The adjacent Nineteenth Street renovations, intended to save downtown retail, failed to stem the exodus of retail to the suburbs,  not just because the architecture was alien to our southern culture and sensibilities, but because unrecognized macro economic factors were overwhelming.  Clearly, more is needed to attract new development than pretty parks, sidewalks and landscaping.

One major urban renewal failure of Birmingham was the restoration and promotion of Morris Avenue as an in town entertainment district.  A lack of adequate security doomed that adventure as well as red tape burdens imposed by the city building department on new food service establishments.

Photo courtesy of Tim Anson

Well situated to attract new development to Midtown, which is currently a mostly abandoned warehouse district,   it is hoped that the  Railroad Park will attract new residential, retail, commercial and office projects competing for adjacency and views of the new park. Located on what was once old abandoned railroad property, it is located between downtown and the area’s largest employer, University of Alabama in Birmingham.

However, Birmingham needs to do more than just build parks to get people to return to city living. A culture that believes that raising taxes is the answer to all the city’s problems will continue to repel people and businesses to the suburbs. A new understanding that nice views can only work in conjunction with positive economic incentives is needed.  Constantly raising taxes on sales, lodging and  license fees only serve to accelerate the exodus of responsible businesses from Birmingham city to surrounding suburbs.

Lets hope city leaders come to realize this as well, or the new railroad park will fail to meet its potential as a renewal agent.


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