After a couple of years on the back burner, the much-awaited redevelopment of the former Pizitz department store building downtown appears to be picking up steam once again. According to the developer, construction on a project long viewed as a linchpin for further development west of 20th Street North could begin early in 2013 if current plans remain on track.
“We’re analyzing an adaptive reuse of the building,” Jeffrey Bayer said in an interview late last week. Bayer, the president and CEO of Bayer Properties, confirmed that the plan now under development includes a mix of office, retail and renter-occupied housing. Previous plans to renovate the 225,000-square-foot downtown landmark primarily as an office building with ground-floor restaurants and retail — including a grocery store — stalled when the anticipated anchor tenant pulled out late in 2010.
Pointing to other projects either planned, underway or recently completed in the general area — most specifically, ongoing residential and commercial renewal along Second Avenue North and the new Birmingham Barons baseball stadium that will open next spring across from Railroad Park — Bayer said the timing is right to move forward with the Pizitz project. Both the size of the building and its location at the corner of 19th Street and Second Avenue make the project an important one for downtown Birmingham, he added.
“Pizitz is a ‘pin’ corner,” said Bayer. “To me, 19th is a better street than 20th, in terms of redevelopment possibilities. When you include the parking deck, the building takes up more than half a block, so there’s more of a critical mass of space than anyplace else downtown. It’s a big deal.”
Situated across Second Avenue North from the McWane Science Center, the eight-story structure was built in 1923 as the flagship location for the Pizitz department store, which became a statewide chain before being bought by Mississippi-based McRae’s in 1986. The downtown building has been vacant since 1988.
The planned timing of the Pizitz project reflects both the current momentum generated by developments in downtown Birmingham and a national trend toward urban redevelopment and away from the suburbs, Bayer said. While noting that his own company’s portfolio of properties has been dominated by suburban shopping centers, Bayer pointed to several factors that are driving the urban trend, including rising energy costs, the decreasing availability of dollars for investment in infrastructure by local and state governments, and the increasing preference of younger people for living in cities rather than suburbs.
“We’ve changed as a country,” said Bayer. “I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years, and the trend toward urban real estate is stronger now than I’ve ever seen it. Cities are contracting, not expanding. It’s happening all over the country, and we think it’s going to continue to happen here in Birmingham. I think Mayor Bell and the City Council understand that and are doing all they can to foster it. We look at Pizitz as an important project and we hope it proves to be a real anchor project for the city.”