“I’m surprised, but not surprised,” Darrell O’Quinn gives an ironic chuckle. “This just seems to be the way ALDOT works, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking.”
O’Quinn is talking about the Alabama Department of Transportation and its plan to replace the historic-but-aging 21st Street Viaduct — the structure’s official nomenclature, though the street name was changed to Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard in 1999 — in the near future. O’Quinn is among a small chorus of local civic activists questioning what they say is a lack of transparency in ALDOT’s public notification process for the viaduct project.
The point of contention is a public hearing that took place on October 13, in which the proposed replacement of the nearly century-old viaduct — the oldest of the three spanning the railroad tracks that bound downtown Birmingham and the city’s south side — was an agenda item. O’Quinn and others say they learned of the meeting only well after the fact, and suggest that ALDOT intentionally neglected to publicize the meeting properly. The intent, they say, is to minimize public input on the structure that will replace the historic viaduct — a characterization that ALDOT denies.
“My jaw dropped open,” O’Quinn says of his reaction to learning that the hearing had taken place. President of the North Crestwood neighborhood, O’Quinn also is president of the city of Birmingham’s Citizens Advisory Board, as well as the executive director of Move 20/59, the nonprofit organization that has opposed ALDOT’s ongoing expansion of the interstate through downtown Birmingham. He is well connected in civic circles, and yet had no advance knowledge of the October 13 meeting.
“That was the first I had heard of it,” O’Quinn says. “And what I heard about was a worrisome design plan. I sent texts to several people I felt would be aware of it, who might me able to give me some information about what was going on. But none of them knew anything either. They were all completely unaware.”
ALDOT spokesperson Linda Crockett says that the meeting was properly advertised. While noting that she did not place the advertisements and could not immediately confirm all of the media outlets in which the notification appeared, Crockett says that they were “on Al.com and in several newspapers” well prior to October 13. [Note: Weld did not receive any advance notification of the meeting.] In addition, property owners and businesses located adjacent to the viaduct were notified, says Crockett.
“We followed our normal notification process, which normally goes out through print media,” Crockett says. She stresses that the project is “still in the preliminary stages,” and that ALDOT is “still reviewing” comments it received following the October 13 hearing. While stopping short of confirming that there will be additional opportunities for public involvement and comment — “That’s a possibility,” she says — Crockett notes that it’s not unusual for the first round of comments to result in a redesign and another round of public involvement.
That’s faint reassurance for O’Quinn — “ALDOT’s responses aren’t always factual, in my opinion,” he says, adding that he finally found the public notice of the October 13 meeting “in a PDF buried on their website” — and others who say they would have attended had they known of the meeting. One of those is Joseph Baker, founder and administrator of the “I Believe in Birmingham” Facebook page.
“The public notice was clearly deficient,” says Baker. “Just go [to] the list of who should have known about the meeting and didn’t. Neighborhood officers, historic preservationists, civic groups, veterans groups, even people in the mayor’s office who have said that they didn’t know about it.”
Weld contacted both Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s office and the city’s planning and engineering department, requesting comments for this story. At press time, none had been forthcoming.
One person who did attend the October 13 meeting was David Fleming, CEO of the public-private economic development organization REV Birmingham. Fleming says he learned of the meeting at the Birmingham Public Library only the day before, from a business owner whose offices are next to the viaduct.
“It was kind of a standard ALDOT presentation,” Fleming relates. “They put up some maps, had a visual model [of the replacement bridge] onscreen. They asked for comments to be submitted within 10 days, so I submitted some comments.
“One of my concerns,” continues Fleming, “was that we were told that the railroads were requiring barriers over certain parts of the viaduct. The point I wanted to make is that we have an opportunity to think about this not just as an engineering solution. This viaduct is a way that people experience the city, so we need to think about the context, and about what this and the other two downtown viaducts [on 22nd and 24th Streets] mean to Birmingham.”
In the comments he submitted to ALDOT, Fleming made several suggestions about how to incorporate the history — it’s also known as the “Rainbow Viaduct” because of its dedication in honor of the local regiment that was part of the U.S. “Rainbow Division” that fought in World War I — and aesthetics of the existing structure into the design of the replacement bridge. Fleming’s comments also contained information, including a photograph, on Nashville’s Demonbreun Street Bridge, which was beautifully rebuilt in 2006.
“It’s a similar bridge, and a similar situation, with the span over the railroad tracks,” Fleming points out. “They put some real design thought into what they did — there are no barriers — and they turned it into a real asset for the city. I would hope we could do the same sort of thing here.”
Relative to plans for the Rainbow Viaduct, Fleming points out that, while ALDOT is administering the public involvement process, the project is actually being administered by the city of Birmingham (ALDOT spokesperson Crockett characterizes her agency’s role as “liaison, not lead”). That means that city residents will have more opportunities to have a hand in shaping the way the new viaduct looks, and the statement the final product makes about Birmingham.
“We’re early in this process,” Fleming cautions. “From discussions that I’ve been a part of, the city engineering staff is very open to hearing what the community wants. This is an opportunity for us to come together, figure out what will work for our city, and go from there. There is time to do that.”