If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.
— William James
The people of West End deserve better.
This is a sentiment currently being expressed by several members of the Birmingham City Council, relative to a proposal — advanced by a Birmingham-based developer and supported by Mayor William Bell — to begin construction on three businesses on the site of the Birmingham Crossplex, the sports and event facility located at Five Points West. In raising questions about the development plan for the 38-acre site, the councilors have the vocal support of assorted local politicos, along with some residents of the neighborhoods that lie in the vicinity of the Crossplex.
The mitigating circumstance in this, the latest in a dispiriting, no-win series of impasses between Birmingham’s chief executive and its governing body, is the latter’s ongoing refusal to approve contracts necessary to clear the way for Engel Realty Group to begin construction of what would be the first private investment on the Crossplex site. The mayor and the developer say that the three initial properties to be developed — a Comfort Inn hotel, a Walgreens pharmacy, and a Starbucks coffee franchise — will serve as an anchor for attracting additional commercial and retail development to the Crossplex and promote commercial, retail and residential growth in and around Five Points West and adjacent neighborhoods.
Led by Council President Johnathan Austin and President Pro-Tem Steven Hoyt, opponents of the plan say, essentially, that a Comfort Inn isn’t good enough. According to them, a “two-star” hotel and the other proposed anchors are not on a par with the kinds of businesses already present in or slated for major commercial/retail projects in other parts of Birmingham and the surrounding area.
In a story published last week, Weld’s Cody Owens reported on the dispute. He spoke to several West End residents who expressed concerns about the development plan. He attended a November 22 press conference held by the Jefferson County Millennial Democrats, which also is opposed to the plan. And he spoke to both Mayor Bell’s office and Councilor Austin.
“We don’t believe that a two-star status hotel is conducive for the community,” JCMD president Le’Darius Hilliard said in the story. “We believe that…we should aim for the best we can and get the best kind of hotel we can. You wouldn’t put two-star in Mountain Brook. You wouldn’t put two-star in Vestavia. So…we don’t want two-star either.”
In other words, opponents say, The people of West End deserve better.
By the way, and for whatever it’s worth, this is a general sentiment with which I could not be more in agreement. As it relates to the dynamics at play here, however, I’ve found myself brooding over some things that don’t sit well with me. Things relative to this project, to the city’s approach to economic and community development in general, and to the deep dysfunction that characterizes our city government — most specifically the poisonous state of relations between our mayor and our city council.
Of course, the bubbling over of political divisions of a dangerously deep nature is the order of the day in our national politics — but, as I wrote last week in this space, I’m hoping that Birmingham can do better, by focusing attention and resources on local issues and opportunities. Unfortunately, the more I look at it, the more I’m convinced that the Crossplex controversy is what the old folks used to call a pig in a poke, meaning that what the people of West End are being sold is not (necessarily) something from which they will benefit, regardless of who “wins” the present argument.
That’s a polite way of saying that this issue has much more to do with political concerns than with whatever it is the people of West End deserve. From my view, one thing they — and, for that matter, the rest of us who call Birmingham home — don’t deserve is being treated as pawns in the game that is beginning to revolve around the municipal elections that will take place in August 2017. That’s true whether it’s coming from the mayor, the council, or both, at any given time and on any given issue (or, as the case may be, any non-issue or any issue that is manufactured by one side or the other).
Come to think of it, there might be no better indicator of the state of Birmingham politics here at the dawn of the Trump Era. In a ZIP code where the poverty rate is about 25 percent, in a city where roughly one of every three residents lives in poverty, the great public question of the day revolves around the difference between the quality of the accommodations in a hotel whose rooms will be occupied almost exclusively by people who do not live in 35208 — or, for that matter, in any other ZIP code in metropolitan Birmingham.
I’m not sure why this should come as a revelation to anyone, but generally speaking, hotel rooms are for visitors to the area in which they are located. Is there some substantial local subculture of which I’m unaware, in which people in Birmingham regularly find it necessary or even desirable to leave their homes for few nights at a local hotel?
Also, would you care to take a guess how many five-star hotels are currently operating in Birmingham? Hint: It’s less than one. Not that we don’t have some very nice hotels in these parts — none of which, admittedly, are in West End — but my real point here is that the real point of this flurry of concern indicates a certain shortsightedness. It’s a shortsightedness that, in its way, is as fixated on superficial indicators of “progress” as any of the projects for which they have criticized the mayor for focusing, to the exclusion of basic needs in West End and many other less-than-prosperous neighborhoods throughout the city.
But, all of that notwithstanding, yes: The people of West End deserve better.
Yes, they do, and actually have for some time now. In fact, they have deserved better from their city government for somewhere in the vicinity of 40 or so years. They deserve safe, well-maintained streets and sidewalks; they deserve better police protection; they deserve everything the city can do to incubate and grow neighborhood-based entrepreneurial efforts; they deserve amenities that both contribute to and draw support from neighborhood based residents and businesses.
For those unfamiliar, West End used to be a “better” place, a middle-class neighborhood when the terms “middle-class” and “working-class” were not mutually exclusive — when, in fact, working-class wages and benefits in Birmingham were the gateway to a middle-class existence for many families (both white and black, even though the average black worker made perhaps three-fourths the wages of the average white one). As integration took hold, however, the economic status of West End began to suffer — first from white flight, and later from the flight of middle-class blacks.
Today’s Crossplex, a modern, 750,000 square foot athletic and meeting facility, is located on the site of what was for many years the Alabama State Fairgrounds. After years of falling attendance — among the prime factors in which were continued demographic shifts, both the perception and reality of crime in the area, and increasing blight and decline in the surrounding neighborhoods — the annual fair was discontinued in the early 2000s.
The Birmingham International Raceway and other city-owned facilities remained on the site. They were used intermittently until being demolished in 2009 to make way for the Crossplex, an initiative of then-Mayor Larry Langford’s. As was his wont, Langford built the facility with public money — nearly $50 million worth of it — with the promise that it would be a magnet for attracting new development and rejuvenating a long-neglected area of the city.
Since its completion and opening in 2011, the Crossplex (and the adjoining Bill Harris Arena, the only surviving structure from the original Fairgrounds complex) has remained the lone occupant of the mammoth site. The facility itself has proved to be successful, annually hosting more than 175,000 people from across Alabama, the Southeast and the nation, mostly for indoor track-and-field events and swimming competitions at its Olympic-sized swimming pool.
That success has come despite the fact that none of the promised ancillary development has materialized. Until now, that is. And now, to the surprise of no one, the mayor and council are locking horns in a manner that is endangering the project — at least according to the developer, who has suggested that one or more of the anchor tenants might pull out if the deal isn’t closed soon.
In response to those opposed to the Crossplex plan, Mayor Bell said on November 28 — through spokesperson April Odom — that he has “instructed the developer of the project to go back to that neighborhood and that community to be sure that the developer’s plan reflects what the community and neighborhood leaders want.”
Which is all well and good, as are the professions of concern coming from those opposed to the plan as it stands now, i.e., with a Comfort Inn, as opposed to a Ritz-Carlton. I don’t mean to belittle those concerns totally, but I can’t help but see them as misdirected. A Comfort Inn — or a Ritz-Carlton, or any other two- or five- or 10-star establishment that might be attracted — is going to do a lot less for West End than giving it the kind of attention it hasn’t had for decades. That is, well-maintained streets, investment in neighborhood-based businesses and public safety, and so on.
That’s the kind of investment that pays long-term dividends. It’s also the kind of investment that attracts a Comfort Inn — and then another hotel, and then another, along with increasingly upscale dining and entertainment franchises. It’s the kind of investment, intentional and strategic, that is the only real hope of returning any real semblance of sustainable prosperity to West End.
It’s the kind of investment to which neither the mayor nor the council has given proper priority. Until recently. Until the next election looms on the horizon. Until it dawned collectively on them that people in West End and dozens of other neighborhoods are beginning to realize that nobody at City Hall has been paying much attention to them for a maddeningly long time (is that script beginning to sound familiar?).
For the last time, then: The people of West End deserve better.
So does everyone who cares about Birmingham.