The Norwood Industrial District is not pretty. Comprising well over 150 square blocks, it is bounded roughly by Carraway Boulevard to the east, 39th Street North to the west, 1st Avenue North to the south and, to the north, Interstate 20/59. Traversed by a warren of streets and alleyways that conform only approximately to the grid pattern in the nearby downtown area and much of the city proper, the district also is crisscrossed by railroad tracks, on some of which trains often sit for hours or even days at a time — a situation that can make the passability of certain streets and intersections to non-rail traffic a matter of guesswork and luck.
No, it is not pretty. But it accounts for a sizeable portion of the City of Birmingham’s revenue — sales taxes, occupational taxes, property taxes, license fees — through the presence of approximately 300 businesses that collectively employ 1,500 to 2,000 people. There are manufacturers, fabricators, suppliers, service providers, multi-tenant warehouses. Some operate out of brand-new facilities, others in buildings that date to the early 20th century. Some are old-line Birmingham companies — McWane Inc., Hardie-Tynes — while others — like H&M Mechanical, which recently relocated from Pelham, and IMS, which is rapidly expanding into a campus-like cluster of buildings off 1st Avenue, near Sloss Furnaces — are relatively new to the district. All are labor-intensive.
“This area was built for work,” declares Betsy Saab, co-owner with her husband, Charles, of Saab Tire & Automotive, which has operated in the same location in the district since 1961. “The neat thing about it is that everybody’s doing well and sees this as a good location. We’re very proud to be a part of it.”
The common thread
Another thing that virtually all the businesses in the Norwood district have in common is concerns about the Alabama Department of Transportation’s plans for Interstate 20/59. The $300 million project would transform I-20/59 through downtown Birmingham — adding traffic lanes, eliminating all entrance and exit ramps from 17th Street to 31st Street, reconfiguring or closing several roads near or adjacent to the highway, and converting 11th Avenue North into a major traffic artery.
The closing of the 31st Street entrance and exit is of particular concern to the businesses of the Norwood Industrial District, according to Saab and Tom Yielding, the vice president of sales for CraneWorks, a heavy equipment leasing company with offices just off 20/59 at Abraham Woods, Jr. Blvd. Saab and Yielding are leading a group of the district’s businesses that are appealing to ALDOT to reconsider its plans.
“The common thread in this neighborhood is trucking,” Yielding says. “We are very concerned about truckers, as well as our employees, in and out of here safely. When you start tinkering with access to the interstate, it gets scary real fast.
“The reason most, if not all of these businesses are here is the interstate access,” adds Yielding. “It’s good for getting trucks in and out, and it’s easy for employees from all over the metro area to get to and from work. It’s an attractive place to do business. But what makes it attractive is easy access, not having a lot of stoplights and that kind of thing. If all of the trucks that come in and out of here every day had to utilize 11th Avenue, that would be a nightmare.”
Saab is even more direct. She says the “shock value” of the ALDOT plan among her fellow business owners “has been huge,” and that eliminating the 31st Street ramps will have a tremendous negative economic impact.
“If we lose access, it will lead to losing businesses,” Saab says. “The impact starts right here, and the city of Birmingham will take a direct hit. We don’t want to see that happen — and that includes owners and employees.”
A barrier to growth
While business concerns, in Yielding’s words, “revolve around 31st Street,” residents of the Norwood neighborhood north of I-20/59 see the new plan as the continuation of a pattern that contributed to the decline of the neighborhood over several decades and has stunted efforts to revitalize it. Neighborhood president Robert Gilmore, who in recent years has seen residential revitalization gain increasing momentum, says the ALDOT plan would deal that momentum a crippling blow.
“This plan is really bad for us,” Gilmore declares. “As it is, the interstate has been a barrier to economic development in our neighborhood, and taking 11th Avenue from 5,000 cars per day to more than 30,000 per day just creates another barrier on top of that.”
In addition to making the area around 11th Avenue the opposite of walkable, Gilmore points to the former Carraway Hospital campus as a major redevelopment opportunity that will likely be lost under the ALDOT plan. He also says the neighborhood’s own development plan designates 12th Avenue — another street to which access would be lost — as the hub for developing a revitalized neighborhood business district.
All of that represents “a deterrent” to what the neighborhood has been trying to accomplish, and to opportunities to build on its recent successes, Gilmore says, adding that, “People who are willing to invest the kind of money that’s needed to make things happen are not going to be encouraged” unless ALDOT makes substantial changes to its plan.
Major changes to the ALDOT plan — up to and including alternatives that have worked in other cities, like “trenching” I-20/59 through downtown (in other words, rebuilding it below grade, thus removing the highway as a barrier dividing downtown proper from the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex and adjacent neighborhoods like Norwood, Fountain Heights and Druid Hills), turning it into a street-level boulevard, and rerouting it away from downtown altogether — are also the objective of a growing, increasingly organized grassroots movement that is garnering communitywide support through regular meetings and social media. The online presence of those efforts is centered on two Facebook groups, I Believe in Birmingham and Rethink 20/59.
Decisions for a generation
Generally speaking, the feasibility of such alternatives has been rejected by ALDOT, for reasons related to time and cost. Regarding the former, the department has stressed that its primary concern is safety; the overpasses and ramps are becoming dilapidated and must be replaced. This priority is unquestioned by even — or perhaps all but — the most ardent opponents of the plan.
“The condition of the interstate has to be addressed,” Robert Gilmore concedes. “There are legitimate concerns about those structures and the safety of drivers. We understand that.”
The key points of contention, then, are whether and to what extent ALDOT can — or will — alter its plans. ALDOT Government Relations Manager Tony Harris says the department has demonstrated its willingness to listen to concerns through its public involvement process. He points out that “extensive discussions” with the Norwood Industrial District group have taken place, and that ALDOT is “still in the process” of making a decision on the ultimate fate of the 31st Street exit.
“In all fairness, ALDOT has taken an absolutely horrible situation and is trying to find solutions,” says Betsy Saab. “We think the way to get that done is by interacting with them. They have been willing to engage with us.”
Harris also notes the ongoing “dialogue” with the board and staff of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, which has expressed serious concerns about the impact on traffic flow in and around the complex and the adjacent entertainment district. As a result of those discussions, the BJCC has hired a traffic engineer to conduct a study and make recommendations for changes to address its concerns. ALDOT “is prepared to assist in that review and consider the recommendations that are made,” Harris says.
“Our public involvement process so far,” says Harris, “has shown that we are responsive to concerns when they are expressed, and that we will make changes as we feel we can.”
Whether that willingness — or ability — to make changes will extend to the broader concerns of the Norwood neighborhood and the grassroots opposition to the ALDOT plan remains to be seen. Leaders of the opposition movement have expressed frustration with both the way the public hearings have been conducted — they say the ALDOT representatives seem more concerned with justifying their plan than with listening to the public’s concerns or seriously considering alternatives — and their ability to get information from the department.
Meanwhile, Gilmore acknowledges that ALDOT has made “minor concessions” in response to meetings with Norwood neighborhood leaders — specifically agreeing to keep 28th Street North open, and to consider doing the same with 24th Street North through the neighborhood. But his confidence that the department will make changes that address larger concerns about the economic impact and the potential for future revitalization and growth is not high.
“Whatever they do is going to be here for 30 to 40 years,” Gilmore observes. “We would like for them to consider the full impacts of that. Even with the time constraints they have, we would like for them to step back and look at possible alternatives that are good for our neighborhood, good for the city and good for getting traffic through Birmingham safely.”