A matter that becomes clear ceases to concern us.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Citizenship is not for the faint of heart. It is a participatory pursuit, a full-contact sport that requires active engagement, steadfast resolve, a measure of bravery and a truckload of faith. All too often in these parts, it also requires the hard-won conviction that citizenship is its own reward, that it is the effort and not necessarily the outcome that matters. Striving to be a good citizen is a duty that one can accept or reject, and that many, if not most, reject, for the simple — and, to be fair, eminently understandable — reason that citizenship is hard work.
Ideally, this hard work — by individuals, groups, organizations, small businesses and corporations — produces an atmosphere of interaction and collaboration on issues large and small. It engenders in every segment of the community a holistic sense of the greater good, and an understanding that civil disagreement and substantive give-and-take that results in broadly acceptable and sustainable outcomes are essential to the building of a great and vital city. It is by this path that we arrive at and define and begin to instill the shared values that shape our civic ethic.
I was thinking about this yesterday, as I stood in a light drizzle on the aged cobblestones of Morris Avenue at 14th Street, just north of the railroad underpass. As might be surmised by anyone who has paid much attention to social media over the past several days, I was looking at the building across the street, the former freight terminal for several of the railroad companies that have served Birmingham over the years. Roughly a century old and long disregarded, the building has been slated for demolition by its owner, Alabama Gas Corporation, to make way for a new operations center it plans to open in February 2015.
The site plan that includes the demolition was approved by the city of Birmingham’s Design Review Committee, though not without reservations tied to the historic nature of the building. Faced with questions about saving the building, Alagasco’s representatives said they had explored how that might be done, but found that the building’s configuration and deteriorated condition prevent it from being incorporated into their plan for the 8.5-acre site. Under the conceptual plan approved, the site will house a 25,000-square-foot operations facility and a large parking lot that will be fenced and used exclusively by Alagasco.
“They made the case that the building is not retrievable for their purposes,” I was told by a person who attended the meeting at which the demolition was approved and is familiar with the design review process. “Everybody in the room agreed that it’s a shame to lose it, but there’s no doubt that it’s a very difficult building for adaptive reuse.”
The committee did recommend that the company find ways to repurpose some of the materials from the historic structure. According to my source, Alagasco was also encouraged to develop the new facility with “more presence along the street” than the set-back, one-story structure in the preliminary renderings that the committee saw.
“As it is, the new building really doesn’t contribute in any way that sets a standard for the kind of development you want to see as part of a corridor where significant transformation is underway,” the source said.
It is the location of the old freight terminal and the surrounding site of that quickly helped turn the Design Review Committee’s approval of Alagasco’s plans into a hot-button issue. The site is just down 1st Avenue North from the Innovation Depot business incubator, and just across the tracks and up 14th Street from Railroad Park and Regions Field, and the budding business — and, soon enough, residential — district around those amenities.
Grassroots efforts to save the building sprang up almost immediately after the Jan. 8 committee decision. Spurred primarily by the Facebook page I Believe in Birmingham, reaction against the Alagasco plan gained momentum on social media over last weekend. Beyond opposition to tearing down a historic structure to make room for what will be part of the parking area for the new facility, various commenters have opined that the site should be developed with a more public purpose — or at least more civic presence, something tied more explicitly to the emerging character of the 14th Street corridor.
Beyond those core concerns, those seeking to save the freight terminal are touching on a number of issues that will be of general importance in the ongoing renaissance of downtown Birmingham. For instance, although Alagasco plans to use the parking lot for employees of both its new operations center and its existing Midtown Center at the other end of Railroad Park (for which the company expects to operate a shuttle), the number of spaces it is building is based on minimum parking requirements mandated by city ordinance. One post by I Believe in Birmingham founder Joseph Baker argues that the minimum requirement has resulted in far too much underutilized real estate downtown — and includes a map that proves it.
Alagasco is well aware of the negative reaction to its plans. But, as company spokesperson Sherri Goodman reminded me, the project is in its “very beginning phases,” and Alagasco officials hope to “iron out some issues” prior to finalizing its plans and beginning construction. Goodman stressed that the company “looked at several options” for saving the building, but none were feasible. She also — and, in my view, rightly — pointed to what the company did with the repurposing aforementioned Midtown Center as evidence of its commitment to historic preservation.
“We wanted to find a way to incorporate [the 14th Street freight terminal] into the plan if we could,” Goodman said. “If there was any way we could have saved it, we would have.”
Goodman said the company’s ultimate intent with the new facility is, “to maintain the integrity of the area, but also have something that is functional for us — something Alagasco can use for years to come, that will be part of a changing skyline.”
Having obtained its approvals, of course, the decision about what will happen with the building and the site is now solely Alagasco’s to make. I hope the company will see fit to engage meaningfully with the growing number of citizens who are concerned about their plans, and to find ways to address as many of those concerns as possible. And, while it remains to be seen whether this is possible, I hope they will look at how they might shore up the building and alter the site plan to develop around it while seeking a buyer who can find the proverbial “best and highest use” for it.
As for those organizing to save the old freight terminal, I hope that they will look at this as an opportunity to work with a major local corporation to forge a creative solution to a problem that touches on several important community issues. I hope they will look at things like the 145 jobs this project will concentrate on 14th Street, and consider the impact of those jobs, that presence, on the continued growth of the corridor.
For all involved, this is a chance for a signature moment — for the project at hand, for an increasingly thriving area of our city, and for collaborative, innovative, inclusive ways of making great things happen. It’s what good citizens should do.