For starters, let me express my thanks to those who read my column last week and now are relieved to find that I am still here. I can assure you that whether that number is few or many, no one is more relieved than I.
I was not responsible for the headline under which the column appeared (that would be the redoubtable Walter Lewellyn). But on seeing “An Airing of Grievances” in large type, I had no trouble admitting to myself that it had been exactly that. I’m not sure that anything was accomplished by it — nor, I supposed in retrospect, was that there any intent to accomplish anything, other than perhaps just letting off a little steam.
Which I did, and which was helpful to me, at least to an extent. Actually, it’s not that I feel so much better about the concerns I committed to print last week, but the public venting does seem to have jolted my perspective back toward an even keel, closer to the guarded optimism that has been my default setting roughly since birth.
My progress in that direction has been aided further by my observation of the way discussions over the fate of the former rail freight depot on 14th Street North have played out. There is a news story about the substance of those discussions — between property owner Alabama Gas Corporation and citizens objecting to the company’s plans to tear down the depot as part of its construction of a new operations center — over my byline elsewhere in this paper. But I want to focus here less on the ultimate outcome — almost certainly, the depot is going to be torn down — than on the spirit in which the discussions were conducted.
Before doing that, I want to take a moment to note that I am an enthusiastic supporter of historic preservation. I love old buildings as much or more than most, and like a lot of folks in these parts, I have long bemoaned the 1969 demolition of Birmingham’s Terminal Station as a seminal moment in this city’s attitude toward the preservation of historic structures. As such, I am not pleased that the 85-year-old freight depot cannot be saved.
By the same token, however, I accept that it cannot be saved — unless, that is, a savior rides in at the last moment, like the cavalry in an old-fashioned Western movie, and convinces Alagasco that he or she has a viable and immediate plan for the building. Moreover, I’m compelled to point out that equating the demolition of this particular old building with the destruction of Terminal Station — as some proponents of salvaging the depot have done — is akin to comparing a community arts center to the Louvre.
The depot is a lovely old building, but having had several conversations with Alagasco officials over the past few weeks, I am convinced that the company has been diligent in their efforts, first to adapt the depot to its needs, and then to provide the opportunity for someone, anyone, to present an alternate plan.
Alagasco’s attitude, coupled with that of Joseph Baker — founder of the Facebook group I Believe in Birmingham, who has been the point person for efforts to find a buyer for the depot — is the reason I’m feeling a little more hopeful this week than last about the way issues get resolved in our city.
Back in mid-January, I wrote in this space that the handling of this issue by all parties presented the opportunity for a “signature moment” in the way that the local corporate community engages with advocacy groups and individual citizens in general. And while it appears that the issue will not be resolved in an ideal manner — i.e., with the depot intact — I do think that the process has been valuable.
How so? Well, for one thing, the very terms on which this discussion has taken place have contributed to the ongoing expansion, both figurative and literal, of our concept of what we mean when we talk about “downtown” Birmingham. Five years ago, maybe less, the unofficial western boundary of downtown was 18th Street.
Now, thanks to Railroad Park and Regions Field and Innovation Depot and the northward growth of the UAB footprint and the increasing addition of business, residential and entertainment components in the area surrounding all of that, ideas about — and tangible realizations of — downtown development now have reached the burgeoning 14th Street corridor and beyond. And whether or not one agrees that Alagasco’s new operations center represents the proverbial “best and highest use” of the site it will occupy, it undeniably represents a substantial improvement that will add the weekday foot traffic of up to 200 new employees to that currently under-developed western fringe.
Beyond that, the controversy over the depot has highlighted the need for the city to take a more holistic approach to historic preservation, and to urban planning in general. With better information and a more proactive attitude, the city — or REV Birmingham, which purports to be on top of such things — could have seen the dispute coming, brought all interested parties to the table sooner, and perhaps helped find a solution that would have made everyone happy, rather than leaving a substantial number of people disappointed.
That’s where we need to be headed on any number of fronts. Birmingham’s core problem over the years has been division — between black and white, rich and poor, management and labor, city and suburb, and on and on and on. If we accomplish nothing else in the immediate future, we need to do away with that paradigm and rally the disparate segments of our community around a shared vision of what we want Birmingham to be.
In doing so, we will find it easier to formulate solutions to individual issues as they arise. Part of that is establishing and maintaining open lines of communication and unified action between government, business and citizens. We have a lot to do in Birmingham, and we need everybody at the table.