The clock is ticking on efforts to spare a downtown Birmingham rail freight depot from the wrecking ball. Organizers of those efforts face a near-immediate deadline to find a buyer who not only will acquire the 85-year-old building — a freight terminal from its construction in 1928 until well into the 1970s — but also be able to implement a timely plan for getting it refurbished and occupied by a viable business.
That plan must be submitted to the building’s current owner, Alabama Gas Corporation.
Alagasco went public in January with plans to develop an 8.5-acre site that includes the freight depot, which will be demolished to help accommodate the parking needs of a new operations center that will create a minimum of 144 new jobs. As Weld reported on Jan. 14, company officials say they would have preferred to utilize the depot for its offices on the site, but found that the building’s configuration and deteriorated condition prevented it from being incorporated into the overall site plan in any way.
A movement to persuade Alagasco to save the historic depot began in early January, after the city of Birmingham’s Design Review Committee approved the company’s plans to demolish to building. The Facebook-based discussion group I Believe in Birmingham (IBIB) has been the primary forum for those advocating preservation of the depot and calling for a more publicly oriented use of the building, which is situated at the fringe of a developing area that includes Railroad Park and Regions Field to the south of the rail corridor through downtown Birmingham and the business incubator Innovation Depot a block north of the tracks and just up 1st Avenue from the former freight terminal.
Meanwhile, Alagasco is under a deadline of its own for making a decision. As part of its deal to sell the site of its longtime operations center west of Interstate 65 to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alagasco must be moved into the new downtown center by Feb. 1, 2015. Meeting that timetable means that the company must begin preliminary work on the site — including asbestos abatement on the depot and attached structures — almost immediately. Actual construction is slated to begin no later than the first week of May.
Time is tight
On Feb. 11, Alagasco officials met with representatives of I Believe in Birmingham, including the group’s founder, civic activist Joseph Baker. Both parties characterize that meeting as cordial and informative, but its primary outcome was an understanding that the window of opportunity for saving the depot is narrow, and closing fast.
“The meeting with I Believe in Birmingham was productive,” says Steve Flanagan, director of realty and site management for Alagasco. “We understand their concerns about the building, and I think they understood the challenges we face in moving forward with something that we believe will be an asset to the community. Our timeline is very tight.”
At the meeting, the IBIB representatives were given a deadline of Tuesday, Feb. 25 to find a buyer for building. That deadline has some flexibility, Flanagan says — but only a few days’ worth.
“We asked Joseph for three things,” says Flanagan. “The first thing is someone who is ready to close immediately on the purchase of the building. The second, which we want in the contract, is that you have a viable business in there. Among other things, we have to consider the safety of our employees, so we can’t sell it to someone who plans to just sit on it for a few years and see what happens in the area. The third thing is that they present us with an alternative plan for the parking we will lose if we sell the building.”
Proponents of saving the depot appreciate the necessity of moving “as fast as possible” to meet Alagasco’s requirements for letting go of the building, according to IBIB’s Baker. But looming deadline or not, Baker thinks a solution can be found — and is hopeful that Alagasco might prove flexible enough to begin construction on the main office facility for the operations center without having to demolish the depot first.
“We’re not against the operations center,” Baker says. “Our argument is that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of historic preservation. Looking at the way their site plan lays out, I’m hoping they might be open to tailoring the construction process to give us a little extra time to present something.”
In the two weeks since the Feb. 11 meeting with Alagasco, Baker says he has been contacted by “about a half-dozen people” expressing interest in the depot building. While none have yet developed a concept, Baker adds that continuing media coverage of the building’s seeming fate has helped generate broader public awareness of the need to “make something happen.
“The public outcry about this is helping to facilitate specific interests in the possibilities,” says Baker. “Those I’ve heard from are legitimate real estate interests who have the ability, either personally or as part of a partnership, to put together a deal that will meet Alagasco’s criteria.”
That includes presenting Alagasco with alternative parking solutions. Baker says that IBIB has identified “several” properties within walking distance of the planned operations center that Alagasco might obtain by swapping the depot property for a nearby site that would accommodate the lost parking spaces.
“I continue to believe that the surest path to a solution to this whole thing is facilitating a land swap to address the parking question,” says Baker. “I understand the pressure they’re under to get moving, but Alagasco doesn’t place a lot of value on the building itself. That presents an opportunity that should not be ignored by anyone.”
“It just couldn’t be done”
Another question Baker and other preservation advocates have raised over the past six weeks is why Alagasco is intent on developing this particular site. Did the company explore other potential locations for its new facility?
“Yes,” Flanagan answers. “Between looking for places where the land we needed could be assembled and then, after we acquired this site, trying to figure out how to make it work without demolishing the building, we spent about a year-and-a-half on it. Quite frankly, it’s very difficult to put this much land together downtown, which is where we wanted this facility to be.”
In addition to the 1st Avenue North location, Alagasco looked at a site off of 31st Street North, as well as properties along Lakeshore Parkway, in Hoover and Pelham and in the Derby Parkway area near the Birmingham Race Course. In the end, Flanagan says, the desire to be downtown carried the day.
“We wanted to keep our people downtown,” Flanagan says, adding that the new operations center ultimately could employ as many as 200 people. “This is a business decision that will impact our operations and brand identity for decades down the road. We’re looking at it from the standpoint of optimizing our ability to serve our customers, but we also look at it as a commitment to the community we serve.”
Beyond the factors that prevented the company from incorporating the depot building into its development plan, Flanagan says, there are numerous “geotechnical and infrastructure” issues with the site in general that impacted the layout of the Alagasco facility and the timetable on which the company has to move forward. The infrastructure issues include a major storm sewer that runs under the site — and cannot have a structure built over it — and a high-power electric line that runs directly above it, as well as Alagasco’s own underground natural gas lines.
“There are so many things that dictated how the plan had to shape up,” says Flanagan. “In the end, we think we are building something that will contribute to the improvement of that whole area and help spur additional development for a long time to come.”
As reported previously, Alagasco plans to reuse bricks, wood and other materials from the demolished freight terminal in the construction of the new facility. The new development also will incorporate some design elements from the depot into the main building and other structures on the site. Flanagan notes that the company is “paying a premium price” to find the “best and highest use” for the property as a whole — a use that, in the absence of an eleventh-hour solution from IBIB, does not allow for the depot to be preserved.
“We tried every way we could to make it fit,” Flanagan says. “Once our architect told us that it was just too unstable to refurbish in a way that would be useful to us, we looked at how we might be able to just jam everything onto the rest of the site. It just couldn’t be done.”
A sense of loss
With the “soft” deadline of Feb. 25 passing as this issue of Weld went to press, prospects for saving the depot from demolition are increasingly bleak. While Baker and his fellow “Believers” continue to work — and, he says, will hold out hope until the wrecking ball swings in six to eight weeks — he says Alagasco’s willingness to engage with community advocates is encouraging regardless of the outcome. Ultimately, Baker poses, the controversy surrounding Alagasco’s plan is much less attributable to the company itself than to the city’s planning and development policies and procedures and the lack of sufficient emphasis on historic preservation.
“This shouldn’t have been an emergency,” Baker declares. “Alagasco has been responsive to us, and we completely understand their challenges in this. I don’t really blame them for this situation at all. It goes to larger planning issues, and points up why we need a better, more forward-looking way of dealing with historic structures.
“By the same token,” Baker concludes, “This was an opportunity for Alagasco — and Birmingham — to rise to the occasion and do something to preserve a piece of ourselves. Instead, it appears that we just may have to accept that this particular piece is something that’s going to be lost. That’s always going to be tough to accept.”