For those living in the Five Points West community, the prospect of having a Comfort Inn and Suites developed by the Birmingham CrossPlex is unacceptable.
On Friday night, the Applebee’s off Bessemer Road — just across from the CrossPlex — was filled to capacity. It’s the only restaurant in the area for residents to come eat dinner and have a drink. “Nothing against this place, I love it here, but honestly, I’m tired of eating Applebee’s,” said Emma Tolbert, who lives in Five Points West, just down the road from the restaurant. “Putting in a Comfort Inn does nothing for the people that live here.”
She was joined at a table by several other people who live in the area. Like Tolbert, they’ve taken issue with the proposed development slated to be built near the $46 million CrossPlex facility. Tolbert, a political consultant who worked on U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell’s campaign, decided to buy a house in the area almost three years ago. “I moved into this house with a lot of naysayers, because all people hear about Ensley is what they see in the news, which is overwhelmingly negative. But I love it here. It’s a great sense of community, as you can tell,” Tolbert said as another resident pulled up a chair.
Kyle Cleveland, an entrepreneur who until recently owned the Blue Tapas Lounge, a bar in downtown Ensley, said it’s frustrating that the city has not made more of an effort to include small business owners in the CrossPlex development plans. “When I first had the business, it was thriving,” Cleveland said. “But then things just started going down as the neighborhood changed.” He cited the police precinct relocating from downtown Ensley to across the street from the CrossPlex and lack of street lighting as major issues in the area.
“The city of Birmingham should be looking to get small businesses here, but so far they haven’t done that. One thing they could really do would be to light downtown [Ensley] up. Light it up. People don’t want to go to a dark area. But it’s got great infrastructure already there,” Cleveland said. Beyond the problems surrounding downtown Ensley, Cleveland said he would like to see the city put the interests of the residents who live in the area before those of potential investors and developers.
The 750,000 square-foot facility has been touted by city officials as a much-needed investment in an area that has long been in need of a solid economic driver. However, residents like Tolbert question the timing of the proposals that would bring a Comfort Inn and Suites, Starbucks, and Walgreens to the retail development next to the CrossPlex.
“I think it’s because the election is next year and one of [Mayor William Bell’s] major criticisms is that he has not focused on the west side of town. He spent his time and the city’s money on downtown and Avondale,” Tolbert said. “And here we are with the election next year and he wants to throw us a bone. It’s like a bone with all the meat already picked off it. … Just look at the businesses that pop up around Comfort Inns: Waffle House and places like that.”
The mayor’s office has been in contact with members of the community and are aware of displeasure with the proposed two-star hotel, according to April Odom, the mayor’s director of communications.
Questions directed toward Bell were answered instead by Lisa Cooper, director of economic development in the mayor’s office. “We have been working with the developer to ensure that the hotel will service its immediate neighbor, the CrossPlex, and also the larger community,” Cooper said. “Based on our recent conversations with neighborhood leaders, we understand that all of their concerns with respect to the hotel have been addressed.
“Although the hotel has been the focus, Bob [Nesbitt, the developer] has put together a mix of uses and tenants that we feel confident will provide the community with many options that are not presently available and that will be well received. We expect this to be a first-class development that all of us will be proud of.”
On Tuesday morning, the Jefferson County Millennial Democrats held a press conference in front of Birmingham City Hall before the regularly scheduled council meeting. Le’Darius Hilliard, president of the Millennial Democrats, addressed members of the press about what he called an inequity in the types of businesses being brought into Ensley as opposed to communities like Mountain Brook.
“We don’t believe that a two-star status hotel is conducive for the community of Ensley,” Hilliard said. “We believe that [for] a $50 million development such as the CrossPlex, 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 in Ensley, we don’t want two-star either.”
The Birmingham City Council has delayed the approval of the development for over a month as of this writing, repeatedly referring the agenda item back to the economic development committee. On Tuesday, the council did so again.
“I met with the mayor several weeks ago now,” Council President Johnathan Austin said while walking from the press conference and upstairs to the council chambers. “He told us in the meeting that he wanted to have all the questions he needed answered before we moved forward. But that didn’t happen. What we’re trying to do is move forward however we can. You can’t expect to attract business with a two-star hotel. I believe to do it like that is shortsighted.”
For Austin, having something akin to the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, a 220-acre athletic facility with retail, would be the ideal blueprint for what the CrossPlex could be. For the residents who spoke out against the proposed retail, having more places to eat on a Friday night would be ideal.
Lehman Harris, an Applebee’s patron who voiced his disapproval of the choice of retail for the CrossPlex, said the issue starts with a lack of marketing for the western communities of Birmingham. Having grown up on Avenue U in Ensley, Harris said he has never seen the city actually invest serious effort in helping to market the area to potential retailers.
“You definitely have to market this place. If you have the same old thing here, you aren’t going to improve the quality of life,” Harris said. “The marketing is key.”
Tolbert said the vision for CrossPlex was never completed, referring back to when then-Mayor Larry Langford began the initial steps for the CrossPlex, which was completed in 2011.
“We didn’t get restaurants. We didn’t get anything other than the CrossPlex and some vacant properties,” she said. “The people that live here would love more options for places to eat. A two-star hotel does nothing for us. We haven’t had anyone who offered a vision of the future for this area,” Tolbert said.
“I’d like to see a business owner like Kyle [Cleveland] open a restaurant over there. Instead of incentivizing, say, something like an Olive Garden, why can’t we go to Post Office Pies and ask them what it would take to open a second location here?”
On Tuesday, five members of the public — including several associated with Birmingham’s Black Lives Matter chapter — addressed the council regarding the proposed development. All of them spoke out against the retailers that have been presented. The economic and development committee will meet on Monday to discuss the future plans for the development, and the council is expected to vote on the proposal next Tuesday.