Birmingham’s 21st Street Viaduct will be repaired, but not replaced. As Weld reported on November 28, the future of the structure has been in some question following the Alabama Department of Transportation’s release of what it termed a “preliminary” plan for the viaduct, which spans the railroad tracks that divide the city’s Southside from the central business district downtown.
The ALDOT plan contemplated replacing the existing 98-year-old viaduct with an entirely new structure that, unlike the original, would include barriers between the bridge and the railroad tracks below that would at least partially obstruct the view of the downtown skyline the viaduct affords to both vehicular and foot traffic. Some local civic activists and historic preservationists objected to the plan on aesthetic grounds, and also charged that ALDOT’s notification process for the sparsely attended October 13 public meeting at which it was unveiled was intentionally insufficient.
An ALDOT spokesperson said that the “normal notification process” had been followed, and stressed that the agency was “still reviewing” comments it received following the October 13 meeting.
Now, Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s office has said that the city and ALDOT have agreed that the structure will be preserved. And while previous comments from the city’s Department of Planning, Engineering and Permits indicated that the city’s goal was simply to settle on a design that reproduced the historic features of the existing viaduct, mayoral spokesperson April Odom said that Bell has interceded to ensure that the original structure remains in place.
“Our goal is to restore the viaduct,” Odom told Weld on December 5. “Not to remove or rebuild it, but to keep it in place. Mayor Bell spoke with ALDOT last week and let them know that [restoration] is the only thing that he will support. They agreed, so we feel like ALDOT and the city are now on the same page.”
At press time, ALDOT has yet to respond to numerous requests for additional comment on the viaduct’s future, including any formal or informal agreement with the city to preserve the structure. In the November 28 story, ALDOT’s Linda Crockett characterized her agency’s role in the project as “liaison, not lead” — a distinction that Odom reiterates in affirming that the ultimate authority on how the project will proceed rests with the city. That same point has also been drawn by David Fleming, CEO of the public-private economic development organization REV Birmingham.
“We’re early in this process,” Fleming told Weld two weeks ago. Fleming said that he had been included in discussions that indicated that the city’s engineering staff was “very open” to additional public input on the project. He also asserted that a restored viaduct would be “a real asset” to the ongoing revitalization and growth of the downtown area and a boon to building civic pride and a sense of community among Birmingham residents.
“This is an opportunity for us to come together, figure out what will work for our city, and go from there,” Fleming said.
Completed in 1918 and dedicated the following year, the 21st Street viaduct is the oldest of three that connect downtown and Southside (the others are at 22nd and 24th Streets). It’s also known as the “Rainbow Viaduct” because it was dedicated in honor of local veterans of the 167th Regiment of the U.S. Infantry — dubbed the “Rainbow Division” — who fought in World War I. A plaque commemorating the division, along with matching decorative iron sculptures (originally concrete) of eagles, were restored in 2012.
Preserving that history is important to Bell, spokesperson Odom says. In addition to responding to the concerns expressed by those questioning ALDOT’s process and its preliminary plan for the viaduct, she adds, Bell has a personal interest in restoring the existing structure.
“The mayor was actually annoyed when he saw the plan,” Odom says. “His father was a veteran of World War II, and while the viaduct commemorates World War I, the mayor feels very strongly that it’s important that the city do all it can to honor the people from Birmingham who have served our country throughout its history. He has instructed our city engineers to make sure we do that.”