NO TOLL FOR GRANTS MILL ROAD BRIDGE: In recent weeks, the financially-pressed city of Birmingham has been dealing with something of a dilemma: Should the city use stimulus bonds known as Recovery Zone Bonds to rebuild the bridge at the cost of $947,000 or allow a company, Strada Materials, to construct a $4 million toll bridge at no cost to the city?
Since late last year, the Grants Mill Road bridge over Lake Purdy has been closed because the city could not enforce vehicle weight restrictions on the bridge. This has created quite a problem for Birmingham, Jefferson County and Shelby County residents who used the bridge—they currently have to take a six-mile detour to get to their destinations.
Because the city is dealing with a $70 million deficit, the unsolicited proposal from Strada Materials to build a toll bridge for free seemed like a bit of good luck. Aside from the financial savings, Birmingham Mayor William Bell argued that the toll bridge option would be the quickest route to getting a bridge built, as stimulus bonds could take some time. But flags were raised when the Birmingham News reported that Strada Materials principal Roger Bass had also formed a company called Strada Professional Services with Jeff Pitts, who works with Matrix, a political consulting group. Matrix and Pitts are intimately involved in local politics, as Matrix ran campaigns for Bell and former Mayor Larry Langford. Pitts was a fixture at City Hall during the Langford administration.
There were other problems too. The News reported that “the city has yet to make any movement” to obtain Recovery Zone Bonds for the project. However, Linda Swann of the Alabama Development Office (the state office in charge of stimulus bonds) told Birmingham Weekly in an e-mail last Tuesday that “All of the paperwork for that project is in order at this time.” Swann suggested that Birmingham Weekly contact Griffin Lassiter in the city of Birmingham Office of Economic Development with further questions. Lassiter did not respond to a question regarding the discrepancy between the Birmingham News report and Swann’s statement.
Councilor Kim Rafferty raised objections to the toll bridge on the basis that maintaining city roads is the city’s responsibility. Council President Roderick Royal has expressed similar sentiments.
But residents worried about tolls need not worry.
The Birmingham News reported Tuesday morning that Bell has nixed the idea of a toll bridge. The plan is to fund the cost of the bridge with the city’s reserve funds and replace the money with the bond funds when they are approved. The city has offers from Jefferson and Shelby counties to help with the cost of the bridge.
As if to drive home the point, the Council passed a resolution at Tuesday’s Council meeting “requesting the Mayor and his staff expeditiously find and encumber funding for the replacement of the Grants Mill Road Bridge.” Rafferty submitted that resolution.
PRINCETON HOSPITAL TO EXPAND: A proposal by Princeton Baptist Health Center to build a $57 million expansion and reroute part of Tuscaloosa Ave. was granted approval by the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. The expansion calls for adding 90,000 square feet to the hospital, which is in the western part of Birmingham. It also calls for a three-block closure of Tuscaloosa Ave. from Seventh Street Southwest to Tenth Street Southwest and a re-routing of traffic for those blocks to Cotton Ave. Southwest, which lies a block south of Tuscaloosa Ave.
In comments to the Council, representatives of Princeton highlighted the economic benefit of the multi-million dollar expansion. Speaking on behalf of Princeton, attorney Alton Parker emphasized the hospital’s commitment to staying in Birmingham, and in an area of town that is struggling economically. “This is a $57 million dollar project in the western area of town,” he said. His comments drew implicit comparisons to Trinity Medical Center, which is planning to move from a location along Montclair Road to the former site of the HealthSouth “Digital Hospital” on Highway 280. Parker also cited current traffic along Tuscaloosa Ave. as a “significant problem”; that street currently splits the Princeton campus, creating an at-times dangerous street crossing for Princeton patients and employees. The proposed street redirection would address that issue.
Excluding official representatives of Princeton, seven residents spoke in favor of the traffic redirection plan, mostly citing the redevelopment’s economic benefits as reasoning for their support. Eleven residents spoke against the proposal, mostly on the grounds that increased traffic on Cotton and other roads could pose a danger to area students. Some worried about the effects such a proposal would have on some area businesses, including Alley Drug Store. Residents opposed to the Princeton proposal brought a petition against it featuring 564 names.
The public hearing on the Princeton proposal was quite lengthy, and contributed greatly to the five-hour Council meeting. But in the end, the Council was swayed not by petitions or traffic concerns but by the economic benefits of the Princeton expansion. The three Princeton-related items were all approved, with abstentions from Councilors Jonathan Austin and Lashunda Scales on all three votes. Councilor Jay Roberson was absent during the votes on Princeton matters.
WINNING THE GAME OF CHICKEN: As you may know, Chick-fil-A has proposed building a new restaurant at the former Ruby Tuesday’s location in Five Points South. This proposal came under fire from area residents who were opposed to a drive-through in one of the city’s only walkable or nearly-walkable neighborhoods.
A number of civic groups sprung up to fight Chick-fil-A, including one called I Believe in Birmingham, or IBIB. Joseph Baker, who is president of IBIB, released a statement on Tuesday on Facebook in regards to a meeting between Birmingham’s Design Review Committee and Chick-fil-A. This is part of it:
“Today at the Design Review Subcommittee meeting, Chick-Fil-A displayed their new proposal…which had NO drive-thru,” Baker wrote.
“While the design is not the final one it is refreshing and innovative.”
A report by Andre Natta at The Terminal blog says that applause broke out amongst the meeting’s attendees when Chick-fil-A’s representatives announced the change. The design review process was to continue on Wednesday, when the restaurant’s designers are expected to submit their proposal to the full DRC.
Madison Underwood is a Birmingham Weekly staff writer. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.