All is not so quiet on the Western Front — the Western Front of downtown Birmingham, that is. There is an increasing amount of development, much of it driven by entrepreneurs, in the often forgotten portion of downtown that stretches west from 18th Street to about I-65.
Much of this activity is occurring in the Entrepreneurial District along First, Second, and Third Avenues North — an area designated by the City of Birmingham as a place to nurture small businesses, particularly those related to technology and business services.
The western part of downtown was already a working neighborhood, with such long-established businesses as America’s First Federal Credit Union and Edward’s Chevrolet. The area also takes in the traditional African-American business district along Fourth Avenue North. However, the coming of new knowledge-based or creative class enterprises is transforming the area, making it, truly, Birmingham’s Western Front.
• This new activity is driven by several factors The conversion by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Operation New Birmingham and the Entrepreneurial Center of the long-abandoned Sears Building on First Avenue North into the Innovation Depot, a major business incubator, at a cost of $17 million.
• The opening of the new Social Security Administration Southeast Payment Processing Center at Eight Avenue North and 14th Street.
• The excitement regarding the planned Railroad Reservation Park, a pedestrian-friendly green space that will link UAB and downtown.
• The close proximity of the area to both the Financial District and I-65, making it a good location for businesses.
• The appealing prices of vacant buildings in the area, especially given the increasing difficulty of finding space in the Financial and Loft Districts.
All is not perfect on the Western Front. Business people and community leaders express concern about the presence of a large homeless population in the neighborhood. There is some frustration with the City of Birmingham’s seemingly glacial movement toward completing the Railroad Park and making other street improvements.
In addition, many people in Birmingham rarely visit this area. It has not been a destination since the days before the closing of Sears and the old Tillman-Levinson discount department store on First Avenue North a generation ago. However, the prognosis for the area seems positive.
One of the entrepreneurs who is helping to open up the Western Front is Matthew Myers, the owner of Magic City Scooter at Second Avenue North and 13th Street. Myers’s business is located in the Acme Building, which he and his dad Jay refurbished.
After selling a building in the 2300 block of First Avenue North, the father-son team had difficulty locating another affordable space in the Loft District, so they went west. “When we started looking here it was because of price,” Jay Myers says. “And then we saw these magnificent old buildings.” “This is a great city, great buildings,” Matthew Myers says. “The cool thing is you’re not moving people out. There weren’t squatters in this place. You’re just redoing a vacant building.”
The Myers’ delight in the surprised reactions of some of the people who come to the Acme Building for the first time, in some cases to attend a special event at the scooter shop, and have their negative preconceptions regarding the neighborhood exploded. “It’s a great part of town,” Matthew Myers says. “Everyone has a perception. They’ve got something in their head of what this is, but obviously the reality of it is completely different.”
The Myers have sold one of two loft apartments available in the Acme Building and rented out four commercial spaces. The building previously housed the old Acme Fast Forward Freight Company, and the commercial units are loading bays that the Myers transformed into large, open spaces with big windows and lots of light.
The tenants at the Acme Building include Michael Bell and Bradford Kachelhofer of Modern Brand, a branding firm specializing in small businesses and non-profits. “We were attracted to the area by The Innovation Depot and what Matt was doing in this building, plus the idea that this was an area where new businesses and small businesses were opening up, because that’s who we try to serve,” Kachelhofer says. “Being this close to the city center, we can serve our clients quicker and save gas going back and forth to all their offices,” Bell says.
Another Acme tenant is Hatcher’s Florists, owned by husband and wife Chris and Anissia Hatcher, who moved their shop from an outdated space on Second Avenue North. “We wanted to reinvent ourselves to go along with the reinvention of the city center,” Chris Hatcher says.
Hatcher, who is also vice president for planning of Operation New Birmingham, describes his first tour of the Acme Building. “None of these walls were up, but I had a vision of what this could be,” he says. “The space had that new urban feel, and it reminded me of a little flower shop I saw years ago in Soho in New York. We love being here.”
The stunning renovation of the Sears Building into the 145,000-square-foot Innovation Depot — with an award-winning design from Williams-Blackstock Architects — has been perhaps the single biggest factor in the growth of the Western Front.
The Innovation Depot was born when UAB’s Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries joined forces with the Entrepreneurial Center, an incubator formerly located at First Avenue North and 12th Street.
Susan Matlock, director of The Innovation Depot, was also director of the Entrepreneurial Center. It became clear early on, during discussions with UAB officials, she said, that the Sears building was the logical place for the new incubator.
“This was the clear place it should be, because it’s two blocks long, the biggest eyesore in the community,” she says. “If nothing happened to this block, there would never be an Entrepreneurial District. This was right in the center between UAB and downtown.”
According to Matlock, the Innovation Depot has a capacity for about 65 start-up companies. “I get asked all the time what we’ll do when we reach capacity. Well, I’m going to push them out the door, that’s what I’ll do.” Matlock sees the Innovation Depot as a kind of mothership that can provide ongoing guidance and support for graduates who establish their own offices around the neighborhood.
Matlock cites two Entrepreneurial Center graduates who have done just that — Jennifer Skjellum, owner of Verari Systems Software, Inc., and Daniel Reeder, a fashion designer. Reeder’s firm WISH Collection ships his young contemporary designs for women to hundreds of boutiques in eight countries and is housed in the old Southern Well Supply Company building on Second Avenue North near 12th Street.
Reeder’s production facility is in Los Angeles, but he chose to keep his main office and warehouse in the Western Front. “The area is very convenient,” he says. “The overhead is very reasonable compared to other parts of the country.” Reeder recently created 800 square feet of office space inside his warehouse and plans to update the building’s exterior.
When the Entrepreneurial Center left its old space on 12th Street, the building was purchased and renovated almost immediately — at a cost of more than $2 million — by Gallet & Associates, an engineering and construction services firm that moved from Homewood.
“We needed the space, I always wanted to be a part of rebuilding downtown, and I liked
the building,” company president Alain Gallet says. “It has great proximity to the interstate. Our people work all over the place, and we can go in every direction very quickly.
Gallet has 90 employees and plans to grow. He is bullish on the Western Front. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I would like to see this area grow and mature and become a place where people want to locate businesses. The ideal area for growth for downtown is the west, and there is a lot of capacity, a lot of buildings that need a new life. I saw us as an anchor on the west side to help this change.”
Employees at Gallet & Associates have adjusted well to the move, according to receptionist Lisa Sharman. “At first there was a lot of flack about moving down here because of perceptions of the area,” she says. “But access to the interstate is incredible. It’s been really nice. We’ve been extremely happy.”
Gallet’s new corporate headquarters is another important sign that the neighborhood is changing for the better, according to Matlock. She hosted her board meeting there in January. “I wanted to communicate to my board of directors, ‘This is happening. This is going to be an entrepreneurial district. Look at what Alain Gallet has done,’” she says. “It’s one thing for me as a non-profit to raise other people’s money and do this, but this is a private businessperson making that kind of investment.”
Matlock is excited about by the arrival of another newcomer to the neighborhood — the Culinard Café, which opened at the Innovation Depot in May. “This will kick up this area another whole level,” she says. “People from all over town will come here for lunch.” The café is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and offers soups, salads, sandwiches, baked goods and coffee.
Matlock is not alone in her optimism about the future of the Western Front. “There’s a lot of business that is new and taking control and making the environment better,” Reeder says. “This could be one of the number one addresses to be,” Chris Hatcher says. “All the components are there. It just takes vision, a little sweat and a little money.”
Area business owners insist that in order for the western business district to prosper, the city of Birmingham must deliver on its promises to complete public works projects such as the Railroad Reservation Park. Among the merchants eagerly anticipating the coming of the park is Steve Bailey, who has owned Bailey’s Corner, a Conoco station and convenience market at the corner of First Avenue North and 14th Street, since 1976.
“One thing they’re going to have to do in this city they keep forgetting about, they’re going to have to bring families in,” he says. “If you can get families coming back like it used to be, the area’s going to change anyway. So hopefully the park will spur that.”
Another important step will be the installation of new branding signage for the area — clearly identifying it as the Entrepreneurial District — and $1.2 million worth of streetscape improvements along 14th Street.
“Funding for the first phase of the signs has been allocated by the city,” Hatcher says. “The city has contracted with a third-party vendor to create the signs. The first signs around the Innovation Depot should go up beginning in the fall.”
According to Hatcher, the city has submitted streetscaping plans from KPS Group to the Alabama Department of Transportation for review. “The final drawings are being reviewed by ALDOT, and we’re hopeful that we will get approval in a few weeks, and the city can begin the bidding process,” he says. Hatcher believes that work could possibly could begin in the late fall or in early 2009.
“The 14th Street improvements are really important because that’s our connection to UAB,” Matlock says. “I think that once that park is developed and once the improvements on 14th Street are finished, you’re going to see foot traffic between here and UAB. It’s another way of claiming this as an important area in the growth of this city.”
Business people and community leaders all seem to agree that one problem is the presence in the area of several hundred homeless people. The homeless are drawn by the social services offered by, among other institutions, the Church of the Reconciler at Second Avenue North and 14th Street and the Firehouse Shelter at Third Avenue North and 15th Street.
“The homeless and the panhandling, that would be great if those things were removed from our area,” Anisia Hatcher says. “That prevents a lot of customers from wanting to come downtown, because they get that hassle.” “This town is all too welcoming to some of the street people,” Bailey says.
Kachelhofer expressed sympathy for the homeless and suggested that more should be done to find a solution. “The only people who walked in our front door of questionable intent have asked if we were hiring,” she says. “It’s not panhandling. It’s about the low number of jobs available, substance abuse and mental illness.” She praises the work done by the Church of the Reconciler, located adjacent to the Acme Building. “They’re a wonderful mission, but they are not going to solve the problem of homelessness by themselves,” she says. “We’re not getting together as a whole city to try to figure out exactly what to do.”
Church of the Reconciler’s Rev. Kevin Higgs, senior pastor, and Rev. Rachel Martin, assistant pastor for servant ministry, tend to agree with that assessment. Both of them urged that the City of Birmingham begin to carry out a 10-year plan to end homelessness that they say was developed during the administration of former Mayor Bernard Kincaid.
“There is a plan,” Martin says. “A lot of people, including our church, had input. The plan has never been enacted, facilitated, or funded. It’s just on paper.”
“Everyone on staff here is pro-development of downtown Birmingham,” Higgs says. “The problem is that the city and their associates in the business community seem to be in complete denial about the chronic reality of the homeless.”
Higgs suggests that a solution to the homeless problem is more important to the long-term prospects for downtown redevelopment than some may think. "I know a couple who bought a loft in downtown then left six months later because they were continually being harassed by mentally ill homeless on the street," he says.
“If you don’t creatively and effectively meet that challenge and respond in a humane way, a way to help people move out of homelessness, their whole plan for redevelopment will fail.”