By Scott Hinkle, Associate Broker
I’m fascinated with history. Looking at old photos of cities, especially of Birmingham, takes my mind back to those times. I wonder what the people were doing in and around the buildings, what they were doing for work and play. The rapid growth of Birmingham in the formative years earned it the nickname “The Magic City”. There is an old saying that history repeats itself and I believe that!
I began my real estate career here in Birmingham in 1984 as a leasing agent for a development company that controlled a large market share of the office product. A few years earlier the prime interest rate had risen to 20% and the real estate market, I am told, had been tough. SouthBridge had just been completed on a speculative basis and only had a few tenants in place. The 280 office market had just begun with only a few buildings at the perimeter. Free rent was prevalent and tenant representation was a new concept. In the 1980’s, downtown Birmingham saw two high-rise office buildings completed with bank headquarters as anchor tenants. The banking industry spawned ancillary businesses that thrived and grew. Things looked rosy for downtown but change was on the way. Suburban neighborhoods, in Birmingham and across the nation, gained favor with businesses, families, shopping and overall growth.
Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s downtown continued to lose businesses, people and prestige. We lost banking headquarters and there was the well-published Jefferson County sewer issues. Whole blocks had vacant buildings that could not be sold or leased at any price.
But history began its slow way of repeating itself. The City Center after a time of being out of favor started a slow metamorphosis. UAB continued to grow as a nationally recognized hospital. Five Points became well known for its restaurants and entertainment. The Lakeview District and 2nd Ave North have become a place to live, work and play. Highland Avenue once again became a desirable place to live with the construction of two luxury condominium developments. The leaders in Birmingham made efforts to invest back into the city center. Innovation Depot transformed a long vacant Sears building into a business incubator. Lofts were built and more retail and restaurants opened to support the residents. Railroad Park was built and it, in turn, spurred more development including the new Regions Park Baseball Field. The downtown area got more attention and also more investments including 1,000 residential units now under construction or in the planning stages. It has been a long slow process in the renewed revitalization of the city center. I visualize Birmingham now much like a snowball that is getting bigger and faster the more it rolls.
I was at a press conference this past week where my firm, Shannon Waltchack, announced the name of a new development that will be adjacent to the new Regions Baseball Park. The Stockyard @ Railroad Park as this project will be known finishes the redevelopment of 2nd Ave. South from 18th street to the new baseball stadium. In this same area I understand there will be an announcement soon about a major investment in the Railroad Park area that will benefit residents, businesses and tourist alike. There is enough excitement in Birmingham that last week The New York Times had an article titled “A Return to Downtown Birmingham”. Are there challenges and hurdles ahead? Yes, but I believe downtown Birmingham is in the midst of a revival that will recapture the Magic.