Development of Railroad Park
The development of Railroad Park was the result of several decades of work by many individuals and institutions to create a public open space alongside downtown Birmingham's Railroad Reservation. "Railroad Park" opened in 2010 and has been viewed as a watershed in the city's downtown revitalization.
The intention was to provide space for a future park with an interpretive history component and was inspired, in part, by the presence of a collection of historic railroad locomotives, cars and equipment owned by the Heart of Dixie Railroad Club. In the 1990s, that collection found a home at the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera, but the concept of using the vacant site as an interpretive park survived.
The concept of using the site to interpret the importance of the Railroad Reservation was championed by planner Larry Watts who promoted the concept through his work with Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and later kept the idea in the spotlight by including it in projects imagined by the Auburn University Center for Architecture and Urban Studies. Planners at KPS Group also worked on presentations for an interpretive park. Those visions helped secure a federal grant through the Alabama Department of Transportation which the city used to purchase the bulk of the land used for the first phase of park development in 1997.
The Friends of the Railroad District (FoRRd) was formed in October 2001 to bring together community leaders for the purpose of promoting revitalization along the railroad corridor and to raise funds for the eventual development of a linear park incorporating the city's parcel.
During discussions with FoRRd, city leaders expressed their own visions for a new downtown park and showed enthusiasm for the efforts of the group. In December 2001 the concept for the park was presented by FoRRd to the Urban Land Institute, which was advising the city on its strategy for a City Center Master Plan. The park and system of greenways were counted as one of five "focal points of prime importance to Birmingham's urban core" in ULI's May 2002 report.
During the summer of 2002, FoRRd presented their concept of a linear park to numerous business, civic and neighborhood groups. Research firm Marketry donated its services to conduct focus groups to target specific stakeholder groups and generate consensus on desires, needs and concerns regarding a downtown park. The group commissioned photographer Matthew Collier to document the downtown railroad district for archival and promotional purposes. Early plans to stage a design competition for the park were set aside to concentrate on developing a vision in tandem with the ongoing City Center Master Plan process.
Birmingham partnered with Operation New Birmingham and Region 2020 to hire Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates to prepare a City Center Master Plan Update based on ULI's recommendations. On March 11, 2004, UDA, presented its preliminary ideas in a "town hall meeting" at the Carver Theater. The redevelopment of the Railroad Reservation as a "seam" rather than a barrier between the downtown theater and business districts and the university and residential development on Southside.
In UDA's final plan, delivered in October 2004, the Railroad Reservation Park was highlighted as a centerpiece of a planned "Open Space Framework" for the City Center, catalyzing aesthetic, economic and community progress in the downtown area. The park was also made a central element in a large "Technology and Cultural District" which the planners envisioned connecting the theater and entrepreneurial districts north of the tracks with the expansion of UAB and related research and technology development in Midtown and Southside.
In January 2005 the Birmingham City Council approved an arrangement for the Mayor's office to cooperate with FoRRD to move forward with park planning and feasibility studies. The Council provided $120,000, an amount to be matched by FoRRD, to commission that work. The city, represented by Capital Projects Liaison Renee Kemp-Rotan, contracted with Tom Leader Studio, a Berkeley, California landscape design firm, to generate conceptual plans for the park site. At the same time, ConsultEcon, a Boston research firm, was hired to perform market studies and economic projections. Both firms sent representatives to Birmingham for public meetings in April 2005.
According to Perkins the conceptual plans, market studies and projections provided the specifics that would give donors the confidence to commit funds for the proposed park. Kemp-Rotan mirrored that statement, saying "Now, by the end of these studies, this will not be pie in the sky. Once these plans are done, we will know exactly how much this will cost and what everyone can expect to see."
Meanwhile, Mayor Bernard Kincaid presented conceptual designs for the downtown park at the 2006 meeting of the Mayor's Institute for City Design. Bouyed by the positive comments from that meeting, he became one of the park's biggest champions. With the city's focus on the Railroad Park secure, FoRRD and others were assured that the project would forward quickly. FoRRD President Giles Perkins expressed confidence that ground would be broken within a year. Private developers also began to express excitement about the potential for revitalization surrounding the project, especially in the midtown area between UAB and the park. Corporate Realty Development announced plans for the Standard at Midtown, a $40 million condominium building at the corner of 1st Avenue South and 18th Street
While these studies were pursued a conflict between FoRRd and the city emerged over which group would manage the fund-raising and implementation of the plans. Kemp-Rotan had alluded to her understanding of FoRRd's role immediately following the agreement to split design costs: "The agreement we have entered into allows the Friends of the Railroad District to assist the city in this project, [...] The most important thing to remember is that this will be done on city-owned land."
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Railroad District drew up their own document for the city's consideration. Their 12-page proposed contract would place fund-raising and construction in FoRRd's hands, with their budgets being reviewed by a three-member oversight committee with representatives from the city.
In December 2005, after the Jefferson County Commission had pledged $2.5 million to the park, the newly-elected City Council discussed competing proposals for a matching contribution from the city. The mayor's proposal differed from a proposal submitted to the city by the Friends of the Railroad District -- primarily on the question of whether FoRRd or the City of Birmingham would be responsible for the design, financing, construction and operation of the park. Giles Perkins represented FoRRd at the meeting, which became heated with Kincaid's absolute refusal to place public property under private jurisdiction. Councilor William Bell argued that only by giving FoRRd "a free hand to raise funds", would the necessary private investment materialize. Ultimately it was Bell who made the motion to approve the funding on the condition that Kincaid and FoRRd could work out an agreement before January 15.
Bell's appraisal regarding fund-raising was echoed by Perkins, who told members of the press that private money would flow more easily with a private board overseeing the project. Kincaid reacted strongly to the implication that investors might lack confidence in his office, calling Perkins comments "condescending", and indicative of a "plantation mentality". Perkins apologized for the offense and promised cooperation toward crafting an agreement with the city to keep the project alive.
On January 17, 2006 Kincaid announced that the obstacle to an agreement had been reached, as FoRRd had withdrawn their demand to manage construction and fund-raising themselves. In February they announced an agreement in which the city would form an advisory committee and appoint a prominent business leader to head the fund-raising campaign, which would launch after ground was broken using public funds already committed. On February 28, the City Council approved an additional $5 million from a future bond issue for development of the park along with an $11 million incentive package for the Walmart anchored Eastwood Village development. At the meeting, Kincaid promised a March groundbreaking.
The conceptual design from Tom Leader Studio was largely the work of associate Akiko Ono. The plan was praised for incorporating ideas and demands from multiple sources. According to the designers, the plan "derives much of its meaning and character from not only engaging the dynamism of moving trains, but also the large scale, directness, and industrial nature of architecture and outdoor spaces." The rails, along with community participation and a sensitive restoration of natural features were all fundamental elements in the design of the park.
While the major feature of the park will be a wide open, unstructured space, a number of specific features are represented on the conceptual plan. The broad strokes of the plan include a rectangular artificial lake at the northeast corner of the Phase I site. A series of four dramatically-sculpted hills are shown pushed against the raised railway area, planted with native trees in a loose arrangement.
A "hickory forest" stretches up the hill nearest 14th street, connecting via a "narrative trace" to an "adventure playground" terminating the axis of 15th street. A "Greek theater" is nestled into the next hillside. The east end of a planned artificial lake consists of garden plots, a greenhouse, and an engineered wetland. The fourth hill protrudes into the lake. A "rail bridge" and "trolley stop" is accessible from the "main entry" at the east end of the lake.
South of the lake, separated by a "rain curtain" on the conceptual plan, is space for an arts plaza and amphitheater that would be developed in a later phase of work. A wide promenade connects the terminus of 17th street south with a planned restaurant at the southwest corner of the lake. A carousel and raised stage, called the "Crawfish Boil stage" faces the open lawn from adjacent to the promenade. Three pavilions shown at the park entrances from 16th, 15th, and 14th streets are labeled "rail interpretive center", "music studio and cafe", and "naturalist books and maps". A "strolling garden" stretches along the southern edge of the park, and a proposed future "cultural furnace" is shown on the surface parking lot just south of the Alabama Power's Powell Avenue Steam Plant.
Leader's work was presented to the city on March 28, 2006 at a public presentation on the 16th floor of Two North Twentieth, overlooking the park's site. According to the Mayor's office, the date marked the transition from "the community-engagement and feasibility study phase" to the "implementation phase" of the project.
Specific features noted on the schematic plan included a pavilion with interpretive exhibits on Birmingham's railroad history, a 2.5 acre recreational lake, a performance amphitheater, a jogging trail with elevated observation decks, restaurants and other attractions. A "cultural furnace", which would include space for visual and performing arts, was envisioned for the area adjacent to Alabama Power's Powell Avenue Steam Plant. A carefully-constructed water reclamation project would provide a small wildlife habitat. A bridge would connect the park to elevated bicycle paths and to Birmingham Central Station, which was anticipated to be expanded into a multi-modal transport hub.
On July 18, 2006, the Birmingham City Council approved an $875,000 two-year contract with Brantley Visioneering to serve as project manager for Phase I of the Railroad Reservation Park. One of Brantley's first tasks was to negotiate the purchase of two properties that remain in private hands on the park site.
On October 3 Brantley presented the city with plans for implementation of the conceptual design and a tentative schedule for work on Phase I. The presentation included "lessons learned" from city and county leaders' recent visit to Pittsburgh. The "Delivery Team" showed that a number of consultants had been selected. On the organizational chart HKW Architects (local architect), Khafra Engineering (civil engineering), Macknally Ross Land Design (landscaping), Walter Schoel Engineering (hydrology), Georgia Fountain (water features), CRS Engineering (electrical/lighting) and Irrigation Consultant Services (irrigation), were all shown reporting to Tom Leader Studio, the project's design consultant. FoRRd and the City's Implementation Committee were shown as partners mediating the relationship between City Hall and Brantley, which had direct supervision of Leader. Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston, Massachusetts and Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio of Birmingham also contributed to park planning.
A second chart showed how a Project Delivery Strategy and Project Management Plan would be drawn up for the city's approval during the Pre-Design Phase. The completion of Construction Contract Documents would mark the Design Phase, leading to a bidding/award process which, on the Overall Project Schedule for Phase I, is indicated as occurring around January 2008, as a year-long Capital Fund Raising Campaign nears its close. According to the schedule, Close-Out and Completion of Phase 1 would be expected around January 2009.
On October 6, 2006 Mayor Kincaid hosted a groundbreaking at the project site with members of the City Council, County Commission, FoRRd, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, and Brantley Visioneering. A week later, Tom Leader Studio was given a $1.1 million contract to develop construction documents for Phase I.
By then, $12.5 million had been pledged for the project: $7.5 million from the City of Birmingham, $2.5 million promised from Jefferson County by former Commission president Larry Langford, and $2.5 million from the Federal Highway Administration's "Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program", authorized under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and administered by the Alabama Department of Transportation (CMAQ-PE06). After taking over the presidency of the Jefferson County Commission, Bettye Fine Collins indicated that the County's pledge for park development was non-binding and would have to be reviewed.
Cost estimates at that time indicated that the first phase would cost $15 to $18 million to construct and the entire park would come in at just over $50 million. Fund-raising for the realization of the Railroad Reservation Park was coordinated as a "parknership" with the campaigns to create Red Mountain Park and expand Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. Together, the three parks give residents of Birmingham more public green space per capita than any other American city.
On August 22, 2007 the City Council approved spending $1,550,000 to purchase the SYSCO Food Services warehouse and the EGN warehouse which sat in the center of the proposed park. Demolition of those buildings began in October. Around the same time, the name of the project was simplified to "Railroad Park", and FoRRd became the Railroad Park Foundation.
After taking office in November 2007, Mayor Larry Langford won approval for his Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance. He soon promised an additional $5 million from the city, to be matched by $5 million in private donations which would insure that the park auditorium was completed as part of the first phase.
An update in January 2008 made mention of signature entrance gates and plazas at 14th, 16th and 18th Streets, an open-air market area and a lakeside restaurant. The amphitheater would seat 3,000 and have a retractable roof. The total cost of the first phase, without the amphitheater, would be about $22 million, of which about $17.6 million has been raised, not counting the Mayor's pledge of $5 million.
In his 2008 State of the City address, Langford promised a "real" groundbreaking for the park: "No more games. No more false groundbreaking. When we break ground this time, we're gonna build it." Excavation work began shortly thereafter with an expectation that Phase I would open to the public in the summer of 2009.
During that Spring, negotiations with Norfolk Southern Railroad for the use of an 85-90-foot wide strip of land adjoining the park site broke down. Though the ownership of the strip is not clear, the city made a cash offer to clear the title which was refused. In May the city filed a condemnation suit in Jefferson County Probate Court, arguing that it has owned and used the property exclusively for 96 years and that the railroad's claim that it needs the buffer for track maintenance is invalid because such buffers are not maintained in other areas.
U.S. District Court Judge David Proctor issued an order on July 9 referring the dispute to the Surface Transportation Board. Ultimately, rather than delay construction any further, the foundation decided to amend the park design, fencing off areas under dispute and dividing the proposed artificial lake into two parts to accommodate a strip of land along the Powell Avenue right of way.
The first phase of Railroad Park, not including landscape improvements along with the 1st Avenue South right of way, opened to the public in September 2010.
- Urban Land Institute (May 5-10, 2002) Downtown Birmingham, Alabama: A Master-Planning Process for Downtown. (5.2 MB PDF)
- Urban Design Associates (October 2004) City Center Master Plan Update for the City of Birmingham, Alabama. (48.5 MB PDF)
- Oliver, Robin (No date (late 2004)) "A city's renewal: Greenway anchored by 14-acre park featured in plan to revitalize downtown." Birmingham Post-Herald.
- Jordan, Phillip (February 24, 2005) "Bursting at the Seam: Full steam ahead for the Railroad Reservation Park?" Birmingham Weekly
- Jordan, Phillip (December 8, 2005) "Who's Driving the Train?: Battle for control stifles progress on Railroad Reservation Park." Birmingham Weekly
- Jordan, Phillip (December 15, 2005) "Railroad Reservations: Why FoRRd is slowing down the trains." Birmingham Weekly
- Tomberlin, Michael (December 19, 2005) "Railroad Park inspires grand visions: Backers want proposed park to be to city what Central Park is to New York." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 21, 2006) "Railroad Park gets on track." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 29, 2006) "Birmingham OKs Eastwood Wal-Mart, Railroad Park." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (March 29, 2006) "Birmingham's railroad park plans presented to Kincaid." The Birmingham News
- Brantley Visioneering. (October 3, 2006) "Railroad Reservation Park: Project Status Report" (PDF)
- Bryant, Joseph D. (October 6, 2006) "City, county leaders break ground for Railroad Reservation Park." The Birmingham News
- "Project News" (Fall/Winter 2006) DesignAlabama. Vol. XVI, No. II, p. 5
- Hansen, Jeff (January 6, 2008) "Urban change comes to Birmingham: Railroad Park starts building phase, set to open in late spring '09." The Birmingham News
- Kent, Dawn (June 8, 2008) "Downtown Birmingham's Railroad Park expected to spawn development, green spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets." The Birmingham News
- Bouma, Katherine (June 19, 2008) "Railroad Park moves ahead in spite of a dispute about land ownership." The Birmingham News
- Walton, Val (July 10, 2008) "Judge rules Birmingham's railroad park land dispute should be handled by federal Surface Transportation Board." The Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (December 24, 2008) "Heavy construction has started on the Railroad Park." The Birmingham News
- Morris, Philip (May 2010) Railroad Park Graphics". Design Alabama
- Crowe, Christina (May 13, 2010) "A Well-Engineered Park." Black & White
- Spencer, Thomas (August 10, 2010) "Birmingham's Railroad Park to open in September." The Birmingham News
- Diel, Stan (October 18, 2012) "Birmingham's Railroad Park wins major award." The Birmingham News
- Helmer, Lauren (June 13, 2016) "Birmingham’s “Central Park”: Nearly 100 Years in the Making" StyleBlueprint