The Railroad Park (initially called the Railroad Reservation Park) is a downtown park located on 17 acres between 14th and 18th Streets and between 1st Avenue South and Morris Avenue, along a four-block stretch of Birmingham's Railroad Reservation known as the "Burlington North". The park opened to the public on September 18, 2010.
The Railroad Park is seen as a key segment in a linear urban greenway which is planned to parallel the Railroad Reservation's entire length though downtown, along the 1st Avenue Cut, connecting to Sloss Furnaces, and extending outward to join with other greenways throughout the region in the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System. Within that system, the Railroad Park would become a heavily-utilized urban node with active uses and programs as well as a key gateway with pedestrian links across the divide between the Financial District on the north and UAB and Southside to the south.
Discussed since the 1970s, the present park plan was developed in earnest after the creation of the Friends of the Railroad District (FoRRd) in 2001. A design from Berkeley, California-based Tom Leader Studios was presented to the city on March 28, 2006 and ground was ceremonially broken on October 6 of that year.
After a year of design development and site preparation, a second groundbreaking was held in February 2008. Site clearing officially began on April 1, 2008 but failed negotiations with railroad operators for use of easements forced changes to the design and delayed the start of heavy construction until December 2008. Phase I, including all of the park's landscape features along with restrooms, offices, a concession stand and catering kitchen, opened to the public in September 2010. In October 2012 the park won the "Urban Open Space Award" from the Urban Land Institute.
The idea of creating a park centered on the Railroad Reservation has been discussed since the 1970s, inspired, in part, by the presence nearby of a collection of historic railroad locomotives, cars and equipment owned by the Heart of Dixie Railroad Club. The city used a federal grant to purchase most of the site in 1997 and made it available for large-scale events such as the Schaeffer Eye Center Crawfish Boil.
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. FoRRd presented ideas for the park to advisers from the Urban Land Institute, whose 2002 report helped shaped the City Center Master Plan adopted in 2004, which made the park a centerpiece of its strategy for connecting various downtown districts.
The city and FoRRd worked together to conduct meetings with stakeholder groups and to commission needed plans and studies. Kincaid hired Renee Kemp-Rotan as a "Capital Projects Liaison" to keep the project moving forward. in early 2005 Tom Leader of Berkeley, California was selected to prepare conceptual designs while ConsultEcon of Boston, Massachusetts was commissioned to conduct market studies and economic impact projections.
As the focus moved to fund raising and implementation, conflicts arose between leaders of FoRRd and the city. Kincaid held that the project must be the city's, with FoRRd as supporters, while Perkins wanted his group to take responsibility for design, construction and operation of the project. Ultimately FoRRd backed down and the city moved forward as developer of the project. In February 2006 the Birmingham City Council approved a $5 million commitment to Railroad Park, which was added to $2.5 million already pledged by the Jefferson County Commission and another $2.5 million in federal grant funds.
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.
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. 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 have included 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 have connected the park to elevated bicycle paths and to Birmingham Central Station, which was anticipated to be expanded into a multi-modal transport hub.
In July 2006, the Birmingham City Council approved a contract with Brantley Visioneering to serve as project manager for Phase I of the Railroad Reservation Park. In their October presentation to the city, they outlined a project delivery timeline with an opening date of January 2009. The overall cost of the first phase was estimated at $15-18 million. Private fundraising was ramped up as part of a "parknership", combining campaigns to create Red Mountain Park and expand Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. Together, the three parks would give residents of Birmingham more public green space per capita than any other American city.
In late 2007 newly-elected Mayor Larry Langford won approval for his Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance and promised an additional $5 million from the city. 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.
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. The city filed a condemnation suit in Jefferson County Probate Court, which was referred eventually to the Surface Transportation Board. Rather than delay construction any further, the foundation decided to amend the park design for a smaller site.
The first phase of the park, not including landscape improvements along the 1st Avenue South right of way, opened to the public in September 2010.
Park features and management
The park's first phase included a small artificial lake and associated storm water reclamation ponds, a broad grassy lawn with a natural 3,500-capacity amphitheater, tree-shaded areas, flower and vegetable gardens, several playgrounds and fitness stations, a 1/3-mile "rail trail", a paved plaza with a skateboarding area, and the "Eastgate Emporium", a covered space with restrooms, concessions, administration and security offices and a catering kitchen. Macknally Ross Land Design provided design services for the park's landscaping while Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio designed the park buildings and Radius Graphic Design coordinated signage and developed the park's logo. HKW Architects was designing a planned constructed amphitheater building, which was omitted from the first phase.
The laminated timbers and exposed wood siding on the park's pavilions are black locust.
In 2014 the Railroad Park Foundation proposed to transfer oversight of the park property to the Public Athletic, Cultural and Entertainment Facilities Board which had been established by the city in 2011 to issue bonds for development of Regions Field. As part of the proposal, the city would take over responsibility for security and landscape maintenance of the park, reducing the foundation's operational expenses to allow for a more favorable refinancing of remaining construction debt. The proposal was given to the City Council at a time when the city's own revenues were projected to fall short of obligated expenses. During a committee meeting park director Camille Spratling exchanged heated words with councilor Lashunda Scales. Scales later wrote to the Railroad Park Foundation to demand Spratling's resignation.
Beginning in November 2016 the park provided a temporary ice-skating rink at the 17th Street plaza.
The three concrete bowls provided for skateboarders and BMX bikers were filled after the City Walk skate park opened in 2022. A "Greenspace Native Plant Project" undertaken in 2023 was supported by a $20,000 allocation from the Jefferson County Commission.
When it opened, the park included three small enclosed buildings under the main pavilion roof at the 17th Street Plaza, which were planned to resemble railway box cars in scale. The largest of the three contains a small security office with a reception desk along with two public restrooms. The other two units were outfitted with commercial kitchens with one leased to a concessions operator and the other available to caterers hired for special events.
The first concessionaire at Railroad Park was "George's Boxcar Café", operated by George Sarris through his Yellow Bicycle Catering Co. The business paid $2,000 per year to rent the space. Later, the Boxcar Café was taken over by Red Clay Bar & Events, along with the exclusive license to serve alcoholic beverages at the park. Michael's took over operation of the "box car" concession in July 2022.
Since its opening, Railroad Park has attracted food trucks, ice-cream trucks and other vendors to the areas adjacent to the park. The Birmingham Food Truck Ordinance, passed in December 2013, enacted limitations for such activities. Food trucks are celebrated at the park's annual "Trucks by the Tracks" fund raising event.
In October 2016 a small vendor booth constructed from a shipping container was placed on the park's southwest corner. Leased through Eric Tasker's SmallBox Company LLC. Pop-up vendors have included Samaria Arenas' crafts shop Rainy Day (October 2016-April 2017), the Birmingham Candy Company (April 2017-), and Trove design shop (November-December 2018).
From the beginning, security concerns for the downtown site were important in the design. The park features predominantly uninterrupted vistas and is visible from surrounding streets and businesses. Sanguard Security Services provides regular around-the-clock patrols and the park's numerous surveillance cameras are monitored full-time by Ion Interactive. In addition, the park is included in the beats of the City Action Partnership, Birmingham Police Department, the UAB Campus Police, and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
A reported robbery in October 2010, a few weeks after the park opened, renewed public debate about the security of the park. Mayor Bell responded forcefully to arguments that the area was unsafe by highlighting the measures taken by the city and park managers and made reference to a 2009 study carried out by the City Action Partnership showing the its service area in downtown Birmingham has a lower rate of crime per person than the Over the Mountain suburbs of Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook, and Vestavia Hills .
On Easter Sunday, 2012 multiple fights were reported in the park and a teenager fired a handgun into the air as he fled from police on the 1300 block of 1st Avenue South nearby. Police and park security officers temporarily cleared the park and made four arrests. Officials pledged to revise security procedures for times when crowds of youth might gather in the vicinity of the park.
A fatal shooting at Railroad Park occurred on March 17, 2013 when 15-year-old Jermaine Walton was struck by crossfire during a fight. On April 30, 17-year-old Justin Jones of Birmingham was arrested by the Birmingham Police and charged with murder. Police stated that Jones would be tried as an adult.
During its first late summer, the Park scheduled a series of "Sunset Cinema" film screenings. Other event series held at the park include "Get Healthy on the Railroad" exercise and cooking programs sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, the Trucks by the Tracks food truck gathering, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra's "Symphony in the Summer" program, and the Magic City AIDS Walk.
One of the first major events held at the Railroad Park was the unveiling of "Blueprint Birmingham", a regional economic development plan created under the auspices of the Birmingham Business Alliance.
In 2014 and 2015 the free Schaeffer Eye Center CityFest was held at Railroad Park. On Friday September 30, 2022 NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace hosted a "Bubba's Block Party" at Railroad Park featuring performances by Big K.R.I.T. and Mannie Fresh.
The pedestrian connection from Railroad Park to the Birmingham Central Station utilized the 18th Street underpass, which was enhanced in 2013 by the "LightRails" art installation of shifting multi-color LED lighting designed by Bill FitzGibbons.
As plans to replace the station with a new Birmingham Intermodal Facility developed, Mayor William Bell proposed adding a pedestrian bridge over the tracks at 16th Street in the middle of the park. Funding for such a bridge was included in the 2012 Birmingham bond referendum, but development has not been pursued beyond the early design phase.
As the park's corridor is extended, it may someday link with the Loft district downtown and eventually to Sloss Furnaces to the east and to the Birmingham CrossPlex to the west, along a projected "Cross to Sloss" trail included as part of the Jones Valley Trail in the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail plan. The Rotary Trail, extending the park's greenway eastward through the 1st Avenue Cut was constructed in 2014–2015.
The 2003 City Center Master Plan further envisions a network of green corridors, including 17th Street and 14th Street as well as 1st Avenue South. Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio prepared designs for Children's Hospital for transforming 17th street into a pedestrian corridor linking its campus to the park. Implementation awaits funding commitments from the city and property owners.
Studies made during the park's development have suggested that it could spur $150-$200 million in related development projects on adjacent properties. In 2005 Corporate Realty Development proposed a $40 million residential project overlooking the park at 1st Avenue South and 18th Street. That project stalled as park construction was delayed.
In November 2010, the City Council approved a proposal for a Downtown baseball park which would be located just west of the Railroad Park. The stadium was planned as part of a larger redevelopment of the area between downtown and Titusville, including the Trinity Steel site now owned by the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority. Private development of the "Parkside District" with mixed-use residential, restaurant and retail space would be supported by master planning work, infrastructure upgrades and economic incentives provided by the city. Eventually a site south of the Railroad Park was chosen for the stadium, which opened in 2013 as Regions Field. Following the success of the baseball stadium, a number of new apartment and mixed used projects were announced. Railroad Square and LIV Parkside were the first to be constructed.
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- Gray, Jeremy (November 10, 2010) "Calm is the norm for Birmingham's Railroad Park The Birmingham News
- Robinson, Carol (April 9, 2012) "Birmingham police report 4 arrested after melee at Railroad Park." The Birmingham News
- Diel, Stan (October 18, 2012) "Birmingham's Railroad Park wins major award." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (April 25, 2014) "Needing some help: Railroad Park seeks more private cash, asks city to pay for operations." The Birmingham News
- Helmer, Lauren (June 13, 2016) "Birmingham’s “Central Park”: Nearly 100 Years in the Making" StyleBlueprint
- Michaels, Ryan (June 28, 2023) "First-Ever 4th of July Festival to Be Held at Railroad Park." The Birmingham Times