R ailroad Park is one of Birmingham’s proudest recent achievements. Built on land once occupied by railroad sidings and warehouses, the park has quickly grown into the city’s civic life - and development trends. When Birmingham’s industries wound down, the area fell quiet except for the main line railroad next door. The park had been imagined by local leaders for years, but in the 2000s, the concept finally gained steam. After a false start due to difficulties acquiring property from the railroad, construction moved forward and the park opened in 2010. The park stretches across 19 acres and four city blocks directly adjacent to the railroads upon which the city grew. Designed to em- brace the frequent freight traffic on the adja- cent railroad viaduct, the park offers numer- ous opportunities for trainspotting. The focus isn’t entirely on trains, though; Railroad Park offers a lake, wetlands, walking and jogging trails, outdoor gym equipment, a playground, and a station on the city’s bike sharing program. The park maintains a full docket of events to draw visitors, including free exercise classes, concerts by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and family fun days. The space draws residents from all over the city, office workers from surrounding downtown, and event-goers from all over the metropolitan area.

Developers, businesses and institutions have respond- ed too. Railroad Park has spurred a number of major developments in the immediate area: • The Birmingham Barons, the city’s minor-league baseball team, relocated next to Railroad Park into a new, $64 million stadium

• The Negro Southern League Muse- um, which documents the early Afri- can-American baseball leagues • Several large urban apartment de- velopments have been built, adding hundreds of new rental units and residents to the area • New retail and restaurant offerings, including the local Good People Brew- ery, Starbucks, and a full-service Publix grocery store

According to the Birmingham News , as of the park’s fifth anniversary in 2015, $324.5 million in public and private investment had occurred around Railroad Park.

This statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, is the largest cast iron statue in the world and symbolizes Birmingham’s roots in the iron and steel industries. Photo: Ryan VanSickle


Heavy industry left throughout the 1970s and 1980s as iron and steel production declined nationwide, eroding the city’s economy. As a new century turned, however, the city regained momentum, finding new economic footing that con- tinues to fuel a remarkable resurgence in recent years. STRONG BONES IN THE VALLEY Birmingham retains some industrial roots, both economic and cultural. While the American Cast Iron Pipe Company and various steel-related businesses contin- ue to operate, the city’s industrial heritage lends historic ties and authenticity to enliv- ened neighborhoods. The Sloss Furnaces, which made iron until 1970, are now a tourist attraction and looming backdrop

to the burgeoning downtown Loft District. An enormous statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking (above), surveys the City from atop Red Mountain. That statue is the largest cast-iron sculpture in the world, a regional icon, and the best skyline view around. While factories disappeared through- out the 1970s and 1980s, Birmingham grew its service-providing job sectors. In particular, education and health services flourished, anchored by the Universi- ty of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), a large research university, academic medical center, and the region’s largest employer. UAB has provided a stable and growing economic base for down- town and the Southside neighborhoods, with six hospitals and over 23,000 employees. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, renters

have an average income, nationally, of just over $55,000 and a median income, also nationally, of just over $38,000. The majority of workers in the healthcare in- dustry tend to fall within these parame- ters and, given the solid industry growth in the healthcare sector, this population provides a stabilizing influence on the renting population in the area and likely sets the stage for the need for more rent- al options in the future. Downtown Birmingham itself has retained an admirable number of historic buildings and quality architecture. In the last year, there have been several notable apartment conversions. The classic downtown Pizitz department store has been converted to an upscale apartment building with the city’s first trendy food hall, and the once-abandoned Thomas Jefferson Hotel now offers over a dozen

floors of luxury rentals. The creation of Railroad Park [see sidebar], the city’s new gathering place, has touched off a downtown apartment boom around the UAB campus and even drawn the city’s long-lost minor league team back in from the far-out suburbs with a brand- new ballpark amidst all the new resi- dents. All of this sets the stage to attract the ubiquitous “millennial” renter into the area thanks to walkability, a unique entertainment and arts scene, and, of course, extreme affordability relative to other areas of the country. While downtown thrives, the city’s energies expand to other neighborhoods along the well-developed street grid as well. Of particular note is Avondale, an independent nearby city from Birming- ham’s early days. A hopping commercial district and signature park have helped

jump-start new businesses and renewed interest in the surrounding area of Forest Park. Just up the road from Avondale, the Woodlawn and East Lake neighborhoods are beginning to experi- ence a similar turnaround, with new life (and new coffee shops) in their centers. Birmingham suburb Mountain Brook also deserves a mention as one of the nation’s most affluent suburbs. The area is is known for a leafy tree canopy, pic- turesque retail villages, and the nation’s first office park (built in 1955). NEWSTARTS BRING UNIQUE OPPORTUNITIES FOR INVESTORS While swaths of Birmingham have not enjoyed the stability of the suburbs or the resurgence in the core, a number

Birmingham boomed rapidly after its founding in 1871. Gifted with a prime location for heavy industry, ready and nearby supplies of coal, limestone, and iron ore made it a natural choice for iron and steel companies to invest. Compa- ny towns sprouted and grew together, enmeshing multiple walkable commer- cial districts into the fabric of the city as it grew throughout the Jones Valley. This industrial base fed a remarkable recovery after the Great Depression, and suburban growth spread up and over the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, darker times lay ahead for Birmingham. Its journey through the Civil Rights era was fraught with violent oppression, a legacy that the region forthrightly carries to this day.

46 | think realty magazine july :: august 2017

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