Birmingham focus must remain on retail

July 1, 2017

Urgent city meetings are occurring in Birmingham to clarify the definition of personal services for the purpose of determining whether some commercial businesses that have rented first floor space in downtown Birmingham are stretching the ordinance regulating the type of occupancy by stating that ad agencies, marketing firms, real estate offices, web development offices and others, “could” be for personal use because a person hypothetically “could” walk in off the street and request their services. 

The ordinance, which has been in place since at least 1996, when the city’s 2016 Master Plan was put into effect, states that a first floor space must have retail in the first 20 feet of depth. The 2016 Master Plan was created after years of public meetings by noted Miami urban planner Andres Duany, following the demise of noted department stores Jacobson’s and Crowley’s and as Somerset Collection was expanding to the north with a second mall. Duany and city leaders then sought to recreate Birmingham as a vibrant walkable destination that offers retail, restaurants and entertainment. The 2016 Plan has largely been implemented, and with it, Birmingham has indeed become a shopping, entertainment and dining destination. The 2007 bistro ordinance was specifically developed in order to activate the streets to drive diners to stores, and to create vitality and walkability. 

Currently, the first floor retail landscape is dotted with more vacancies than there has been in a decade or so, creating a panic among some building owners who want to turn more of the space into offices. Some are asking rents significantly northward of what Birmingham currently charges per square foot – the highest in the metro area, we’re told. Economics 101 would say it’s a law of supply and demand, that they may be able to fill their spaces if they lower their asking prices. Owners also can point out – as can we all – some of the violations where non-conforming businesses have been put into retail space, such as Shift Digital on E. Maple Road, and say, “why not me, too?” It’s an easy fill for them. But not the right one for the city.

Some landlords rightly point out the recent demise of several national retailers, such as The Limited, which used to have a large store on W. Maple before heading to Somerset, Michael Kors, bebe; and those in trouble, like Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Sears, Kmart, Ralph Lauren, J. Jill, and others. There is legitimate concern about the future of retail in the long term.

Projections show there will be a 30 percent decline nationally in retail over the next 10 years, and that is a real conundrum that Birmingham leaders have to recognize. How much retail space will be needed in coming decades and does the retail area need to be tightened are questions city officials will have to address in their ongoing discussions with planning experts in the years ahead.

But for now one thing that is certain – having storefront after storefront of offices in the downtown area, instead of shops or restaurants or salons, or other inviting, consumer-friendly businesses, will stop all that carefully-curated walkability in its tracks. Just ask any retail business on the east side of Shift Digital or the Christian Science Reading Room on East Maple Road. Walkability east on those blocks, unless heading towards Woodward, is non-existent. 

The 2016 Plan has been carefully curated and managed by city staff and commissioners. In addition to having Duany back to the city three years ago for a “tune up,” they speak to him regularly in consultation on changes in market forces, such as the current retail earthquake the country is undergoing. Duany, a visionary urbanist who Birmingham entrusted with their downtown once, should be relied upon again. He has told the city to hold the line on retail, for as soon as office is allowed into first floor, which has already happened, “You’ve kissed your downtown goodbye. Birmingham is a specific destination.”

So we cast our lot with city leaders who recognize the importance of staying the course when it comes to the types of business that should be allowed in first floor space in Birmingham.

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