We write as co-authors from two dramatically different points of view. For 18 years, we have disagreed with each other fundamentally on development issues facing the city of Birmingham. One of us is progressive, generally supportive of commercial development. The other is conservative, protective of our neighborhoods and insistent that development above all should benefit established residents.
But we agree on this: The process and direction the city is taking to develop the N. Bates St. area is wrong. The city commission should start over. If they don't, and move forward with a bond issue, we will vigorously campaign against it.
We agree not only generally, but on the specific reasons, any one of which alone for us is a deal killer:
• The city is poised to revise its master plan, bringing Andres Duany back this spring to build on the success of his Birmingham 2016 Plan. Yet it is rushing ahead with the Bates project without benefit of a thoughtful planning process, the input of residents or its own planning director and planning board.
• The ad hoc committee and staff that brought us here, and the RFP they used to attract developers, were fatally flawed. The people were mostly naive and lacking in expertise, and the document was grossly ambiguous and legally tenuous. A lawsuit pending against the city is symptomatic of the inept process, and makes credible claims of inside dealing and conflict of interest against key players. In violation of widely accepted norms of public bidding, a party that had participated in the preparation of the RFP was not only permitted to respond to it, but is on track to be awarded the project! The lawsuit was filed by a developer who enticed world-renowned Robert A.M. Stern Architects to join his team, only to see the city dismiss them both with little regard.
• In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the desire for more parking is driving development of a prime piece of public property. As a result, parking dominates the proposed project at a time when other, more suitable sites for parking exist and should be exploited. The Bates site is prime public property, and should be respected as such. The Triangle District, by contrast, has struggled to attract development precisely because it lacks parking.
• The city has agreed to work with a private development group whose public/private partnership expert has been accused repeatedly of opportunism. The city, on the other hand, naively failed to engage competent counsel at the outset, instead waiting until it had chosen a development partner and substantially agreed to the broad outlines of a deal. It made no attempts to negotiate with any developers prior to choosing its partner.
• By underestimating the amount of parking required by the new development, the city is overstating how much additional net public parking will be provided. The cost of that additional parking is astronomical, in terms of money spent, land surrendered and opportunities lost. Residents and city coffers would gain very little in return for the investment of $55 million or more, plus interest. The big winners would appear to be the private developers who seem to have been preordained.
The buck stops with the city commission, which should listen to the backlash coming not only from directly affected neighbors, but from citizens-at-large as varied as us. The commission should wrestle control of this mismanaged project immediately from city manager Joe Valentine and order a do-over. If it does not, and decides unwisely to move forward as Valentine currently plans, voters, one way or another, will ultimately have their say.