Long scarred as the site of brutal civil rights struggles and decades of industrial collapse, downtown Birmingham, Ala., has struggled to attract new business or visitors, even from its own region.
But some recent efforts give the city a bit of hope.
The centrally located $25 million Railroad Park, 19 acres with lakes, an amphitheater and lots of green space, opened three years ago and has become a symbol for reviving the downtown district. Not only do thousands of tourists visit the park, but former city residents are also venturing downtown again after years of suburban life.
As evidence of continued growth, Regions Field, an 8,500-seat minor-league baseball stadium, opened in April just south of Railroad Park, another downtown attraction for the city’s roster. Other noteworthy projects include a heavily subsidized $70 million Westin Hotel and entertainment district in the city’s convention area, and a $7 million renovation of the Lyric, a former vaudeville theater nearly 100 years old and barely used since 1958.
While the downtown area somehow escaped the failed urban renewal efforts that razed buildings of historical significance in other cities, the district is home to an estimated 1.6 million square feet of largely vacant buildings constructed before World War II.
To help encourage more renovation, Alabama lawmakers in May approved a bill offering developers up to $5 million in state historical tax credits to help pay for projects. Other incentives, like federal historical tax credits and low-interest loans, are available, too.
“The momentum downtown is palpable,” said Derek R. Waltchack, a principal of Shannon Waltchack, a Birmingham-based property brokerage and investment firm. “You have all the pieces in place for it to be really hot for the next 10 years.”
“People that don’t live here used to say with pride, ‘I haven’t been to downtown Birmingham for 10 or 15 years,’ ” he said. “They wore it as a badge of honor.”
Mr. Waltchack, who operated his business in the suburbs for years, could have counted himself among them. But a trip to Railroad Park with his children soon after it opened helped change his mind about an investment opportunity in two buildings near the park that he had turned down a few months before. Eventually he and other investors bought the century-old structures and completed a $4 million renovation to turn them into 42,000 square feet of offices known as Railroad Square. Shannon Waltchack moved its offices into the project along with a handful of other tenants.
Now Shannon Waltchack is spearheading a similar redevelopment for a two-story warehouse and surrounding buildings totaling 40,000 square feet near Regions Field. Plans for the warehouse call for first-floor commercial space, second-floor apartments, and a rooftop deck overlooking center field.
“If you would have called me four years ago and asked, ‘Derek, would you consider moving your office downtown?’ I would have said, ‘Never,’ ” Mr. Waltchack said. “We’re a good case study in how much things have changed here.”
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