Northern Beltline: Downtown Development

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Jim Reed

Birmingham’s downtown has added many feathers to it cap in recent years. City officials point to last year’s opening of Railroad Park, a growing restaurant scene, new office and hotel space in the works. It’s a rebirth some critics of the northern beltline say could be muted by that bypass. This week we’re taking a look at the proposed 52 mile highway planned for the northern half of Jefferson County. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager examines what a new interstate bypass might mean for development in downtown Birmingham.

Walk through the tight aisle at Jim Reed Books and you soon realize this isn’t your ubiquitous, big box book store.

“These are mystery writers, thrillers, with a stop for what we call a ‘bond-age’ section. That’s James Bond books and movies and stuff.”

Owner Jim Reed points out a leather bound copy of Dracula, limited edition books and movie posters.

“And needle stuff going way, way back. 1873 September issue of Godey’s Ladies Books has patterns. It has serials in it. That was soap operas back then.”

Reed operates his store in downtown Birmingham and counts himself among the “little guys” who add spice and flavor to the city center. He says any large project like the northern beltline will create change. But what specific changes, he doesn’t know. Reed mentions his grandfather’s general store in rural Tuscasloosa County. It went belly up when a new highway diverted traffic. Still Reed believes we should value the good the northern beltline could do, but also…

“Be sensitive about the bad that it will do because it’ll do both good and bad things.”

One person concerned about those potential bad things is Birmingham City Councilwoman Valerie Abbott. She was one of just two city council members to vote against a resolution supporting the northern beltline. She’s concerned new development along the route will prompt some business owners to leave the city of Birmingham.

“People are interested in convenience and if they somehow feel they can avoid the congestion of the city and be out on the fringe and it suits their business to do that, then they’ll move.”

Fran Godchaux doesn’t see it that that way. She’s interim president of Operation New Birmingham, which promotes economic development in the city’s downtown area. While the organization has taken no position, Godchaux doesn’t believe new development along the northern beltline poses competition.

“We have 80,000 people working in the city center and we believe it’s going to continue to be a hub into the city center.”

Glen Weisbrod tends to agree. He president of the Boston-based consulting firm Economic Development Research Group. He’s studied highway bypasses across the country.

“No significant city has had its downtown killed by a beltline.”

Weisbrod says a highway will change development patterns, but it’s not a zero sum game. That is, new business isn’t just a reshuffling within a metro area. Plus why go through the hassle to relocate?

“Clearly anyone who is going through the bother is because their quality of life is better or their business is more productive because it can serve a larger trade area.”

Back at Jim Reed Books in downtown Birmingham, Reed says large business have nothing to worry about from the northern beltline. But he fears small time shop owners like him could slip through the cracks.

“Isn’t there a way we can do a beltline and still keep all the little guys? I don’t know the answer and I sure nobody else does either or they would have figured it out but, what is that line from ‘Death of a Salesman?’ ‘Attention must be paid.'”

It seems overall, a northern beltline does not mean the death of a downtown. But individual mileage may vary.


Andrew Yeager