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Birmingham is bouncing back, and historical preservation plays a big role

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The Magic City has seen great rewards from targeted investment and taking advantage of its own history.

With the current clamor for cool office space in historic buildings, the Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, is a ‘20s relic that any city would be proud to have. It’s also an opportunity that isn’t cheap. Restoring the ornate terra-cotta facade and transforming the former cornerstone of a bustling commercial corridor into what planners would consider an exemplary example of modern, mixed-use urbanism—residential space, apartments, modern offices and even a multi-use food hall with a food incubator for new chefs and businesses—will run upwards of $70 million dollars, according to David Silverstein, Principal at Bayer Properties, the lead developer.

This restored flagship is indicative of a new spirit in Birmingham that wasn't there even five years ago. According to Brian Hilson, President and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance, a once ignored downtown now has roughly 8,000 residents and counting, as well as a number of extensive developments near completion or in the works. A city that was once mostly known for industry still has plenty of big firms and factories (both Mercedes-Benz and Honda, and a web of related suppliers, are big regional employers). But now, Birmingham also has a world-famous tech hub, the Innovation Depot startup space, a research hub in the University Alabama-Birmingham campus, and a repurposed railyard-turned-urban park.

The shifts of the last decade have meant Birmingham has seen a 58 percent increase downtown among 24-35 year olds between 2010 and 2014, a rate more than triple the national average. These millennials are making real estate deals, too, perhaps one of the end goals of a concerted effort to redevelop the city's core.

"The attitude shift, it’s like flipping a switch," says David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham, an organization that promotes development in the city, including a focus on downtown. "It’s a huge change, especially with the younger generation."

Sometimes called the "Pittsburgh of the South," Birmingham has always been a regional economic power, despite a reputation for being wedded to factories and commodities, such as iron. The 50th largest metro region in the country, the surrounding area is responsible for a third of the state’s GDP. But it didn’t seem nearly as influential back in 2011, when the surrounding Jefferson County declared a massive $4.2 billion bankruptcy.

Despite the challenges, a unified development plan, Blueprint Birmingham, as well as targeted investments, have helped the city and region bounce back. Part of the resurgence of downtown has resulted from the work of organizations such as REV Birmingham and others, who have pushed to support local businesses, and develop vacant spaces in the city’s downtown.

But another key aspect of the shift, and why projects like the Pizitz redevelopment are so exciting, is due to a commitment to preservation and history.

"One of the great things about Birmingham not being as strong, economically, during the recent past is that they didn’t do a lot of wholesale demolition of our downtown character," says Fleming. "Organizations such as mine, and the predecessor groups that came together to form REV four years ago, have always made preservation a big part of our work. We want to bring in vibrancy by building vacant spaces and growing sustainable businesses."

Fleming said that the state’s historic tax credit has provided $240 million worth of development incentives over the last decade, and helped play a key role in turning around the historic downtown. A number of developments are currently taking advantage of credits and the city’s rich architectural heritage: Thomas Jefferson Towers, a hotel from 1929 with an elaborate ballroom that will re-open later this summer; the Empire Building, a $45 million project that will feature a pair of Marriott hotels and a restaurant; and the Powell Avenue Historical Plant, an iconic 1895 utility, complete with smoke stacks, slated to be converted into an entertainment destination.

This momentum was disrupted earlier this year, when the state legislature voted to suspend the tax credit at allow it to lapse. Currently, developers around the state, as well as leaders of the five biggest cities in the state, have been fighting to get it reinstated.

Part of this recent surge in development also centers around the city’s plan to create a National Civil Rights Park, utilizing the city’s important role in a defining human rights battle as a point of pride and catalyst for developing a traditionally underserved African-American community. A proposed $10 million Freedom Center would anchor a district that includes such landmarks as the A.G. Gaston Hotel.

"I think of downtown like a quilt," says Fleming. "The Civil Rights District near the 16th Street Baptist Church is seeing a lot of intentional effort to try and leverage the area into even more growth."

Things aren’t all rosy in the Magic City; poverty and the legacy of segregation have left the city with many serious challenges, including a poorly rated transit system and a struggling school system. But developers and boosters see a stabilized and growing downtown as an economic engine that can hopefully be leveraged to help the entire region.

"One of the challenge has been to activate the street to show there’s vibrancy downtown," says Fleming. "Now you’re seeing that on places such as Second Avenue. As someone who grew up in Birmingham, I’m more excited about our future than ever."