David Sher’s ComebackTown giving voice to the people of Birmingham & Alabama.
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Today’s guest columnist is Libby Lasseter.
My family moved to Birmingham from Chicago in 2005.
We went from a booming metropolis of ten million people to a quiet city one-tenth its’ size.
To say there was a vibrant energy in Chicago would be an understatement; the fun, the food, the professional sports, and the entertainment (plus a booming economy) were things taken for granted. There were, however, some drawbacks to Chicago life. We had to plan most activities well in advance because of the competition with our millions of neighbors. To enjoy outdoor athletics or grab a taxi could be a huge undertaking with the wind, snow and, freezing winter temperatures that abounded.
After seven years facing the many challenges of constant business travel, harsh weather, and attempting to rear our young daughter in a vertical building, my husband and I concluded that we needed breathing room. Opportunity knocked with Bayer Properties and in 2005 I came southward to meet the team and experience the Magic City for the first time.
Jeffrey Bayer, company president and Birmingham advocate, picked me up at the airport and toured me around the charming villages, neighborhoods, and unique niches of Birmingham. The open space, fresh air, green areas, and abundant trees were so appealing I could easily visualize our family in this picturesque place.
The job opportunity with Bayer was attractive- the leadership diverse and visionary, the Summit and Bayer’s development projects were cutting edge. I felt like this was a place where I would fit in and make a positive impact.
Those first years were about discovering Birmingham, acclimating, and trying to slow down a bit from our big city lifestyle. At the time of our move, Birmingham was experiencing several political and financial scandals – The Scrushy/HealthSouth, Jeffco Sewer, and Larry Langford trials dominated the news. The city was under a mounting dark cloud, a growing cloud with this turmoil. The result – a slower economy with almost zero job growth.
The lack of energy in downtown Birmingham was apparent to us almost immediately. Looking back on that original tour with Jeffrey, I realized he had intentionally left out that part of Birmingham, and as an adept tour guide myself, I didn’t blame him. Where was the magic in this Magic City?
When the recession of 2008 came, the commercial real estate sector was hit especially hard. Personally, that recession was my path to becoming a “local” and embracing Birmingham. With new company projects shelved, my travel came to a screeching halt. I had time to commit to community service through church as well as invest more of my energies in local business networking.
In 2010 a confluence of things occurred: vision, investment, and infrastructure came together to kick start renewal. Those resources fused as Railroad Park came to fruition. The power of a well-designed park is amazing, and this green space provided a new and beautiful engine that quietly gained steam and spurred new investment. Birmingham was finally ready for its renaissance capitalizing on a nationwide trend that had already taken place in many other cities.
The Benjamin Russell Children’s Hospital of UAB opened in 2012; following that event three more venues succeeded with 2013 openings: Regions Ballpark, Good People Brewery across 14th Street, plus Uptown at the BJCC.
Many over-the-mountain residents said they would not come back downtown because it was too dangerous or too hard to park, but people, especially young people, did come, forging a new energy. Sloss Furnaces, along with other venues, capitalized on the success of Railroad Park, and they, in turn, were successful.
Many of Birmingham’s downtown historical buildings were transformed into residential lofts and hip offices (including our beloved project, The Pizitz.) Call me a sceptic, but before all this investment in downtown occurred, I could not imagine how we could bring The Pizitz back to life. Bayer pressed forward by transforming that landmark in 2016 into a mixed-use center with residential space, shared (co-working) office, a food hall (Alabama’s first!), and the Sidewalk Cinema.
The Rotary Trail also came in 2016, and that short-half mile was another turning point for downtown, introducing greenway connectivity. The dreams of a trail system linking our parks began to take shape. Soon breweries appeared on streets surrounding the trail. The area around Railroad Park became Parkside, drawing apartment developers. Retail soon followed with the opening of Publix to meet the demands of the new urban residents.
UAB made significant investments in its campus by creating green spaces for a more pedestrian-friendly environment as many older buildings were redeveloped. People finally wanted to live or work in or around these in-town havens. The Parkside district, UAB, the Trail, and ultimately downtown became popular.
Flight back to the city occurred as empty nesters left their suburban homes, downsizing to get their taste of a new urban lifestyle, living in concert with a burgeoning population of millennials. Why not? They could experience great chef-driven restaurants, breweries, arts & culture, and parks – all in a walkable, urban environment proximate to the largest employers and start-ups.
Design talent blossomed in Birmingham; architects and students came back to the city or arrived here for the first time desiring a role in what was happening. Birmingham was a bit late catching the wave of urban revitalization, but that also meant we held onto preservation, keeping the character and charm of our historical buildings. This was especially appealing to creatives.
For me, the tipping point was in early 2017 just after Pizitz opened. That’s when I was convinced that downtown Birmingham was making a big comeback. The Bayer team naturally matured in the way we showcased our city to visitors from larger markets such as Atlanta, New York, Dallas, and Chicago. Instead of avoiding downtown, we embraced it showing off and surprising our guests with all Birmingham now had to offer.
It is not so obvious to outsiders (and maybe some insiders) what’s happened here. Many of the losses from our banking era are being replaced with new businesses like Shipt, the recently announced Landing, and tech companies spawned at Innovation Depot. And not just business, but cultures are coming together in our downtown as diversity is being embraced.
Our restaurant scene continues to explode with creative chefs and innovative gathering places. Each of these successes leads to another announcement and each plays a major role in attracting new business and talent to downtown Birmingham. This newly forged energy and culture in our downtown will gravitate to areas that surround it, spreading that energy and investment into long-forgotten buildings and districts.
And the future looks even brighter with Protective Stadium soon to open, Innovation Depot and EdFarm thriving, and the SWITCH Tech District in the works. These will bring yet another sector of our downtown back to life. Thousands of apartments are under construction while more classic buildings are being repurposed, and extensions of the trails are underway for even greater neighborhood connectivity. All this culminates with Birmingham hosting the World Games in 2022.
It may be unexpected, but Birmingham’s coming out of the pandemic stronger than ever. There is much magic in the Magic City today – and this renaissance started with a park!
Libby Lassiter is President of the Birmingham–based commercial real estate firm Bayer Properties. With over 30 years of experience in major cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, Lassiter is a trailblazer in the CRE industry, where less than 10% of the C-suite positions are held by females. For more than 15 years, she has worked at Bayer leading retail leasing and development initiatives across its now 20-property, 9 Million Square Foot portfolio which includes The Summit and The Pizitz in Birmingham.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).