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Sprucing Things Up on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

Will French takes a look at the success of Birmingham's downtown revitalization, which – in the absence of a waterfront – embraced its historic railroads, instead.
May 16, 2012, 8am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Like countless cities across the continent, Birmingham, Alabama is undergoing a downtown revitalization intended as much to transform vast tracts of public green space as to draw businesses to the core. But while such revitalization projects often take shape around a waterfront, Birmingham had no shoreline to turn to. Instead, its renewal was centered around its railroad tracks, built over 100 years ago and largely responsible for the city's early industrial prosperity.

Developed two years ago, Railroad Park spans 19 acres, and plays an important role in the city's plans to give its citizens "more green space per capita than any other city in the country," writes French. "The rail line has essentially been treated as a river, with downtown bridges passing over the tracks the way Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Lansing, Michigan, built bridges across their waterways."

Since the opening of the park, the city has seen a host of new and proposed projects crystallizing near downtown, including a minor league baseball stadium, a luxury residential complex, a multi-use community facility, and a new $70-million Westin Hotel.

"All this development stems from a park that once housed a warehouse and a brick-making facility," French points out. "Embracing the railroad seemed an odd choice at first, but making it a focal point of revitalization efforts-rather than burying it, as other cities had done-provided a clear path forward."

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Published on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 in Urban Land
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