About 10 seconds before standing in front of a microphone in March to announce a $100 million housing development deal in Birmingham, Cornell Wesley was told something that made his heart drop.
“I didn’t know it was record-setting until right before I touched the mic that day,” says Wesley, Birmingham’s chief economic developer as director of the Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity. “Imagine the emotion I’m feeling then. It was heavy.”
The record? The $100 million transaction, the city says, is the largest economic development led by an all-Black team in the city’s history.
“This is a great day for the city of Birmingham,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said at the time. “Not only because of the jobs, the homes and the economic impact, but because of the history that is being made.”
The city sold about 222 acres of land near Lakeshore Parkway to Green Meadow Apartments LLC for $1.5 million. Green Meadow Apartments’ multi-phased project will involve the development of single family, multi-family and senior housing, which will include an estimated 900 residents and a commercial town center. Total investment in the project — which Green Meadow says will generate 240 permanent jobs and another 2,000 construction jobs — is expected to be $100 million.
Green Meadow Apartments LLC has deep Alabama ties, including Michael German, the CEO who is the former Alabama representative for HUD and splits his time between Birmingham and Atlanta.
It was his job at HUD that brought the Montgomery native back to his home state.
“The Realtor showed me a lot of places to live, but she didn’t show me downtown,” German recalls. “But because of my work, I knew what the trends were, so I ended up living downtown. I knew the importance of doing some projects to stabilize downtown Birmingham.”
So after becoming Georgia’s HUD director and retiring from HUD in 2020, German and his partners began looking for the perfect Birmingham project. They found it in Green Meadow.
“It’s a major one,” German says of the development. “Things that happen where I am here in Atlanta that size, it’s routine, but not in Birmingham. This one is over $100 million in development. There’s never been an opportunity for a minority company to do something like this in Birmingham. … We knew we had the capabilities, the finances and the experience. Everything else just came along after that.”
German’s team includes Green Meadow President Ronnie Underwood, Vice President Eric Calhoun and Omar Harvill. The significance of the makeup of the Green Meadow team is not lost on German.
“In a city like Birmingham, you’ve got to be proud, to be a part of it, to be a contributor to something like this,” he says. “I think we need to give a lot of credit to the mayor, his love for the city and the imprint I know he’s making. It’s going to be his legacy. We want to be a part of that legacy.”
And while German says he’s proud of his team, he says they will partner with many others as Green Meadow progresses, and not just minority-owned companies. “It will be a mix of partners,” he says.
Wesley says the development itself, aside from the makeup of the executive team, is historic for the City of Birmingham.
“It will generate amazing property taxes that will benefit our city and our ability to put services back in our community,” he says. “You’re talking about a whole ecosystem of live, work and play that includes meeting spots, childcare, a community center. You’re going to have different incomes colliding in the same space that other times wouldn’t take place …. It’s an amazing development that I think will serve as a model for the entire country.”
Wesley says the project will be completed in five phases, beginning sometime in the fall. “The first 80 homes will only take about 18-21 months, and then they’ll move on to Phase 2,” he says. “Well over 3,000 homes, including 900 for workforce housing, will be built in eight to 10 years.”
Wesley says that past Birmingham administrations helped lay the groundwork for Woodfin to be “very intentional” about providing equitable access to opportunities.
“Arrington, Kincaid, Langford, Bell — each of them has contributed and led to the opportunities we can implement now,” he says. “We are reaping the benefits of groundwork that previous administrations have done. This is the perfect storm of opportunities.”
And it’s just the beginning, Wesley says.
“I believe we’ll break that record this year, maybe several times,” he says. “I also believe there will be a heightened interest across the country to give people opportunities. There are talented minority developers all over who are capable and have the appropriate credentials to do this level of a deal. These other cities are going to want their own stories to tell. That’s good for us all.”
German agrees, and he says that Green Meadow is going to add to a lot that’s already going on in Birmingham.
“Personally, I looked at Birmingham as a Renaissance city in the making, with the World Games, Uptown, Topgolf, Railroad Park and neighborhood revitalization,” he says. “To me, Protective Stadium mirrored major cities like Charlotte, Dallas and Nashville with downtown stadiums. While living downtown I experienced culture and safety. Birmingham and Five Points West are getting attention with cleanup and investment. Our development can spur further growth. It’s not hard to reimagine Birmingham as the Magic City.”
And it’s not hard for German to think about his first year in Birmingham and how things have changed.
“The first time I went to the mayor’s soiree during the Magic City Classic, I called my wife, who was in Atlanta, and said, ‘This looks like New York.’ It felt like New York City with everyone together, walking around and enjoying the festivities,” he says. “After the game, though, everybody left the downtown area. What I saw in my mind was, what do we do to make them want to stay in Birmingham?”
The answer just may be Green Meadow.
“I think this will go a long way in doing that,” he says.
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama.
This story appeared originally in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.