City Walk BHAM lives on after World Games (with photo gallery)

Space under highway bridges is now a thriving connection to neighborhoods

One of the centerpieces for visitors to The World Games in Birmingham in July was City Walk BHAM, a 31-acre, 10-block project that connected neighborhoods via space below interstate bridges.

The mile-long area of walking paths, dog parks, skateboard parks, pickleball courts, children’s playgrounds and more was designed by Barge Design Solutions.

The World Games may be gone, but City Walk remains, and Chris Grace, vice president at Barge, offered some insight into City Walk’s creation and how the city can best care for it going forward.

Q. City Walk wasn’t built for the World Games, correct? The timing was just a coincidence.

A. Yes. This project really came about from a placemaking effort of REV Birmingham and David Fleming. REV had the foresight to understand that there was a higher purpose for the space under the bridge than just parking. Barge was hired by REV to undergo essentially a feasibility study to engage surrounding stakeholders and image the possibilities. The Alabama Department of Transportation picked up the effort as a part of the environmental justice due diligence. The concept addressed the “reconnection” of the central business district from the original interstate construction in the ‘60s. World Games was not even on the map when the concept was being developed, but excitement began to build once the event was announced and people began to understand the potential synergies.

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Q. Has this been done elsewhere? Were there models to look at?

A. The idea is not unique. Orlando has a similar project in design phase. New Orleans also has something similar focused on retail and entertainment. Both projects are much smaller in scale than City Walk BHAM and do not offer the scope of use that we have here. We are getting lots of inquiries as word spreads. We believe it is the largest of this type project in the nation at this time.

Q. Any idea why this isn’t done with more frequency in cities?

A. Funding for transportation infrastructure is limited and lacking across the country. In most cases it is really hard for a Department of Transportation to allocate funds for something like this when they have roads and bridges that need attention, too. The scale of the overall bridge replacement allowed an opportunity to squeeze in the funding for the initial construction. However, maintenance will also be a continual cost that most DOT’s/cities could not commit to undertake. In our case, all the stars aligned. The bridge project essentially shut down the Central Business District for two years, which incentivized the BJCC (Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex) to undergo a major renovation. Meanwhile, the city was also backing the construction of what is now Protective Stadium. The proximity of City Walk to the BJCC created an opportunity for the BJCC to somewhat “expand their territory.” The space creates opportunities for revenue generation through programming and vendor fees. The Federal Highway Administration would typically not allow that, but in our case revenue generation is allowed as long as those funds remain allocated to the maintenance of the space. So, we ended up with a vested programming and management entity in the BJCC. They have entered into an agreement with ALDOT to manage and maintain the space, which gives them an additional 31 acres of contiguous venue space. I’m not sure that the project could have happened if all of this energy did not exist in the CBD (Central Business District).

Q. Research even included what plants might work best in this environment, correct?

A. Our landscape architects did extensive research on solar influence along the Southern edges of the bridge to see what sunlight was available from season to season. They also sought out local expertise from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for indigenous species that would work well as understory and full-light options. The plant palette is very diverse and adds so much to the ground plane to make it warm and welcoming. The flowering trees were in full bloom when planted, but it was hard to see them due to the construction fences and equipment. I’m excited to see the full palette on display this spring.

Chris Grace of Barge Design Solutions.

Q. Do you have a favorite spot at City Walk?

A. That’s a hard question. I love the space between 15th and 16th on the far west because you have the view shed of the Civil Rights National Monument and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Our civil rights legacy is what most people think of when you speak of Birmingham. Our designers used elements of the plaza around the museum and Kelly Ingram Park in the hardscape of this space. So, you can see and remember the history of the city while standing in the middle of a modern space where people of all races and cultures can coexist with common purpose. I look forward to seeing how this area develops.

I also really like the space from 19th to 21st right in front of the BJCC. The elevated room coming off the Museum of Art’s garden walk gives a great perspective of the scale of the project. You literally cannot see from one end to the other. That is the major connection point from south to north in the CBD.

Q.  How difficult will it be to keep up City Walk?

A. Maintenance is a serious concern. Having BJCC as management and maintenance partner is a win-win for everyone. They are vested as a matter of proximity and they know what works and what does not. There will certainly be a learning curve on how best to program the space, but flexibility is built into much of the space so that areas can change as needs dictate.

Security was another major concern. A state-of-the-art camera system was installed as a part of the initial construction so that the space can be monitored 24/7.  

Q. A lot of us think of this as a World Games project, but it’s more than that, right? What does this mean for Birmingham’s Central Business District, do you think?

A. Correct. If COVID had not delayed World Games by a year the opportunity would have been lost. All activities were originally planned to take place at Railroad Park. So, if you look at what has happened in what we now call the Parkside district, we think the same potential exists here on an even larger scale. As some of the residential projects come online in the immediate area, we envision that the space will become surrounded by food and beverage, retail and additional entertainment venues. We hope that the project lives up to the goal stated in the tag line of “Where Birmingham Connects.”

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