Even the best facelift can be diminished by an ugly scar. That is what the city of Birmingham was dealing with in recent years, as a surge in downtown development took place all around a four-block-long eyesore known disparagingly as The Cut.
Central Birmingham is experiencing a widespread renovation not seen in more than a half-century, from the creation of the Railroad Park greenspace on the western edge of the city center to the revitalization of the historic Avondale neighborhood in the east to the establishment of the Uptown and Second Avenue North entertainment districts.
But in the middle of it all sat The Cut, a long-abandoned rail bed that ran underneath the bridges connecting Birmingham’s north and south sides. Weeds and trash regularly filled the gulley, and hard rain routinely provoked flooding. Most of the buildings on either side of the trench were abandoned or in a state of disrepair.
“We have all these amazing things happening around Birmingham, but to get to any of them you always had to go by this place of blight at the heart of our city, ” says architect and community planner Cheryl Morgan, former director of the Auburn Urban Studio and a member of the Birmingham Rotary Club. “It was like this stain in what’s becoming a dynamic tapestry of development.”
That is no longer the case, as The Cut has been transformed into a half-mile linear park called the Rotary Trail, which opened in April after two years of planning and construction. Funds for the $3.5 million project were raised primarily by the Rotary Club of Birmingham, which had been looking for a legacy project to help celebrate its 100th anniversary, she says.
“We wanted a high-visibility project that continued the momentum of all the other good things that are happening in Birmingham, ” Morgan says. “We wanted something that everyone could enjoy, that would create the potential for economic impact and would enhance the environment. This was a way to eliminate one of the most visible pieces of residual disinvestment in the city.”
ABOVE AND BELOW What started as a tapestry of blight has been transformed into a half-mile linear park that has greatly upgraded the urban landscape. Photos courtesy of Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood
Montgomery-based architecture and engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood led the project. Even before work began on the trail, the team needed to solve the drainage problem within The Cut, says GMC Regional Marketing Manager Brian Carey.
“It was originally 22 feet deep at the lowest point, and there’s not very good natural drainage in that area, because of the soil. After heavy rains it would look like a narrow canal filled up with water, ” Carey says. “So we raised it six feet so the lowest point is now 16 feet, and there is a new drainage system that goes to the city’s storm sewers. So it won’t ever fill up with water.
“It’s designed to be able to take a heavy rain event and drain off quickly. We had a heavy rain not long after it opened and we did a tour at 7 a.m. the next day and it had already dried out. You could see where some pine straw had floated around a bit on the edges, but other than that it was totally fine.”
Before the development of the trail, the storm water run-off flowed directly into nearby Village Creek, carrying debris and other pollutants into the city’s water system. A new filtration system was put in place along the trail to solve the problem, earning the Governor’s Award for Water Conservationist of the Year at the 2015 Alabama Wildlife Federation meeting.
Another issue in the development of the Rotary Trail was the cramped size of the work site. The trail area is just 26 feet wide and when construction began the only access points were at either end of the four-block stretch at 20th Street and 24th Street South. Since then, stairways and ramps have been added at each of the three intersections in between, but access was very limited during the project.
“There was only so much equipment you could fit down there at one time coming from either end, ” Carey says. “How do you stage that and move things from one end to the other without getting in each other’s way? That was a big challenge for the construction crew.”
As for the design of the park, Carey says it was quickly determined that the aesthetics should honor Birmingham’s heritage. “We could have made it more modern with lots of lights, but we wanted to tie it into the history of the city, ” Carey says.
So at the 20th Street entrance there is a 46-foot-tall sign that reads, “Rotary Trail in the Magic City, ” an homage to the iconic “Birmingham the Magic City” sign that stood outside the old Terminal Station from 1926 to 1952. There are also railroad ties buried into the ground at either end of the trail along with steel structures at each intersection, a nod to Birmingham’s iron-making history.
The Rotary Trail is an important link in the long-envisioned 30-mile Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail that would extend from the western suburb of Bessemer all the way to Ruffner Mountain east of downtown. Several sections of the trail already exist, and the Rotary Trail connects directly to the Jones Valley Trail, which runs from 25th Street to 32nd Street near Sloss Furnace.
While the 30-mile trail will appeal primarily to serious hikers and cyclists, the Rotary Trail already is proving popular with downtown workers who simply want to get out of the office for a few minutes. It is common to see people in business attire walking the trail or eating lunch at one of the numerous benches and tables along the path. In turn, this increased activity has led to improvements being made to many of the buildings lining either side of the Rotary Trail, and new businesses are starting to move into the area.
“Even though it’s been open only since April, we can already see the benefits, ” Morgan says. “There have been properties that have been sold along the trail, and there have been really important cosmetic improvements to businesses that were already there.
“When we can encourage people to be out and about in our city as pedestrians and on bicycles, it’s good for business. It’s part of what helps the restaurants and cafés and bars and coffee shops thrive. Those are the ingredients of what we call quality of life, and that is significant and important for businesses to attract and retain the kind of employees they want. The Rotary Trail is an example that if we can provide good places for people to get out and about downtown, they’ll do it.”
Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance writer for Business Alabama.
Text by Cary Estes