Take a walk or drive around downtown Birmingham, and you probably will find yourself right smack dab in the middle of what Robert Simon and his cohorts at Corporate Realty refer to as “the ripple.”
“Think of what happens when you throw a stone into the middle of a pond,” says Simon, the company’s president and CEO.
In Simon’s world, the pond is Railroad Park. Corporate Realty (along with “a bunch of other people,” Simon is quick to say) helped transform 19 acres of old buildings and vacant land into the vibrant green space it is today.
And then the ripple started. Retail and residential space began building up in the area, followed by an expansion of Children’s of Alabama.
Next came the 2013 opening of Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons, followed by more redevelopment in what had become known as the Parkside area. That includes hotels, restaurants, the Red Mountain Theatre campus and Bakers Row, the former Merita Bakery building now occupied by Corporate Realty and KPS Group.
But the ripple doesn’t stop there.
Protective Stadium and the newly renovated Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center opened in October, and now Simon and Corporate Realty find themselves leading two other major Birmingham redevelopment efforts — the Carraway Hospital redevelopment called The Star Uptown and the redevelopment of Birmingham’s Southtown public housing.
“I look at things I can do to further Birmingham’s competitiveness with other cities,” he says. “I want to see Birmingham compete. If you don’t compete, you get left behind.”
‘A WILD RIDE’
Simon, who grew up in Mountain Brook, initially went into the family business.
“My family on both sides were in the meat business,” he says. “My grandfather and I put together a plan to expand, and we doubled the size of the company in about three years.”
But with his future in that business unsure, real estate came calling in the face of Tom Hinton, who had redeveloped Cobb Lane and was just getting started on Highland Plaza.
“He said, ‘We need somebody to sell, and you can sell ice to Eskimos,’” recalls Simon, who went to the University of Alabama. “That’s how I got into real estate.”
Simon learned residential sales from Hinton and later worked with Jim Wilson and Associates and Mike Thompson at Fairway Investments.
“I just kind of kept going with it, and it has been a wild ride,” Simon says. “I’ve been at this awhile, and I took baby steps along the way.”
IF YOU BUILD IT …
Those baby steps led Simon in 1999 to start Corporate Realty, a three-pronged company that specializes in brokerage, management and development.
Along the way, he found his niche, redeveloping urban areas with what he calls “responsible development.”
That niche came into focus as he participated in regional trips with the Birmingham Innovation Group (BIG), a group of city and county leaders put together by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, since superseded by the seven-county Birmingham Business Alliance.
“It was great for me, because it was the only place that I had seen where I could have the city leadership and the county leadership in the same place at the same time,” he says. “Whatever I was working on, I had a pretty good audience to talk to.”
And those trips — Nashville, Pittsburgh, Denver, Austin, Charlotte — gave Simon ideas he’d later build upon in Birmingham.
“A lot of what I’ve done, the inspiration for what I’ve done and where I’ve taken my company, are not new ideas,” he says. “I picked them up somewhere else and said, ‘We can do that in Birmingham.’”
Take Denver, for instance. On a BIG trip to the Mile-High City, Simon and his group saw a blighted area that had been rejuvenated by a greenspace and nearby baseball stadium.
Sound familiar? “Coors Field was right up the street, and we have Regions Field,” Simon says. “This was our take on it.”
It wasn’t easy, he says. Eventually, it took a commitment from Don Logan, who owned the Barons, and UAB, which owned the bulk of the land, to make Regions Park happen.
“This ballpark is the result of a lot of work,” Simon says.
And its impact has exceeded expectations.
“An economic impact analysis said that if we built the baseball stadium, in 20 years we’d have a billion dollars’ worth of development in the area,” Simon says. “We have a billion dollars of development in the area in seven years.”
Because of his work with Regions Field, Simon was called into action when Protective Stadium became a possibility.
“I guess I’m the stadium guy here in Birmingham,” he says with a smile.
Simon was among those who not only brought UAB football back but came through with the stadium where the Blazers will play. “A lot of other people helped get that deal done, too,” he says.
RIPPLE TO THE NORTH, SOUTH
Just past the new stadium to the north stands Carraway Hospital, or the remnants of Carraway Hospital, which closed in 2006.
“I’m looking over there thinking Carraway is a disaster; it’s a mess,” Simon says. “We’ve pursued it for four-and-a-half years, and now we own it.”
And Corporate Realty has big plans for it, including housing, retail and a 9,500-seat amphitheater.
All of it will help rejuvenate a long-neglected area, says Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.
“We are fortunate in Birmingham to have local developers with a track record for putting together visionary projects that breathe new life into an area, and Carraway is another example of that,” he says. “Corporate Realty’s plans will remove blight from the site, bring new amenities to nearby residents and spark additional investment in the neighborhoods north of downtown.”
The Star Uptown will include affordable workplace and market-place housing, much of it in the renovated hospital building, which won’t be torn down.
“We’re thrilled to bring affordable housing to first responders, schoolteachers and others who want to be closer to their jobs,” Simon says.
And it’s happening now. Clearing is underway, and demolition of some buildings should begin by the end of the year.
When it’s finished, within a few blocks you’ll find a new residential area, newly redone arena, new football stadium, newly renovated BJCC and the Star Uptown’s amphitheater.
“All of this ties back into economic development,” Simon says. “We’re trying to make ourselves appealing to corporations who want to move here. UAB is our driver, and we need to embrace that and understand it.”
UAB is a key player in yet another ripple — the redevelopment of Birmingham’s Southtown public housing, which sits on the side of the UAB campus.
“Southtown has been there since 1947,” Simon says of the 24 acres. “It’s a federal housing project, and all of this stuff, including Southern Research and UAB, have built up around it. As Birmingham has grown, it has sat at the front door of what is now the economic engine of the city. Having said that, there’s a lot of respect and compassion for the people who live there and grew up there.”
The area will be rebranded as Edgehill. It has been rezoned to mixed-use and will become an area of affordable and market-rate housing units, retail and hotels, as well as greenspaces and bike lanes.
“Between Edgehill and Northtown, you have two bookend projects that I think are going to transform the city,” Simon says. “People talk about gentrification. I talk about growth. I think you can have it all.”
A GROUP EFFORT
Like the ripples that came out of Railroad Park, Simon doesn’t plan to do it alone.
“Just because I’m the messenger doesn’t mean I’m going to do it all,” he says. “I’m going to build a spine, and others are going to build on that.”
And in the end, Simon hopes he and his company are mentioned with others who have put their stamp on Birmingham, including, among others, John Lauriello of Southpace, who helped transform Second Avenue North; Cathy Sloss Crenshaw, who has been at the forefront of the redevelopment of Lakeview; and the Jemison family, so integral to the development of Birmingham over the decades.
“I hope I’m mentioned with them in terms of being a visionary and doing things that people didn’t think we could get done,” Simon says. “I want to be known as someone who saw Birmingham as an opportunity when other people didn’t see it as an opportunity.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Cary Norton is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Birmingham.
This article appears in the November 2021 issue.