The Abnormal, the Social House and the All So Human

The Woolworth

Just as the virus crisis “new normal” is Orwellian new speak for “abnormal,” social distancing has been a 180-degree tongue swallowing for modern urban real estate development.

The urban dictionary term “social house” is meant to define the hip hangout hubs of the modern urban landscape — the very kind of places it has been the mission of certain real estate firms to develop, people like Hunter Renfroe and John Boone, the partners in Birmingham-based Orchestra Partners.

Orchestra has developed or participated in development of nine projects in four historic neighborhoods of downtown Birmingham: Five Points South, Avondale, Morris Avenue and the Parkside District.

Five Points South, one of the most historic neighborhoods in Birmingham, connecting downtown to affluent suburbs, was one of the first areas of focus for Orchestra Partners “to create experiences that increase visitor foot traffic with a mix of retail and entertainment spots,” as the developers’ website describes it.

The Woolworth, on 20th Street in Five Points South, is the epitome of the “social house” concept — featuring recreations like foosball, tabletop shuffleboard, ping pong, bumper pool, darts, eight lanes of duckpin bowling, one of the longest bars in the city, with top notch food and drinks, and a roof deck.

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“What Five Points needed was a place for people to come and spend an afternoon or an evening or a day on the weekend,” says Hunter Renfroe. “The Woolworth was also the flagship business that we ran ourselves — with a big outdoor component and spaces for people to linger that don’t rely on packing people into a small room, a place that can leverage outdoor space and give people the open space to be in public but also with some social distancing.”

Besides being the essence of Orchestra Partners’ “mission-driven” business of developing a new kind of space in downtown Birmingham, The Woolworth is also a direct target of the virus crisis.

Hunter Renfroe

“Absolutely. The effects of the virus are in contradiction to our philosophy. It’s unfortunate and bad timing,” says Renfroe, whose company is also an ownership partner in several bars and restaurants that are tenants in their nine downtown Birmingham projects. None of the retail tenants in those projects has had to close permanently, says Renfroe, but they are at the mercy of the economic lockdown.

Still, “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. It doesn’t change the fundamental basis of our philosophy,” says Renfroe. “There will be more residual effects when it comes to those city centers that directly experience the more negative effects — New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.”

Such cities “had already experienced some of the negative preemptives of crowding,” especially the high cost of living, says Renfroe. And the current crisis could be “a source of the population moving to urban centers that are more livable.”

That movement, he says, had already seen population shifts, especially among young urban dwellers, from the big cities to second tier cities such as Nashville. “We haven’t seen a watershed of movement to tertiary cities such a Birmingham, but we were beginning to see that, and, in three to five years, there could be lot more movement to smaller cities, even with the effects of the virus crisis.”

“There will be some things that will be permanently changed. That’s realistic,” says Renfroe, but those are on the level of “operational adjustments” and welcome improvements in hygiene. “But permanent change comes from a change in beliefs. People behave based on the way they believe, and there are habits that can’t be retrained.”

Don’t expect a change in what is humanly abnormal, even if you call it “new normal,” says Renfroe. “The basic demand — people wanting to be around each other, the desire to be close to each other — is a genetic, intrinsic thing, and that is not going to change.”

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