Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photos by Beau Gustafson
Darrell O’Quinn is a vet. He has a wife, Kristina, and two kids, Aine and Jacques. He loves bicycles and the color blue. Fifteen years ago, he and Kristina moved to Birmingham from Louisiana for O’Quinn to complete specialty training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and to earn his PhD in pathology.
O’Quinn is mostly just a normal dude—in fact, he calls himself “an average white guy.” When he and Kristina came to Birmingham, they were just moving cities. But upon arriving and buying their first home in Crestwood, they found something extraordinary. “We spent months with a real estate agent who was determined to find us a place over the mountain, outside the city limits of Birmingham. I stopped counting after the 75th house we toured. I’m sure we looked at least 100. Then one weekend we grabbed the classifieds and headed to Crestwood to check out some open houses. Boom! Third house we looked at—we knew we had finally found the right place,” O’Quinn says. “But we would soon discover that we had also found a community of friends, too. Even before we closed on the house, we had met several neighbors and been invited into their homes. Over the next few years, we got to know a lot of folks and became an active part of the community.”
It’s this first brush with the authenticity of neighborhood camaraderie that lit a fire in O’Quinn. “In a nutshell, moving to Crestwood awoke in me a love for community. I don’t think I really understood what the word meant beforehand. My neighborhood opened my eyes to what real community is and feels like,” he shares. And this fire compelled him. He and his neighbors started a community produce cooperative for which O’Quinn wrote a community e-newsletter, called the Ultra-Local News, every two weeks for a couple of years. He is the president of the Crestwood North Neighborhood Association, the Crestwood Community Advisory Committee, and the Citizens Advisory Board and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. And in October of last year, O’Quinn (along with a handful of other residents) filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration over the plans for the repair and replacement of the Interstate 20/59 bridges in downtown Birmingham.
How does a normal guy—a vet, of all people—go from believing in community potlucks to spending every day leading a cause that many believe will truly transform the city? Well, as it tends to happen, one thing led to another. Over the past decade or so, O’Quinn’s dedication to—and belief in—his community has grown deeper as he’s continued to contribute to it. In this case, he saw a need—change for the interstate that cuts through downtown Birmingham—and chose to fulfill it.
More than 40 years old, the I-20/59 bridges have long been in disrepair, and the problem has only gotten worse as traffic in Birmingham has increased. The bridges were designed to manage 80,000 vehicles a day; current traffic is double that number and estimated at 225,000 vehicles per day by 2035. Anyone who has driven the bridges can agree that something should change by then. O’Quinn agrees, too. And since somebody had to lead the campaign, he figured he was as good as the next average guy, so he went for it. The official group is called Move I-20/59, which grew out of a committee of YMBC Civic Forum, a decades-old civic club that meets at the Harbert Center. O’Quinn is the executive director (this became possible after he was laid off from his full-time research job at UAB due to lack of funding, but he does still do part-time work there and as a vet for the Animal Resources Program.) “Early on, the group recognized that we were not going to make significant progress until someone made it their job to work on this effort full time. Organizing opposition to one of the most powerful agencies in the state is not something that can be accomplished in one’s spare time,” O’Quinn explains. “I tracked down leads and convinced eight plaintiffs from the immediately affected neighborhoods to join the suit, including City Council president Johnathan Austin and the then-president of the Birmingham Board of Education, Randall Woodfin. Both live downtown in the Central City neighborhood. I act as the official media spokesperson for the effort and present to groups seeking to learn more about the issue. A lot of my effort has been focused on the nuts and bolts of establishing a functioning organization.”
Move I-20/59’s biggest goal is to persuade ALDOT to reconsider their current plan, a $450 million proposal to replace the bridges. Move I-20/59 and its supporters, including a loosely organized group of citizens called Rethink 20/59, insist that not only did ALDOT not consider the full repercussions of their plan, but they also didn’t seriously consider any alternatives. “They have not given alternatives serious, in-depth consideration. And with regard to promoting economic development, revitalization, and growth, they have not allowed those factors to enter their analysis at all,” O’Quinn explains.
Per the lawsuit, this failure to consider alternatives to find the best plan for the city by examining economic and environmental factors violates the National Environmental Policy Act* (NEPA) (at press time, no response to the lawsuit had been issued by ALDOT and FHWA.) The lawsuit** claims that “NEPA regulations require the analysis of different categories of impact in an [environment assessment], including direct, indirect, and cumulative impact. Instead of complying with the Act, ALDOT completed a facially insufficient 12-page ‘check the box’ job…. There is no evidence that ALDOT gave any of the negative impacts which have been raised the full ‘hard look’ as required by NEPA regulations.”
“With ALDOT, the lawsuit was inevitable,” O’Quinn says. “Not only was it the only remaining legal course of action for us, but it is historically the only means by which the organization has been made to comply with the law. We’re talking about an organization that worked with law enforcement to ensure cheap prison labor to build roads. They have a significant list of prior offenses that puts them at the very bottom of the list of progressive institutions.”
Move I-20/59 does recognize that the bridges need to be repaired—and soon. They are proposing that the necessary immediate repairs be done to buy time for an appropriate course of action to be determined, O’Quinn says. “There are many that believe that it would be prudent to redeck and/or otherwise stabilize the current structure to allow time for a true hard look at how ALDOT’s proposed plan will impact the city’s future. In an interview on WBHM in August, [ALDOT Director] John Cooper stated that it was not his place to make such considerations. We disagree,” O’Quinn says. “The citizens of Birmingham and taxpayers in general deserve to have a reasonable level of confidence that transportation investments, especially those of this scale, will not cause additional harm. And furthermore, the NEPA requires this type of analysis. We want ALDOT to do the necessary repairs as soon as possible. Our primary objective is preventing ALDOT from making the bad even worse. If this project proceeds as planned, the city will have to bear the consequences for the next 50 years at a minimum and 70 years is more likely. That context warrants an extremely thorough analysis of potential outcomes.”
So why are the bridges downtown a bad idea? Besides the fact that they’re not equipped to handle the ever-increasing traffic flow, which makes driving them inefficient and dangerous (there has been an accident on them every other day for the last four years, according to Move I-20/59), they seriously dampen the heart of downtown. “In general, elevated highways produce what’s called a ‘border vacuum’ because they decrease adjacent investment and property values. Like elsewhere, that’s also been shown to be true here in Birmingham,” O’Quinn says. “But that is a less important consideration than the fact that the elevated highway is an obstacle to placemaking and connectivity. For most people who can imagine the space without the highway, it is easy to envision a greater synergy between all of the cultural, entertainment, and other assets located along the corridor.” In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs explain that the interstate leaves “traffic roaring just a few feet from the Birmingham Art Museum, Boutwell Auditorium, Jefferson County Criminal Justice Center and the Alabama School of Fine Arts on one side…the Sheraton Inn, the Westin Hotel, and the new Uptown entertainment district on the other.”
O’Quinn says that Move I-20/59 isn’t proposing any particular alternative—they simply want proper protocol to be followed (and they are certain that, if it is, it will become clear that ALDOT’s plan is not the best one for Birmingham.) “There simply isn’t enough information available for us or anyone else to make a well informed choice,” says O’Quinn. After ALDOT responds to the lawsuit, Move I-20/59 hopes the judge will ultimately halt the project until NEPA requirements have been met. They’re also working from other angles, as well. “On the organizing side, we are assembling support within the business and residential communities with the aim of convincing Mayor Bell that this matter deserves additional consideration,” he explains. “The mayor has the authority to stop the project. However, that would of course be a big deal and he needs to know that he has the community’s support before doing something of that magnitude. We’re also working at the federal level to obtain assistance from Congressional leaders and the Federal DOT. There are other parts in the middle, but the bottom up and top down components offer the most potential to be effective in the political arena.”
For O’Quinn, the driving force is simple: a better Birmingham with a stronger, deeper sense of community, just like the kind he first experienced after moving to Birmingham all those years ago. He says his position is less of a 9-to-5 gig and more of a lifestyle—much of his time is devoted to meeting with people and explaining why they should care about this. “I could not fathom a hope of effecting this issue alone. My confidence comes from the great number people who share this concern. I, along with a tremendous amount of help from others, am simply attempting to give a voice to those concerns. The thing that keeps me going is a strong belief in a vision for a better Birmingham. I know Birmingham could achieve a new level of growth if we can find a better solution for I-20/59. It’s a vision that a great number of people who live and/or work in Birmingham also recognize,” O’Quinn says.
“It would be transformative for neighborhoods such as Fountain Heights and Druid Hills. It also has the potential to be transformative for the city as a whole,” he continues. “A space that creates greater connectivity between Uptown and the Civil Rights District, between the BJCC and the BMA, between ASFA and the residential area to the north, between a potential new football stadium and the Tutwiler and Redmont hotels—that vision is inspiring and worth fighting for.”