By Phillip Ratliff // Photography by Beau Gustafson
If you’re looking for an icon for what makes modern-day Lakeview likely to continue its success, look no further than its distinctive street lamps. Adorned with gargoyles and gaslight-sized globes, those lamps are actually a bit of modern-day theatrical flair, installed a couple of decades ago pick up on ornamental detail on nearby historic storefronts.
Combining historicity with modernity is the kind of approach developer Cathy Sloss Jones has been taking for over 30 years with Lakeview. The now thriving district abuts the foundry that her great-great-grandfather, James Withers Sloss, built in the 1880s. Lakeview grew up practically alongside the foundry that helped make Birmingham an industrial powerhouse. When Jones turned her attention to the district in 1986, many had written off Lakeview as a liability to the city, or, at best, a place to shunt off the detritus of urban activity. The Dr Pepper syrup plant had ceased operations about four years prior. Martin Biscuit building was being used as storage for hospital beds.
Jones saw the potential for a bustling district—Birmingham’s answer to Beale Street, Faneuil Hall, or the French Quarter. In 1986 she and five others formed the forerunner of the Lakeview Business Association and began transforming the blighted district into a haven for Birmingham’s creative class. In 1988, her company, Sloss Real Estate Company, purchased the Dr Pepper complex and positioned it as the hub of a commercial and entertainment district. And in 1991, Jones worked with city planners to help form the 36-block Lakeview Commercial Revitalization District, centered on 29th Street and Seventh Avenue South.
Today, Lakeview Business Association focuses on 400 businesses, including several design firms attracted to the district’s distinct atmospherics and 26 restaurants and nightspots that form their own integral entertainment destination. Various Pepper Place events bring in an additional 334,000 people to the district. Heavy hitters like Brasfield and Gorrie, St. Vincent’s, Sloss Real Estate, BBVA Compass, and American Osment form a cadre of dedicated patrons.
More recently, Lakeview has been swept up in a second wave of development and activity. At the crest of this wave is 29 Seven, home to Babalu, Hattie B’s, and Jimmy John’s. (Yes, Jimmy John’s. The Illinois-based chain illustrates that Lakeview is an eclectic place where chain fare peacefully coexists with trendy mid-priced restaurants like Slice and, at Pepper Place, critically acclaimed establishments like Bettola and Chris Hasting’s latest concept, OvenBird.)
The most substantial change is that 29 Seven is mixed use. In other words, there are now people living in Lakeview. The 29 Seven building, opened in 2012, contains 54 units, over 80 percent of which are occupied. Iron City Lofts, opened last year, has leased all but seven of its 70 units. Just a stone’s throw away, on Clairmont, the newly opened Park 35 has already hit 30 percent occupancy, leasing 35 of its 271 units in January alone. The 260-unit Metropolitan will open in summer 2017, on what has been described as Lakeview’s “million-dollar corner” at Seventh Avenue South and 29th Street. All boast luxury amenities—ranging from fitness centers and granite countertops to wood plank flooring—and even a dog wash.
There are striking similarities to Lakeview’s first rise, in the 1880s, when developers recognized the potential for a fashionable suburb for Birmingham elites along Highland and Clairmont avenues. The damming of natural springs gave Lakeview its lake (though there is some evidence that the name actually is borrowed from the tony Chicago neighborhood). Lakeview soon gained a lavish resort hotel, which housed a casino, bowling alley, ice-skating rink, swimming pool and dance floor, boathouses, several conservatories, and a baseball park. The response to the new resort was tremendous. Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison eventually visited the hotel. Alabama and Auburn played their first football game there in 1893.
Competition from nearby East Lake Resort and others shut down the Lakeview resort. A small pond on the current Highland Golf Course remains—an artifact of the resort’s heyday. But according to Lakeview Business Association Executive Director Tabitha Lacy, Lakeview’s new strategic plan from Auburn Urban Studio helps the neighborhood continue to transition to a tourist destination.
Lacy says that the plan will continue to build up density within existing development, make mixed-use development a goal, and improve transit options and streetscapes. Practically speaking, all this means that Lakeview will be more populated with new construction and more connected to the rest of the city. Lakeview has to be easier to get to and easier to walk around in once you’re there. We’re already seeing an increase in connectivity via Rotary Trail and the Jones Valley Trail on First Avenue South. Expect to see pedestrian- and bike- friendly streetscape improvements on Second and Seventh avenues, thanks to federal highway dollars, Lacy says.
We can also look for new developments like a boutique hotel, and an emphasis on telling the story of the district’s historic assets, especially the two historic churches, 32nd Street Baptist, the site of Birmingham Campaign mass meetings, and East End Baptist, the church Civil Rights leader Calvin Woods pastored. As a Commercial Revitalization District, Lakeview already is subject to design review, but the LBA hired KPS to do neighborhood-specific guidelines to help maintain the integrity of new builds and re-designs. Those guidelines will hopefully be folded into the Thrive BHM community framework plan process and implemented in Lakeview later this year. In 2016, the Lakeview Business Association contracted historian Linda Nelson to document historic assets along Second and the north side of Third avenues between 28th and 32nd streets—what is known North Lakeview Industrial District —in the National Register of Historic Places. The grand vision is to eventually connect Lakeview to Sloss Furnaces via a pedestrian bridge.
Connecting iconic structures to where we live, work, and play will continue, as Sloss joins other historic emblems—Vulcan, the train depot, the Alabama and Lyric theaters—to help anchor the city’s burgeoning system of connectors. Enclaves like Lakeview, Five Points South, Railroad Park and the Retail and Theater districts supply these icons with context and with people.
If Birmingham is to remain Birmingham and not morph into a confederacy of bland suburban development, attention will have to be given to our urban core. Cathy Sloss Jones is one of the first people to get this. Her strategy of making connections, physically and through architectural narrative, to Birmingham’s past is remarkably prescient. The Lakeview approach is what’s behind the success of other notable turnarounds including the Railroad Park area and the Retail and Theatre District. The Lakeview approach is arguably one of the very first steps the city took to craft a recognizable, marketable Birmingham brand.