Take a Walk With Me


“The Cut,” an old rail bed on First Avenue South, is being reimagined as The Rotary Trail.

Written by Phillip Ratliff

 

The concrete gash running along First Avenue South street level is a mystery to most of Birmingham, I suspect. The gash’s actual name, “the cut,” suggests a wound that man or machine inflicted on the city surface. In fact, the cut is quite the opposite. It’s what was left when city engineers backfilled around an extant railroad track creeping along the city’s central corridor, to anchor the 20th and 21st street viaducts.

At one time, trains ran beneath the viaducts and along Avenue A, as First Avenue South was once called. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I thought the cut’s muddy, rocky floor could be repurposed as a respectable length of urban mountain bike trail. I started at 20th Street, making a 45-degree descent into the clayish bottom of the four-block pit. Tracks and puddles suggested recent attempts to smooth out the old rail bed’s rough patches, a suspicion confirmed by piles of asphalt and a couple of pieces of heavy machinery positioned at the cut’s 24th Street exit.

It’s hard not to notice that First Avenue South is in the thralls of a building boom. The area a few blocks west, around Railroad Park, has become especially active, with several high-profile projects recently completed and others either underway or about to break ground. The four-block segment immediately surrounding the cut will be the next to fall. Already, the enclave is lined with architectural firms and antique dealers and flanked by two new residential complexes. In the coming months, a cadre of funders and designers will transform the cut into a gorgeous, and hopefully thriving, pedestrian pathway.

Birmingham’s Rotary Club chapter is spearheading the project, which has an estimated cost of $3.5 million, through a competitive process marking their centennial. When completed (it has an estimated completion date of spring 2015), the Rotary Trail, as it will be called, will anchor new development and provide a crucial segment in the city’s extensive network of bike lanes and pedestrian walkways. The Rotary Trail’s leap from design concept to physical reality was recently heralded by asphalt-rattling scrapes outside landscape architect Jane Reed Ross’s window at Goodwyn Mills Cawood. The Rotary Trail will run right outside her firm’s office. Ross, one of the masterminds behind the trail, was thrilled when she heard the work underway in January 2014. “The backhoe was driving really fast. I was sitting parallel to the trail and some piece of machinery zoomed right past me,” she says. “It startled me and the whole office, but when we realized what was going on, we began yelling, ‘Our trail’s here! That’s our trail!’”

Though loud in its execution, Ross’s plan for the Rotary Trail is a beautiful one, emphasizing local materials and indigenous plants. The rail bed that is its foundation is only 26 feet across, but Ross and her team have managed to fit several points of interest into the small space: a boardwalk, wall treatments that recall layers of iron ore, limestone and coal, even a small amphitheater for busking and drum circles. The new trail will feel private and serene, but still airy and open, thanks in part to its four entrance points. Joggers, moms and dads with strollers, and kids on bikes will be able to come and use the Rotary Trail. Street level improvements will provide curbs and bike lanes for a speedier sort of grownup cycling.

Central to the concept is how Ross viewed the old rail bed: as a gentle green river. It’s an association made entirely logical by the city’s unique history. Birmingham grew up not in the days of steamships, but in those of locomotives, looking to the Cahaba for drinking water and to wash fines off the coal from outlying seams. The Rotary Trail capitalizes on the rail-bed-as-river association. Pathways flow side to side. There is a nostalgic element, too: a recreation of the old Magic City sign that once greeted train arrivals at Terminal Station will guard the trail.

Unlike rivers, abandoned rail beds are manmade structures, something Ross and builders have had to contend with. They can be fussy, Ross says. She recites a litany of complications. The rail bed, she says, is essentially a deep pit, prone to stagnant water. A drainage system is critical. At its lowest points, it will have to be raised six feet to make it a comfortable environment for pedestrians. The bed is bordered by a concrete parapet extending up to three feet above street level, which must be trimmed flush with the surface to allow light into the trail. Spalling has created a flaky, unstable surface on what will be the walls. A concrete rub will smooth those surfaces for decorative wall applications.

All told, about half the total budget, according to some estimates, will be spent in prep work, but the frontend effort is worth it. Though the Rotary Trail segment is already flanked by architecture and design offices, those behind the project envision new development cropping up after it’s done. Doubters might look a couple of blocks west and consider nearby Railroad Park’s ongoing impact. Exhibit A is Regions Field. It opened last April and is helping Railroad anchor the area now known as Parkside. Over the next several months, a spate of projects will utterly transform Parkside. One residential building, LIV Parkside, had already broken ground. Another, L&N Parkside, will do so this spring. Real estate firm Shannon Waltchack will place Stockyard @ Railroad Park, near their $4 million Railroad Square project completed two years ago. Inland American Communities will erect a six-story apartment project just beyond centerfield of Regions. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer. Good People Brewery will be joined by another local operation, Beer Engineers, in early 2015. Plans for the Negro Southern League Museum just passed city design review.

The Rotary Trail will complete Railroad Park’s connection to Lakeview, Sloss Furnaces, Pepper Place, and Avondale, making it something of a Golden Spike in a much bigger system. The system has a name, actually—the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, which, besides Jones Valley Trail, includes six other corridors throughout Jefferson County. The strategy for actualizing the system also has a name: the Our One Mile Plan. The Rotary Trail is a sterling example of how it can play out. Our One Mile is an initiative to get communities and developers interested in their particular piece of their corridor, to promote the piece’s benefits to them. It is the brainchild of Wendy Jackson and the Freshwater Land Trust, and it is coursing through the Greater Birmingham area like something of a viral meme.

Actually, Red Rock Ridge and Valley itself is not so much a single-celled organism as it is a complex of distinct cells that lots of people are encouraging to grow toward one another. Right now, we’re witnessing that very phenomenon, with trail growth motivating more trail growth, and different segments pushing toward one another, connecting and taking off toward other segments. The Rotary Trail is an example of this. Another example is UAB, which is in the midst of a pedestrian and bike revolution; it hopes to revise its current campus master plan to send it north. The amended plan, according to Executive Director of Campus Planning Sheila Chaffin, will connect the new campus green to Railroad Park with bike and pedestrian pathways. Similarly, REV Birmingham and the Community Foundation installed “Light Rails” under the 19th Street bridge to entice pedestrians already plugged into Railroad Park to keep on walking to the McWane Science Center, the Alabama Theatre, or, one day, the Lyric. To the west, a TIGER grant (one of those stimulus package shovel-ready programs trumpeted a few years ago) will one day connect Railroad Park to Pratt City, Wylam, Midfield, and the highline entrance at Red Mountain Park. Remove any segment and the connection fails; the system recedes. Keep feeding it a steady diet of RRRV-informed development, and it will one day lattice the entire metro area.

Creating such a plan is a matter of imposing order on decades of chaos, extracting cooperation out of self-interest. There are obvious culprits for how we got so fragmented, the automobile probably the main one. There was political maneuvering that created borders along racial and socioeconomic lines, and suburbanization, a preference that eventually emptied the city center of things to do and people to do them. In 1925, Birmingham made a serious but ultimately ill-fated attempt to retrofit a comprehensive park system. The famous Olmsted Brothers firm developed the park plan according to sound environmental, economic, and philosophical principles. It was a missed opportunity, not only to establish floodplains around rivers and preserve green spaces, but to better organize development and protect residential property values from commercial encroachment. The Olmsted plan was striking for its social sensitivities. Children all over Birmingham, black and white, would be within walking distance of a park, the plan stated. The racial dimension alone is a staggering one to imagine for a city known for its borders.

Red Rock Ridge and Valley picks up on many of the same elements, but making its case on much more pragmatic terms. Around trails, the argument goes, development follows and so do jobs and businesses. Trails foster exercise, an argument that opens the door for anti-obesity funding from the CDC. Promoting jobs and public health: Who wants to be against those?

But the building of the Rotary Trail also suggests idealism might be at play. The project started with the trail’s namesake, Rotary Club, announcing a proposal competition to celebrate its centennial. The ideal proposal, Rotary stipulated, would improve the environment, promote public health, improve social connections, and spur economic development. Bill Jones, Rotarian and project selection committee chair, says the idea was to give the city a transformative asset, something that would speak to the club’s commitment to its hometown for years to come.

Freshwater Land Trust, the commissioners of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Plan, was one of several organizations to submit. Their proposal had lots going for it. Goodwyn Mills Cawood had already been working on a design for the cut. When Rotary approved the Freshwater Land Trust proposal, many of the pieces were already in place. Realization of the plan, then, became a matter of gaining city approval, which Rotary got. The city contracted Goodwyn Mills Cawood. Rotary has contracted A. G. Gaston construction to serve as their project manager. TIGER grant funding was applied to street improvements. Banks were on board to provide loans, as was Freshwater Land Trust, which loaned Rotary part of the money. It has been a team effort, Ross stresses, between her design firm, the city, Rotary, and lots of stakeholders.

Jackson, Freshwater’s executive director, would like to see this cooperative spirit continue. She is especially interested in seeing the Jones Valley Trail connect to Vulcan Park and Museum and on to Valley Avenue and Shades Creek. This connection would connect to another corridor encompassing Shades Creek trail along Lakeshore and Jemison Park in Mountain Brook. The Rotary Trail is, in its four-block microcosm, all that’s good about the trail system and Birmingham in the new millennium. For pedestrians, the Rotary Trail connects Railroad Park and all it will eventually absorb into the street life already underway east of the city center. For cyclists, the Rotary Trail’s street-level lanes will provide one additional link in an eventual citywide chain. Pedaling the trails of Red Mountain, then coasting through Jones Valley into Avondale, Lakeview, or Pepper Place for some sort of urban fuel—perhaps coffee or beer—is becoming an imminent possibility.

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