The Road

The epochal, post-1970s transformation of Highway 280  has changed the metro forever, bringing luxury, environmental concerns, traffic and people together in a modern urban stew that is a unique glimpse into our past, present, and future.

by Jesse Chambers, Photography by Beau Gustafson
U.S. Highway 280 wasn’t always choked with cars and people, with huge office and residential developments, with white-tablecloth restaurants, with pleasure-pit retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Whole Foods Market, or with lush golf courses like Shoal Creek, which has twice hosted the PGA championship.
The 280 Corridor, even in the 1970s, was merely a string of farms, filling stations and small towns. And old U.S. 280 itself was just a two-lane, often called the Florida Short Route.

Jamie Perrin

One living witness to those days is Jamie Perrin, owner of Perrin’s Grocery, across 280 from Lloyd’s Restaurant. Perrin’s late father Jimmy started the grocery 55 years ago. “I’m 46 and I’ve been here my whole life,” he says.

I spoke to Perrin at his store on a cool, clear autumn morning, a mellow sun shining on pumpkins stacked out front. The grocery, housed in a rock building, is a pleasant throwback to the old 280.
There’s a wood stove for heat behind the cash register. There’s fish bait for sale, including worms and crickets. There’s ice and charcoal.
You can buy gas from pumps with the old Pure Oil logo, then enjoy a Coke and a Moon Pie or pick up a jar of pickled okra.
Perrin also runs a landscaping supply business next to the grocery, selling sand, gravel, fill dirt and pine bark.
Perrin tells me about an old 280 that has all but vanished. “When I was in school, just to get from Birmingham to Lloyd’s was a half-day drive,” he says, referring to the legendary home-cooking restaurant’s old location in Chelsea. “You were in the country when you got out here. There was a barn across the road where they boarded horses and rented horses to people to ride, over where Lowe’s [Home Improvement] is, just a big field with a barn in it.”
Perrin remembers the epochal transformation of 280—the road, the landscape, the entire corridor—begun by the construction of the new four-lane in the 1970s. “When I started first grade, it was a two-lane highway out there and they were just starting on the four-lane,” he says. “They raised the highway up about 10 or 12 feet, and our store was down in a deep hole.”
Perrin’s father Jimmy was nothing if not adaptable. “My dad tore the top off [the store] and built it up higher so we would be above the road,” Perrin says. “The highway people had excess dirt, and they filled it in for us.”
The transformation of 280 now seems complete, and the corridor has largely shed its quaint past. “I don’t know of any corridors that compare to 280 today,” according to Charlie Tickle, CEO of the Daniel Corporation, a major developer headquartered on Highway 280. “It has become a world-class lifestyle corridor, and one of the top-10 fastest growing areas in the United States for the past 25 years because of that.”
But rapid growth has its downside, including horrible rush-hour traffic. It seems clear that the 280 Corridor’s vitality will be diminished if it is unable to solve its transportation problem. In the pages to come, we’ll look at traffic congestion and some of the other environmental issues created by the area’s dizzying growth. We’ll examine the continuing appeal of 280, since many people choose to live there despite the difficult commute. And we’ll discuss the prospect of a greener, more sustainable future for 280 and other corridors, including I–20 East.
Just how bad is the traffic on Highway 280? The roadway is one of the most congested in Alabama, featuring two of the state’s top ten “transportation chokepoints,” according to consulting group TRIP of Washington, D.C. On parts of 280, traffic volume exceeds 80,000 cars per day.
Some 280 commuters, while navigating the same geographic space inhabited by the Perrins in the 1970s, inhabit a much more stressful psychic space. Chris Stokes used to be one of them. Stokes, a director of information systems at the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, moved to a 3500-square-foot house in Inverness in 2006 with wife Gina and their two children.  “It’s a golf course community, very wooded, and seemed like a nice place to raise kids,” he said.
But the long drive took a toll on Stokes. He realized how much of his life it was taking from him. “I was raising our children in a car,” he says. “We would get in the car as early as six in the morning and spend two hours making basically a 12-mile commute.” Stokes and his children repeated the process at night. “I thought this is no way to raise kids,” he says. “It was hurry up, hurry up, eat your food, go to bed.”
Stokes and his wife took drastic action, selling their Inverness home and moving to a much smaller house in Homewood last January. “I went from waking the kids up at 5:30 in the morning, to them waking up on their own,” Stokes says. “If we leave our house by 7:45, they get to school on time and I get to the office at 8:00. I got back almost a whole day of my life.”
There are other people who enjoy living in the 280 Corridor and have adjusted to the commute. UAB nurse Tracy Taylor has driven in from Vandiver in Shelby County for 21 years. “I just like living out,” she says. “We have land. And it really is convenient. There’s shopping. There’s lots to do. And I don’t mind driving.”
St. Vincent’s Hospital pharmacist Scott Maley enjoys living in Brook Highland with his wife Michelle and three daughters. “We’re happy with the Shelby County school system,” he says. “It’s nice living in what everybody considers a nice area without paying Mountain Brook or Vestavia property taxes. There’s everything out here that you need. It’s convenient if you have to go to Trussville or to Hoover.”
280 refugee Stokes admits that affordable housing is a big draw for 280. “A lot with no house in Homewood is $200,000 or $250,000, and if you stick a 2000-square-foot house on it, that’s a half-million dollars,” he says. “You can go out to Greystone or Inverness and get a brand-new home for $250,000 on up. “
The 280 Corridor is also becoming a destination point, not merely a bunch of bedroom suburbs, and offers increasingly diverse nightlife. Plenty of people go home to 280 and party at such watering holes as Grey Bar, Blackwell’s Pub and Hogan’s Irish Pub & Grill rather than driving back to Birmingham.
The Black Market Bar at Colonnade, with a wall-sized mural, music posters and wrap-around patio, offers what bartender Ian Eubanks calls “a downtown vibe in a suburban setting.” George Cowgill, co-owner of BMB with Elise Youngblood, likes the 280 nightlife scene. “When we opened the Speakeasy [downtown], I noticed we were drawing a diverse crowd, and I wanted to do the same on 280,” he says. “It’s just as diverse as downtown, because there are so many different places to live. We get as many punk rock kids as we do fraternity guys.”
The shopping and other amenities found on 280 have an undeniable attraction, even to urban hipsters. Whole Foods, located in the Cahaba Village Plaza, is a veritable Disneyland of food. At the store’s “Hot bar” I assembled one of the weirdest collections of food I’ve ever seen on one plate—potato latkes, vegan ginger sweet potatoes, smoky Southern greens and Buffalo garlic tofu. Near the hot bar is “The Village Brasserie,” with Good People beer on tap. There’s enough “natural” foods and health items to make you think the hippies won the war. There’s an olive oil tasting bar. It’s quite something, especially if you usually shop at the Woodlawn Piggly Wiggly.

David Silverstein

One of the crown jewels of 280 retail is The Summit, an open-air mall, or “lifestyle center,” developed by David Silverstein and Jeffrey Bayer of Bayer Properties. A gleaming temple of consumerism, the mall contains such retailers as Apple, Ann Taylor and Sephora, as well as restaurants and other amenities. It’s built like a strip center with nicer architecture and landscaping. According to Silverstein, the mall’s location near the I-459 interchange was perfect, despite the fact that the hilly site was “topographically challenged,” as he puts it. “The setting was unique, right next to Mountain Brook and Vestavia, with great demographics around the site and close to 459,” Silverstein says.

Ah, yes, great demographics, meaning the 280 Corridor has a lot of people with disposable income. It seems that 280 was destined to become Birmingham’s most prosperous corridor. “If you look at Birmingham 30 years ago, there was only one place for growth to occur,” according to Tickle, whom I met in a Daniel conference room. “The executives were already living in Mountain Brook, so it was natural to go south.”
Growth on 280 got one big boost with the construction in the 1970s of the Elton B. Stephens/Red Mountain Expressway and another later with the completion of I-459.
The 280 Corridor was a developer’s dream—a place to do projects the right way—according to Tickle. “There were large land holdings that were not botched up with a lot of small owners, so the land was preserved, and you could do world-class developments because you had owners and institutions who had the means to develop it the right way without getting it all boogered up,” he says.
The logic of the market led Daniel and other companies to 280. “We look for demand drivers,” Tickle says. “Where do people want to go? The market wanted to be there. And you had good quality government, for the most part, helping facilitate that growth.”
The Corridor will continue to grow, though not at the same pace, according to Tickle. “You have to go a long way out now to find large volumes of land,” he says. “Traffic is an issue, but you can go around the country and find examples of declining values because of a lack of traffic, but there’s not many areas that are declining in value because of too much traffic. It’s an issue to be dealt with, but it isn’t the death knell of 280. We do need to work together to find solutions to the 280 traffic problem.”
Traffic congestion creates both environmental and economic headaches. Congestion on 280 damages air quality but also—according to the transportation consultants at places like TRIP—reduces productivity and damages the economy.
There are also personal costs for commuters. The psychological effects of the long, tense drive creep up on you, according to Stokes. “In the beginning you don’t notice it,” he says. “Ever heard the analogy of a frog and you put them in a cold pot of water and turn the heat on and they will just end up boiling because the heat goes up gradually? The first few days, you talk yourself into it. ‘Oh, it’s going to be 40 minutes today. It’s not that bad. I’ve got this nice house.’ But over time, it turns into a situation where you’re thrown in hot water, and you don’t know how to get out. It’s almost depressing.” Moving to Homewood was a relief, according to Stokes. “On day one, it was so life-altering,” he says. “I felt like the frog who had seen the hot water and didn’t dive in.”
A fix for the traffic problem proposed by the Alabama Department of Transportation is a massive, three-story elevated toll road. It would run for about nine miles, from Homewood to Eagle Point in Shelby County. The toll road, estimated cost about $800 million, has its critics.
Elton B. Stephens Jr. of EBSCO Industries called the toll road a “boondoggle” in a Birmingham News op-ed. Stephens, a member of the Rethink280 group and founder of The Town of Mt. Laurel, a New Urbanist community in the 280 Corridor, suggests improvements to 15 major intersections on the roadway. He says this would be less expensive and make it possible to eventually add light rail.
Silverstein expresses doubts, as well. “I wasn’t comfortable that enough had been done as to how light rail or other mass transit options could be integrated into the elevated highways,” he says.
Tickle supports the toll road. “I think these other things are wishing and hoping—access roads and all those things,” he says. “There is no funding for those. The elevated toll road seems to be a realistic solution with real funding capabilities, and I think it’s that or nothing.”
The 280 Corridor has, at present, meager transit service, and over 90 percent of the people using the corridor drive by themselves. The RPC is presently using federal dollars to conduct the U.S. 280 Corridor Transit study regarding the 35-mile stretch from downtown Birmingham through Jefferson and Shelby counties. The study asks commuters to share their feelings about the possible use of downtown Homewood, Brookwood Village and the planned Chelsea Town Center as “transit-oriented development nodes.”
According to study project manager Mike “Kaz” Kaczorowski, mass transit has been widely adopted across the country. “Just about every major corridor in all the major cities, there’s at least a transit option typically,” he says. “You see all over the country that you can’t provide just for single-occupancy vehicles. You can’t just keep widening the highways.” The RPC is looking at “premium transit” options for 280, such as speedy bus service in car-pool lanes.
Count Tickle as a skeptic. “I don’t think the demographics here would support mass transit,” he says. “People just aren’t gonna use it. They want their car and the flexibility that gives them, and they have the financial means to afford that, and I think no way would you ever justify the economics of that.”
Rapid development carries other environmental problems, including the visual blight of sprawl. “When I think of 280, there’s a lot of green coming down [from Birmingham], and Whole Foods is nice, but from 459 south, it’s just urban sprawl,” according to Paul Bryant, a barrista at Primavera Coffee Roasters in Cahaba Heights.
Development, if not done properly, can also damage the magnificent Cahaba River, which is intertwined, both physically and spiritually, with the rest of the 280 Corridor. In addition to being the area’s primary source of drinking water, the Cahaba is the longest free-flowing river in Alabama, has a wide diversity of plants and fishes, and attracts canoeists, kayakers, birders and fishermen.

Beth Stewart

The damage to the Cahaba is caused by some traditional methods of construction and storm water management, according to Cahaba River Society (CRS) executive director Beth Stewart. “The more we replace forests with paving and roofs, the greater the impact on our drinking water,” she says. “If we replace that forest with hard surfaces that also collect pollutants, the rain runs off so fast that it is gone down the river. It’s not being retained in our drinking water pool, and what is coming in is dirty.” Erosion is also a problem, according to Stewart.

Fortunately, a somewhat “greener” mindset seems to be developing among some builders of office, retail and residential projects on 280 and nearby corridors. Hearthstone Properties, the builders of the Trussville Springs subdivision on the Cahaba River, a New Urbanist-style development, worked with the CRS to avoid harming the waterway. Plans for the community include park space, buffers for the river, steps to deal with storm water and narrower roads to reduce the impact of paving.
According to Stewart, the CRS is anxious to work with developers to help them do things better. “What the CRS is promoting is an innovative way of development to manage rain as a resource and a blessing,” she says. “Low-impact development and better site design can save developers money and save our drinking water.”
Environmental concerns are no longer ignored by developers, according to Tickle. “That is a driving engine, from a corporate responsibility standpoint and in what the public wants,” he says. “That’s an important buy-in consideration for both business and residential, much more so than in the past.”
Tickle cites the example of Grand River, a new Daniel and USS Real Estate multi-use development in Leeds.  “At Grand River, we went to great lengths to get an Audubon Society gold certification,” he says. According to the Grand River web site, the development team worked with Audubon International to create an environmental master plan for the project.
It is interesting to look at the history of 280 and find the beginnings of a new, greener awareness among developers even in the 1970s. “We conceived of better ways of doing things,” construction magnate John M. Harbert told The Birmingham News in 1980 regarding his development of the 3000-acre planned community of Riverchase. “The talent was available, and with the proper zoning laws there would be molding capabilities to work with nature and not tackle it,” he said. Harbert also took pride in the aesthetics of Riverchase, with its restrictions on signage and paint colors.
Developers and Jefferson County officials told The Shades Valley Sun in 1979 they were convinced that 280 would not become another visually cluttered strip like Highway 31 in Hoover or Green Springs Highway in Homewood.
Of course, whatever aesthetic advances these newer projects on 280 represented, it seems clear we now need another leap in our thinking. The transportation issue in the Corridor shows the need for a major shift in consciousness there—and elsewhere in the Birmingham-Hoover metro area—regarding transit, development and energy use.
An entrepreneur who seems anxious to see a new approach on 280 is Primavera owner Brett Burton. He grew up near Highway 119 and attended Chelsea High School before graduating from Briarwood Christian High School. He attended college in Chicago and lives in Forest Park. “I like urban stuff,” Burton tells me at his shop, located in a funky little strip mall off Cahaba Heights Road, just a few blocks from The Summit. “We have all these problems with obesity, and we still want to drive everywhere,” he says.

George Cowgill

Burton thinks people in the area could adjust to mass transit. “I don’t think anybody really wants mass transit until the system’s there,” he says. “And if there’s light rail stations and people want to sell you stuff, they’ll figure out how to make it easy to get to. It’s just a major shift in how we move and live and buy things. It will be a little weird, then people adjust. Building more roads is silly, because it’s dealing with the symptoms, not the problem. We want to keep moving out, and building, and creating more cars and more people.”
There may be more people in the Birmingham metro area who want a sustainable future than you might think, according to Adam Snyder of Conservation Alabama. “We are hearing that the majority of people want main-street-type communities that have mixed-use development in a downtown area, and more concentrated development that protects open space and greenways,” he says. “That’s not necessarily what they are getting on 280. You are getting more now, if you go out to Mt. Laurel. We want to see development. We want to see growth. It’s how we do it, how we plan it, how it’s funded.”
I ask Jamie Perrin if the tremendous changes he’s witnessed on 280 have been good or bad. “Somewhere in between,” he tells me.
What are the good changes? “Property values for one,” he says. “And our landscaping business has grown and grown.”
And the bad? “Some of the bad things for our store are all the new, modern stores coming in on every corner, which is competition,” Perrin says. That competition led the family to start the landscaping supply operation 20 years ago. “We wouldn’t be able to stay here if it were just the store,” Perrin says.
The entire enterprise is a family affair, with Perrin, his mom Bettye, wife Dee, and two teenage sons and a nephew involved. Does Perrin plan to keep the business going? “Yes, sir, it’s all I know,” he says.
Of course, the world that Perrin knew as a child is gone, or survives in just a few pockets, but he and his family have adapted and thrived on the new 280.
I wonder if the new 280 will ever be swept into history’s dustbin along with the old 280. Could things change that much?
The 280 Corridor, it seems, is a place built on dreams—like Las Vegas sprouting up from the desert—and has the same strange air of impermanence.
Like Vegas, 280 was built by developers with energy and vision who saw the equivalent of a virgin wilderness and built a new world.
Like Vegas, 280 has a wild and wooly past. There was plenty of bootleg whiskey—some of the best in the state, I’ve read—distilled in Shelby County until it went wet in the 1970s.
Until World War II, there were even some gambling casinos near “the Narrows,” a winding section of Old 280 in the rugged terrain near Oak Mountain that was bypassed by the new four-lane.
And like Vegas, 280 is a place where one may fantasize that nature can be ignored or conquered.
But there are economic and environmental realities that can’t be ignored.
Energy, more than likely, will not get cheaper. The need to protect our air and water will become more critical. And better transportation will be needed even to sustain 280’s growth.
As the Perrins adapted to the new 280, perhaps the new 280 can in turn adapt to a growing need for sustainability and even serve as a model for other growth corridors in the area, including I-20 East.
“I think I-20 has a chance to develop in a similar way,” according to Tickle. “Get in your car, drive any direction from Birmingham and there’s only one place that’s not largely built out. That’s the I-20 corridor. From 10 miles out you can be in town in 10 minutes. I-20 has a lot of the characteristics 280 had 25 years ago.”
Once again, it’s the logic of the market, of where people want to be. “Growth wants to go between Birmingham and Atlanta,” Tickle says.
One hopes I-20 will be developed properly, as with Grand River, and that the builders of that corridor will learn the lessons of 280, both good and bad, in the same way the builders of 280 learned from the examples of the cluttered state highways developed after World War II.
Perhaps we could even fully embrace the Cahaba River, seeing it not as a barrier but an opportunity to draw eco-tourism and create another lifestyle amenity for the 280 Corridor.
If the 280 Corridor can gradually become more green, if we can protect the Cahaba while increasing access to it for recreation, perhaps we can have the best of both worlds—a major lifestyle corridor with a unique mix of indulgence and sustainability.


4 Responses to “The Road”

  1. MaxShelby says:

    Elevated highways are a thing of the past as proposed by ALDOT.
    It is not forward thinking to build a massive concrete behemoth and call it anything other than corporate welfare to the cement and road building entities.
    Streamline the design and move into the 21st century and realize many large urban areas have been revitalized with effective rail systems.
    Perhaps this inevitable traffic snarl should have been considered BEFORE so much development took place.

  2. philip a. morris says:

    All the qualities citied by Charlie Tickle that make 280 a successful ‘place’ will be severely compromised by the proposed elevated highway. Even in freeway-dominated Houston property interests rejected a second level on West Loop many years ago. If this ‘solution’ proceeds, 280’s beautiful horizon disappears… along with its reputation as an address.

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