The way Hunter Renfroe sees it, if Urban Supply and the new vision for Birmingham’s Parkside were up and running right now, it would be “the” destination in the age of the pandemic.
Renfroe, founder and principal of Orchestra Partners, said bars and restaurants are currently struggling with the need to produce revenue while making patrons feel safe from COVID-19. Yet the vision for the Urban Supply project, which should hopefully open in a post-COVID Birmingham, looks suited to the needs of the moment, with open air entertainment venues.
“I’m glad that we approach real estate in terms of outdoor spaces and walkability,” Renfroe said. “Outdoor spaces and people interacting outside is much more of a prerequisite for a successful project in the present time. I think over the long term our project has always been positioned really well. If we’d already built it and it was occupied, it would probably be the most active place in Birmingham. It’s next to a park and it’s centered around a giant pedestrian pathway.”
Last November, Orchestra Partners announced a new Parkside master plan with officials from the city, Alabama Power, Freshwater Land Trust, REV Birmingham and Urban Impact. It was conceived with landscape architect Tom Leader, the lead planner and designer behind Railroad Park. Leader is the founder and principal of California’s TLS Landscape Architecture.
Orchestra Partners is the primary developer. Renfroe said the plan is largely complete and designs will soon be submitted for permit. Construction is expected to begin next year. What’s on the board is turning the warehouses of Birmingham’s past into cool entertainment, office, dining and recreational spaces.
At last year’s announcement, Renfroe and other city and business officials talked about the project as a way to give the city a true connection point. The announcement itself took place at the Powell Avenue Steam Plant, built in 1895 to provide steam and electricity for the downtown area and power the city streetcar system.
What’s being called Urban Supply in Parkside is envisioned as around 100,000 square feet of commercial space adjacent to Good People Brewery. The project converts warehouses into one complex for fitness and wellness-focused businesses, and transforms another for fine dining. It also creates an “alley” of activity, entertainment and commerce, connecting the two focuses of the developments.
But along with that is establishing a network of pedestrian-friendly destinations that will contribute to the continuing rejuvenation of Birmingham’s downtown, Renfroe said, connecting both east and west Birmingham.
“Something that’s near and dear to my heart and something we do in our day-to-day work is making sure that we are not building an island, that we are connecting it with the city, because we know walkable connections are what create a thriving urban space,” he said.
Renfroe said a 2020 downtown development study by UAB and REV Birmingham shows that there are currently around 500 residential units in Parkside, but another 2,000 that are planned or under construction. The people who live in this “micro city center” will seek out entertainment, shopping, food and recreation.
“Parkside is rapidly transforming, and certainly two years from now, it will be a very different place,” Renfroe said. “I think what’s always been missing is a sense of density and walkability, which is crazy, because it’s very walkable in the park. But the majority of people using the park are driving in their car, walking, and then going somewhere else.”
The project also has parking access, and a hub of fitness centers near the park would seem an easy sell, especially after the COVID lockdown turned many more fitness conscious.
Renfroe said construction will quickly begin with site work and landscaping, as well as renovation of the warehouses which should be “transformational.”
“You’ll see a lot of glass, a lot of open spaces (in the warehouses),” he said. “The experience in the alley is a place where you could spend all day and late into the night, both a fun place to hang out during the day and a great place for a romantic dinner in the evening.”