June 13, 2017 – The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to transfer ownership of the 27-acre Trinity Steel site in the Titusville community to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society to develop a new animal care and control facility.
According to early estimates, the site could see an annual intake of up to 18,500 animals.
Despite several speakers who voiced opposition to the move during a public hearing, most of whom referred to the proposed site as “the dog pound,” Councilor Sheila Tyson, who represents the district, said she supported the project because the majority of people she has spoken with support it.
“The community has voted yes for this three times,” Tyson said after the vote as people crowded the hallways outside the council chamber. Tyson said that only two of the speakers Tuesday actually live in the community, despite their saying otherwise.
“You got two people here today against the 300 or so who voted for this at the neighborhood meetings. We just recently had a meeting with 300 people, and everybody voted yes except 17 people,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do. I got to go with the majority of people I represent.”
Rezoned for Residential
Before the vote transferring ownership of the property, the council also voted in favor of another resolution that rezoned Titusville for residential use, potentially complicating the process the GBHS must go through to begin construction on the new facility.
“We’re asking this council approve this rezoning plan as written … . We’re trying to build a community where people want to come back and live,” said John Harris, president of the North Titusville Neighborhood Association. Harris was in favor of the rezoning, which he believed would stop the GBHS plan from moving forward, a sentiment shared by the other speakers who opposed the new facility.
Tim Gambrel, a Birmingham city planner, said the zoning plan has been in the works for some time and is not related to the recent push for the GBHS facility.
“The Humane Society proposal came up after that zoning process was complete. So really they are separate items. The plan represents what the community supported and participated in,” Gambrel explained.
According to Gambrel, since the council first voted on Tuesday to approve the Titusville rezoning, the GBHS “will have to go through a process to rezone the property” before the facility can open. As it stands, it is unclear when that will be brought back to the council for further consideration.
Speaking moments after the council voted to approve the project agreement, GBHS CEO Allison Black Cornelius downplayed the significance of the Titusville rezoning as it relates to the new animal center.
“The very next step, to my understanding, is the due diligence period where we will look at the issue and the cleanup report (and) do further testing on that property to make sure the site is as clean as the last (Alabama Department of Environmental Management) report, because that was done a long time ago,” Cornelius said. “We’ve got some due diligence steps to take before anything is finalized.”
The land is classified as a Brownfields property because of environmental contamination when it was used for a steel plant.
Opposition to Shelter
As for the people who oppose the new facility, Cornelius said she does not believe they represent the overall interests of the community, based on “door-to-door” interactions with community members and neighborhood meetings her group attended.
“We went to the meetings and asked for people’s support, and we received that overwhelmingly … . We knew there’s always going to be people who have a problem with it and people who agree with it,” Cornelius said. “The standard we want to uphold is to make sure the aesthetics of that property (are) no different than what we’d want across from our own homes, whether or not that be sound aesthetics or visual aesthetics. A majority of that property will probably be a park space, because we walk our animals. We visualize a place where people can come walk their animals with their kids. We view it as a public space that our animals happen to be on.”
Among the concerns of those who spoke against the GBHS facility was the lack of economic impact it would have in the community. Preliminary estimates show between 33 and 80 full-time employees, with an additional 2,500 monthly volunteers in the facility.
Cornelius said the plan has been in the works for a year, and from an economic development standpoint, is the best use for the property, which has been vacant since the 1980s.
“It never fails that if you do it right, those who were opposed suddenly don’t recall being opposed,” Cornelius said. “If we had not come along I think what would have been proposed would be much worse.”
As written in the resolution, the GBHS campus would include a new animal care and control facility to be used by the city, county and other municipalities within Jefferson County, a new pet adoption and education center, a new shelter/hospital and veterinarian clinic for schools to operate in, a dog park, and a new city police K-9 training facility.
Keith Mims, who recently announced his bid to run against Tyson in the upcoming city elections, took issue with the project being considered for a neighborhood that is “100 percent African-American” and not somewhere over Red Mountain.
“Do you think if a bunch of black men went and knocked on doors in Vestavia we could convince people to have a dog pound with 20,000 animals open in their neighborhood?” Mims said. “The reason we don’t need a dog pound is because we need retail. We need restaurants and housing. You’re putting a damn dog pound here. That’s not making an economic difference in District 6. All you’ll have is volunteers up there scooping (expletive).
“I heard them say they went door to door. How many black folk do you know who would be OK with some white people asking if it’s okay for them to bring 20,000 dogs to their neighborhoods? That’s a lie,” Mims said.
The project is projected to cost $30 million. In April, the Jefferson County Commission, which jointly owns the Trinity Steel property with the city of Birmingham, voted to gift its share to the GBHS. Cornelius hopes to secure federal grant money and raise money through personal donations.
“If you read what we passed today, who would turn that down?” Tyson wondered after the meeting, which saw nearly an hours’ worth of opposition from Titusville community members. “It’s not my project. The mayor brought them in,” Tyson said. “I don’t have the ability to bring in a $60 million project. I’m not going to take credit for someone else’s project.”
Representatives for Mayor William Bell did not respond to questions regarding the project.
See earlier stories:
BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper collaborated to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.