Plans to renovate the long-derelict Ramsay-McCormack Building in Ensley are underway. The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve a $4 million plan that could have the building revitalized and open by August 2021, developers say.
The council’s decision comes just one day before a lawsuit against the city over the building’s renovation is slated to once again go before a judge.
The 10-story office building, which was built in 1929, has been empty since 1986. Former Mayor William Bell announced in 2016 plans for a $40 million renovation, after which the building would serve as headquarters for Birmingham’s municipal court, police department and fire department. But his successor as mayor, Randall Woodfin, nixed those plans, instead putting out a request for development proposals to private developers in August 2018. The city rejected all the proposals it received, and in February it once again asked for proposals.
From those responses, the city selected Ensley District Developers, LLC, a team of developers that includes Irvin Henderson, Carlton Brown, Mike Abebe and Gizman Abbas, a group already assisting with the restoration of the city’s Masonic Temple on 17th Street North.
In an 8-1 vote Tuesday, the council approved an agreement in which the city will give Ensley District Developers $200,000 to create a “preliminary plan” for renovating the building. That plan will have to be presented to the city before Dec. 6. If that plan is approved by the council, the city would sell the building to developers for $1 ? the amount it paid to acquire the property in 1983 ? and give developers up to $1.3 million for “pre-development work” such as employing an architect, contractor and Birmingham-based project manager. Once construction commenced, the city would provide developers with an additional $2.5 million for construction- or infrastructure-related costs.
The city’s $4 million contribution will come from the Birmingham Fund, which is for “emergency appropriations,” said Josh Carpenter, the city’s director of innovation and economic opportunity.
The “emergency” likely stems from an ongoing court case regarding the building. In 2009, attorney Antonio Spurling sued the city, seeking for the Ramsay-McCormack building to either be demolished or restored. Though he dropped the suit after the city pledged $900,000 toward restoration efforts, he sued again in 2012, claiming that those efforts had never materialized.
In 2016, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Mike Graffeo ruled that the city should demolish the building, though eventually plaintiffs asked him to revise that order and, instead, compel the city to start renovating the building in February 2017, with the work to be finished within two years. In 2017, the city instead submitted to Graffeo a preliminary space planning study by Birmingham-based ArchitectureWorks.
When Woodfin presented the Ensley District Developers’ plan to the council during Oct. 14’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting, he told councilors he could not discuss the source of city funding for the project due to “still-open litigation.”
Court records show that Spurling’s 2012 case against the city of Birmingham will next appear before Graffeo Wednesday.
During Tuesday’s meeting, District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, who was not present at the Oct. 14 Budget and Finance Committee meeting and whose district includes parts of Ensley, asked for a delay on the item until the end of the meeting due to concerns about asbestos on the property. He also argued that the city had already completed much of the preliminary work covered by the development agreement.
“I think this needs to be amended, because all of those things have been done already,” he said. “I think we just need to move on straight to construction.”
Woodfin turned away Hoyt’s arguments and was joined by District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, whose district also includes Ensley. “We’ve had intensive meetings, and while I respect my colleague very much, this is critical to the people in my district,” Hilliard said. “I just wish that we could pass this. It is critical that we could pass this … . I don’t want us to delay on this.”
After the item passed — with Hoyt as the only dissenting vote — Hilliard said a renovated Ramsay-McCormack Building would have a revitalizing effect on the surrounding Ensley area. “It’s not just about that building,” he said. “We need green space. We need blocks to be renovated. We want investors to come. We would like Ensley to reflect the rest of Birmingham.”