Birmingham City Council

City Relinquishes Power Over Old Powell School, Raising Concerns About Historic Preservation

Chris Pruitt, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After a contentious discussion, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to relinquish its interest in the historic Powell School building, which has been vacant for more than two decades.

Though developers of the property told councilors that historic preservation is their priority, they expressed doubts that they’d be able to save most of the 134-year-old structure. Now, with the city stepping out of the way, they won’t be compelled to.

Councilors split over the discussion. District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott said she was “aghast” at the idea of “giving the property away” to a developer with no guarantee of historical preservation.

Mayor Randall Woodfin retorted that it made less sense to leave the dilapidated school building standing. “It is clear blight,” he said.

The Powell School was built in 1888, replacing a smaller schoolhouse opened in 1874. The property has the distinction of being the site of the city’s first public school, though it closed its doors in 2002 due to a sharp decline in enrollment.

Though a property covenant called for the land to be returned to the Elyton Land Company — now known as Barber Properties — once it was no longer used as a school, the Birmingham Board of Education instead turned the deed over to the city in 2008. It remained vacant after that, suffering significant damage from a January 2011 fire.

Six months after the fire, the council signed a contract with the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, handing over the property with stipulations that the trust would salvage what remained of the building. The city offered the $500,000 it had received in insurance money as a seed for rehabilitation efforts, which went into repairs of the building’s roof and supporting walls.

The trust announced in 2013 that it was selling the school to the Atlanta-based developer Integral Group for redevelopment as an apartment building. Despite qualifying for a $3.7 million federal loan, the project never materialized and the building continued to deteriorate over the following decade.

Two years ago, Harbert Realty Services, along with partners Merrill Stewart of The Stewart/Perry Company and Cathy Sloss of Sloss Real Estate, entered a contract to buy the building from the trust. Harbert Realty President David Williams told councilors on Tuesday that, while the purchasers had hoped to preserve the building, “we’re faced with a lot of headwinds,” including an interior so fire-damaged that several contractors and consultants have refused to enter the building at all.

“It is in very dire condition,” Williams said. “We are asking the city to step away so we can put the financial capital behind it to try to preserve it through a historic tax credit program. I make no promises. I don’t know if we can do it. We probably won’t be able to do it, but if we can’t, we have committed that we will repurpose the building in some way to preserve and honor the history and the importance of that building to the city.”

As part of the agreement, the purchasers will not ask the city for any financial assistance with redevelopment.

Still, Abbott said, that amounts to giving away valuable property.

“Why would you give away something of value, of a lot of value, when the developers will not be required to preserve the building?” she asked. “It’s not logical to me.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks to the City Council. (Source: Facebook livestream)

Woodfin countered that it was past time to do something with the property.

“Some decision has to be made, but it won’t necessarily include the city at this point because we’ve been at the table for 11 years and nothing has happened,” Woodfin said. “What do you want, you want us to keep the property?”

But District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn reminded both that, while the city had retained an interest in the property, the trust actually owns it. If the council tried to exercise its contractual right to repossess the property, he said, it would likely have to contend with Barber Properties’ competing claim to the land. But, O’Quinn added, “as part of this agreement, part of this transaction, it’s my understanding that Barber is also relinquishing its claim to the property.”

The council approved the agreement with a 6-3 vote. O’Quinn, along with Councilors LaTonya Tate, Hunter Williams, Clinton Woods, Wardine Alexander and Crystal Smitherman, voted in favor of cutting city ties to the property. Abbott, along with Councilors J.T. Moore and Carol Clarke, voted no.