2017 Birmingham Elections

Neighborhood Revitalization Remains a Defining Issue in Tuesday’s Birmingham City Runoff

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• Birmingham city runoff elections are today.

• The mayor’s office, three seats on the City Council and five seats on the city Board of Education are on the ballot.

• Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Throughout the Birmingham mayoral race, candidate Randall Woodfin has challenged Mayor William Bell’s record on neighborhood revitalization, contending he has neglected struggling areas of the city in favor of developing the downtown area.

Bell, however, maintains that downtown development should be prioritized over some neighborhoods because it is an economic engine that brings money into the city, though his actions have been both lauded and criticized by various neighborhood officials.

The issue of neighborhood revitalization has remained an issue in the mayoral campaign even as the number of candidates was cut from 12 to two.

On Tuesday, Birmingham voters will go to the polls to finally pick the man who will take over the mayor’s office for the next term. Also on Tuesday’s city runoff ballot are three City Council seats and five city Board of Education seats.

But it’s the mayor’s race by far that has gotten the most attention during this busy election season.

 

Woodfin’s Neighborhood Plan

Randall Woodfin

Throughout the campaign, challenger Woodfin has characterized Birmingham as “a tale of two cities,” contrasting struggling neighborhoods on the north and west sides of town with the relatively flourishing downtown and Southside areas.

“Birmingham needs a Mayor for every neighborhood — not just Downtown,” he writes on his campaign website. “While Downtown has thrived, the last few years for Birmingham’s other 98 neighborhoods have been characterized by blight, overgrown lots, abandoned properties, and crime.”

The page insinuates that Bell is committed to neighborhood revitalization only “when there’s an election,” and puts forth a six-part neighborhood revitalization plan.

Woodfin’s overall plan involves developing individual revitalization plans for each of the city’s nine council districts, then creating personnel “teams” to implement the plans, using a scorecard to determine their progress. Woodfin said he also would give neighborhoods more of a voice when it comes to allocating capital funds, invest more in demolishing vacant properties and cleaning up vacant lots, bring more grocery stores to non-downtown neighborhoods, and set aside at least $5 million annually for repairing streets and sidewalks.

 

Bell’s Plan

Mayor William Bell

In a March question-and-answer session with students at Birmingham-Southern College, Bell outlined his reasoning for prioritizing development in the downtown area over revitalization in some neighborhoods, using the metaphor of tidying a house.

“Now, you might have that bedroom or that one room in the back of the house – it’s a no-man’s or no-woman’s land that you don’t want anyone to see,” he said. “But you make sure your living room is nice when company comes. Our downtown for a number of years had been neglected … . We had to start cleaning it up.”

The goal of focusing on the downtown area, Bell said, is to bring outside money into the city.

“The best way to get revenue,” Bell said, “is to create a city that attracts people to come for conferences and conventions. They bring dollars, they stay in hotels, they eat in the restaurants, and then they leave – but their money stays here.”

In debates with Woodfin about neighborhood revitalization, Bell has cited the construction of Regions Field and Railroad Park, as well as the Bessemer Crossplex and a new hotel in Five Points West. He has also proposed moving police and fire headquarters, as well as municipal court, from downtown to Ensley. Woodfin has criticized that plan as a mismanagement of resources.

“Things are happening all over the city,” Bell has said, though he adds, “We still have pockets that need to be touched.” Focusing on non-downtown neighborhoods is one of his priorities moving forward, he has said.

In an interview with WBHM, Bell noted the success of areas such as Avondale and Woodlawn. “We’ve got to channel that into some of our other neighborhoods,” he said. “For example, we announced a couple of months ago that we’re going to be spending money to rebuild the industry business district that will have a profound impact on the west and south of Birmingham.”

Bell’s administration has addressed neighborhoods outside of the downtown area with its “Operation Green Wave” program, which launched in September 2016. In March, it was reported that the initiative already had been responsible for cutting and clearing more than 10,000 overgrown lots.

 

Neighborhoods Respond

Gwendolyn Cook Bibb, president of the East Brownville neighborhood association, has said that the mayor’s work in revitalizing her neighborhood has been “really great.”

“We used to say that the (Brownville community) was being overlooked, because there was so much overgrowth over here, so many dilapidated houses out here,” Bibb said. “The mayor had a series of town hall meetings, and as a result of those meetings, I can say this: he has really acted on it.”

She said that as a result, many overgrown lots and abandoned houses in her neighborhood – including one right next door to her – have been dealt with, to her surprise.

“I’m just trying to digest that they’ve done this,” she said. “I’m serious! We waited so long!”

Thomas neighborhood president Alonzo Darrow said that the city is “doing a tremendous job of taking scarce resources and making sure that every neighborhood gets something out of it,” citing that the city has assisted with the construction of a park and a playground in his neighborhood.

“You basically have to make the best of whatever is available to you,” Darrow said.

But other neighborhood officers are less happy with the attention the city is giving their neighborhoods. Apple Valley President Larry Butler said that he’s seen a decline in attention given to his neighborhood over the past 23 years.

“As the years go by, (neighborhoods) are things they care less about,” he said. “They care about downtown, they are about Railroad Park, they care about the Crossplex. But as far as the inner neighborhoods, where the people live, they’re not doing as much.”

Crestline neighborhood President Hunter Williams – currently a candidate in the runoff for the City Council’s District 2 seat – told Weld in June that his neighborhood was not receiving the same attention as the city center.

“We need sidewalks in certain high-pedestrian-trafficked areas, as well as street re-paving throughout the entire neighborhood … . If you drive through Crestline, all of the right-of-ways and public property need to be cut and have not been for a long time,” he said. “We understand that the growth of our city center is important to the city as a whole and benefits our neighborhood. However, it’s also important that the city does not neglect any of the 99 neighborhoods.”

Other neighborhood residents have expressed similar frustrations. In a 2016 WBHM report, Bonderia Lyons of Fountain Heights said that “nothing is being done” in her neighborhood; “Everything that’s being done is geared toward downtown,” she said.

“We are the forgotten people over there,” Lyons continued. “The black people, we’ve been forgotten. They don’t do anything in our areas.”