One Year and Counting: Birmingham Mayor Woodfin Focuses on Revitalizing Neighborhoods

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin had a dilapidated house torn down shortly after he was elected to show his commitment to fighting blight in the city. (Source: Sam Prickett)

This is the third in a series of three articles looking at the first year of Randall Woodfin’s tenure as mayor. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

In its first year, Randall Woodfin’s administration has restructured the mayor’s office and moved to address the city’s violent crime rate. But the crux of Woodfin’s political career thus far has been the issue of neighborhood revitalization.

On the campaign trail, he repeated the mantra that Birmingham “is only as strong as our lowest quality-of-life neighborhoods,” accusing then-Mayor William Bell of focusing on downtown development while neglecting other areas.

Woodfin’s revitalization plan has largely focused on maintaining and improving basic city services in neighborhoods, such as paving streets and sidewalks, demolishing dilapidated structures, cutting overgrown lots and picking up trash — what he calls the “blocking and tackling” of government.

While the practicalities of bureaucracy have slowed some of Woodfin’s neighborhood revitalization projects, including his 100 Homes, 100 Days program, he maintains that his administration’s approach has been “aggressive,” and promises that it will get more so.

“Day one of year two, the priority and sense of urgency is still around neighborhood revitalization,” Woodfin told reporters a week before the anniversary of his inauguration as mayor. “We are going to get the fundamentals of government right.”

Fight Against Blight

On Dec. 1, 2017, just a few days after taking office, Woodfin invited members of the press to the Rising-West Princeton neighborhood to watch a bulldozer tear into an abandoned, dilapidated house.

For Woodfin, the demolition was a statement of intent that his administration was taking a more aggressive approach to urban blight than his predecessor’s. “Right away, I want the community, I want our residents, I want our city employees to know my commitment to getting rid of dilapidated structures that are beyond repair,” he said.

One year in, Woodfin’s administration has torn down 285 dilapidated houses, a number he says he’s not quite satisfied with. In March, Woodfin told the council that 752 properties had been identified as dilapidated, with 381 condemned and ready for demolition.

“In an ideal world, we wanted to get to 365 houses (for the first year),” Woodfin said. “We wanted a minimum of one a day, but weather doesn’t allow you to do at least one a day. Hell, year two, we would love to get to two (per day).”

The number of houses ready for demolition has increased to 523, which Woodfin calls “very aggressive.” But, he added, “You can’t be in the demo business all your life.” He said something similar about clearing overgrown lots: “We can’t be in the grass-cutting business forever.”

While clearing abandoned homes and tall weeds might make neighborhoods look better, raise property values and increase public safety, Woodfin stresses that simply removing the problem can’t be the end goal.

“It’s also about, ‘How do you make people feel empowered — which is an intangible — where they live?’” he said. “How do you rethink the way we do things?”

Part of that, he said, has been addressed by the 100 Homes,100 Days program, which he announced in July to help low-income and senior-citizen residents repair their homes. Progress on that project has been slow to start, which Woodfin attributes to government being a process.

“This is the opposite of the drive-thru culture of fast-food restaurants,” he said. “There is no instant anything.”

That’s certainly true of another major goal his administration has for neighborhood revitalization: eradicating the food deserts surrounding many of Birmingham’s poorer neighborhoods. People who live in those neighborhoods have limited access to affordable, healthy food options. “We haven’t been able to do it in this first year, but it’s still a commitment,” he said. “We have to get access to healthy food within these districts.”

But getting food companies to come to those areas is going to be a challenge, he said. “If I can be totally honest with y’all, nobody’s going to voluntarily come here. I’m probably going to have to get on a plane somewhere and sit down with some CEO or COO of a national grocery and say, ‘What does it take for you to have an urban model to provide healthy food within our city limits?’ And (I’ll) let enough people tell me no until we get to yes.”

Funding Revitalization

Woodfin’s relationship with neighborhoods hasn’t been without rocky patches. His proposed FY 2019 budget initially removed nearly $500,000 in funding from neighborhood associations, citing unspent funds “sitting there” in neighborhood associations’ accounts. Instead, Woodfin set aside that money “to directly invest in neighborhood revitalization.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin (Source: Sam Prickett)

The move caused an outcry among neighborhood associations, which argued that the money was unspent because of slow-moving bureaucracy at City Hall. While Woodfin promised to streamline the process for neighborhood associations to draw on those funds, he maintained that the money would still go to neighborhoods. “While we’re in the middle of this process of making it more efficient for them to draw down on (their) funds, what we’re doing is taking some current dollars (and putting) them toward those things that they’ve said are their top priorities,” he said.

By the time the final budget passed the City Council, he had relented, slightly. The budget allocated $2,000 to each neighborhood association, still less than what they had received in previous years.

But that question of how to fund neighborhood revitalization resulted in what is one of the most significant parts of Woodfin’s first year: the creation of a neighborhood revitalization fund, which would go toward “increased public safety, resurfacing streets and sidewalks, removing dilapidated houses, housing development, and other priorities deemed important by the mayor and city council,” according to a resolution passed in March.

When that resolution was first passed, it was alongside another resolution approving funding for an expansion and renovation of the BJCC. All revenue growth from that expansion was earmarked for the neighborhood revitalization fund. The BJCC estimated that number could range between $500,000 and $9.9 million, depending on whether other properties in the area are developed as well. Woodfin used the fund as justification for spending money on the BJCC project, which had been the subject of controversy.

“It’s going to generate … $9 (million) to $10 million to put in our neighborhood revitalization fund,” Woodfin said then. “I told people (during the campaign) I’m going to get rid of these dilapidated structures. I told these folks I’m going to pave streets, make sidewalks and curbs walkable, but I need money to do that.”

Revenue from the BJCC has not started trickling in, but Woodfin has used that neighborhood revitalization fund as a repository for other revenue as well, such as income from the sale of a downtown parking deck to grocery delivery company Shipt and the sale of a North Titusville property to data company DC BLOX.

“A lot of people thought (it) was going to have funding from the BJCC,” he said last month. “But we decided to say, listen, we need to find money before then, and any additional dollars we find, put it into neighborhood revitalization.”

The city was able to find other neighborhood revitalization funding by watching for savings that could be had in its normal spending, Woodfin said. “And what do we put it towards? We put $250,000 (toward) road patches. We’re going to have at least 15,000 feet of sidewalk repairs, and then 12 to 15,000 miles of road paving, with just the additional funding we have. So we start there.”