Downtown redevelopment

Boone: Sherer, creek will play major role in Town Creek plan

Orchestra Partners leader bullish about downtown Jasper

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John Boone of Orchestra Partners in Birmingham, which is involved with advising on the Town Creek redevelopment project, is bullish on downtown Jasper and sees potential for improving Sherer Auditorium and Town Creek itself to connect people to downtown restaurants and shops, as well as create more development and housing. 

Boone, 37, a Pell City native who is a partner with Hunter Renfroe at Orchestra Partners (https://www.orchestra-partners.com), on March 31 discussed the $80,000 Town Creek project that the firm is advising the City of Jasper on. Half of that is financed by the city, with $10,000 coming from Jasper Main Street, and $30,000 from the Walker Area Community Foundation. 

The Birmingham Business Journal said the five-year-old company has played a major role in the continued revitalization of Birmingham through projects in downtown, Five Points South and Avondale. 

He said, "We knew that Birmingham was on the cusp of something special," adding he always loved Alabama as well. "The assets that Birmingham had, and I think this speaks to Jasper as well, is that they had this authentic, huge building stock." 

He pointed to Orchestra's Founders Station project as a mixed use with condos above bars, restaurants and retail, with office space and a walkable plaza. "What we did was create an 80,000-square-foot downtown,"  he said.

As the company grew, the company transformed so that it is no longer developing new property but helping others instead. The company no longer buys property to develop.

"We are no longer real estate developers," he said, transforming into a "planning and redevelopment advisory firm. So now people in cities are hiring us to do this stuff for them. They have seen our successes and they do buy into our mission, which is connecting people. We connect them physically with the spaces we create, using existing assets." 

Jasper Main Street President Jenny Short convinced Jasper leaders that their work could translate well for Jasper, bringing in the team to look at the city, Boone said. He sees many similarities between Jasper and Birmingham, and that it is a question of a smaller scale - which he thinks is possible. 

"Birmingham and Jasper both started at the crux of a railroad. They grew very quickly in the beginning. They started stagnating with the exodus of heavy industry, when Northeast industrialists pulled out and sort of left the South hanging," he said. "It is very diverse. You have got growth in the highway that has been poaching downtown for years but that growth in the highway has sort of slowed and some of those artifacts of the 20th Century are becoming eyesores and reminding people that downtown exists. 

"In Birmingham you have Century Plaza just vanishes, gets torn down and becomes a distribution center now for Amazon. And you had the Jasper Mall which starred in its own documentary. People are now asking, 'Where else now am I going to shop?' I think Jasper's answer to that is, 'Come downtown and buy local.' That has worked in Birmingham."

He said downtown Birmingham competes well with the Summit, "and I see no reason where downtown Jasper can't do the same thing." 

He said many people ask, "What am I going to do with my family on a Friday or Saturday night?"

"I think Jasper's answer to that is come downtown and we'll have something for you," Boone said, adding that is being seen in other cities across the nation. 

In the advisory role, Boone said Orchestra will find a roadmap to help pay for projects and bridging a gap between planners who usually don't know how to finance and develop, and developers don't plan collaboratively. It then helps local organizers to see the plan through. Even after planning, if the firm is not chosen for the project management, the plans should be specific enough for someone else to oversee it.

"What we have been asked specifically is to focus on is that section of Town Creek that stretches from the (Maddox) intermediate school, about three or four blocks south," he said. Some of the property, including Sherer Auditorium - which he called a "key important anchor property" - are "controlled by allies of the city and can be planned. They can actually be included in the plan," he said. 

"The creek itself is a huge asset," Boone said, noting Birmingham built over all of its old creeks - meaning there is no water in Birmingham. "It's a real shame, but thank God Jasper didn't cover this up a long time ago. In fact, one of our associates uncovered an old plat map that showed that originally the plan was to cover up Town Creek. They were going to tunnel it, or put it in a tunnel and grade over it. Thank God that didn't happen, or we wouldn't be having this conversation."

He also said it was important that the city owns Sherer Auditorium, which he described as a "key cultural piece of the downtown puzzle. Finding a good use for that is going to be key as well, and we are coming up with some specific use proposals for the city to use around Sherer." 

He said Sherer - which is now mainly used for storage but which officials have talked about finding a new use for -  is a great facility. According to one online source, it was constructed by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration in 1938 and used as a municipal auditorium for many years. 

"I would tell your readers Sherer has all the pieces in place now that are necessary to do whatever needs to be done already," Boone said. "It has got parking. It has proximity to Town Creek itself. It has the space inside. Whatever issues that we may foresee with the roof - I mean, I'm not sure the roof has problems. But the typical issues with old buildings can easily be fixed. What you can't change are these really special elements of a building," such as its history, location and building materials. 

Planning for Sherer is incomplete, he said, but it "will be some sort of community-oriented culturally significant centerpiece for what happens along Town Creek in general. That building won't be torn down or converted to multi-family or anything. Sherer is going to be Sherer, and it is going to be a better version of Sherer. Again, we're not developers and we're not trying to force any model onto that site." 

Other planning for the area is also not completed, but in general there are three main goals. First is a connected network, including physical means such as trails, roads, sidewalks and series of retail establishments. "We're trying to connect this network of veins and arteries of the city together," he said.

Second, they want to find an anchor for where vibrancy start and radiate out from. "Obviously, Sherer is the candidate for that," with planning around that building and its role in the plan.  

The third goal is supplemental housing, which creates care of the area and a sense of community. as well as working harder to create an experience that visitors will like as well. 

Boone noted his firm helped with popularizing the idea of living and buying in downtown Birmingham again. Condos they arranged spent an average of seven days on the market before being sold, due to pent up demand to buy a downtown home. 

"I'm not saying condos are the answer in Jasper, Alabama, but I'm saying living downtown in Jasper, Alabama, is a mission. That is one of the strategies here," he said, saying officials plan to answer how local people want to live downtown and what it means to them. Boone said that is being studied and he is excited about it. 

"Let me give a ton of credit to Main Street Alabama and Main Street Jasper for what they are able to accomplish, Boone said, adding Jasper has done much in a short about of time.

"We have a close relationship with Main Street in general because we love their process," he said. We're believers of it. We want to augment the successes they have with their process of creating a livable downtown by helping drive all the actual growth they need to sustain that." 

Buildings exist for the bars and restaurants, but the living space is a challenge due to the housing product type, he said. That could even involve tearing some structures down, depending on the type, even though Boone hates to do that as a history major in college. "Every project we've done, we've kept the historic structure," he said.  

The overall project would blend the current downtown revitalized area with Town Creek. "We're helping Jasper understand the value of creating density, which is already dense near the courthouse. It is sustaining that density and have it radiate outward,' Boone said. 

He also noted Jasper is special in that it is far enough away from Birmingham, Cullman, Tuscaloosa that it kind of has its own center of gravity.

As for Town Creek itself, Boone said it can be used for growth.

"There is already a great trail system right across the creek from the intermediate school. In fact, the trail crosses on a pedestrian bridge and comes down on the Sherer side of the creek from the intermediate school,"  he said. "One of the centerpieces of the plan will include extending that trail south past Sherer all the way down the creek, and using that trail to build connectivity on that side of downtown. That is huge for us." 

That will be easy to connect to shops and restaurants, because the scale is small, as compared to Birmingham. 

"I think the key there is not just a trail system but improving the creek itself, and improving the banks with some landscaping, adding some lighting," he said. "Alabama is incredibly biodiverse, and the Jasper area is just south of Bankhead (National Forest). There are all sorts of species you can highlight in that creek. It is a great watershed. You can have the local architect work with local botanists or biologists, and even local school groups in picking the species to populate the improved creek area. Right now it is rocky. It is really just a spillway at this point."

He said the goal is to make the creek more pleasant to look at and "remind people this is a creek, not a ditch." 

For the Town Creek project, it is not clear when it should be completed, although it should be months down the line, he said. A general time frame for planning can run anywhere from six to 12 months, although it may run closer to nine months in Jasper, he said. 

He said recent meetings have indicated that local officials have shown "total buy in" and the process is moving along. 

In general he said the market is in Jasper and people here are passionate about it, and investment is available.

"So far, there hasn't been a single instance of someone saying they are unhappy with the work we are doing and that they don't want progress," he said, noting his firm has come across that problem "all the time in Birmingham," with owners flatly saying they will not ever improve or sell their buildings.