Civil Rights District - 2016 Rose Center Fellow (Birmingham)

Birmingham aerial view


Birmingham is seeking assistance developing a strategy for leveraging the assets of the Birmingham Civil Rights District (BCRD)—including the City’s plan to invest up to $13 million dollars to renovate the historic A.G. Gaston Motel and build a new Freedom Center Public Policy Institute—into a sustainable, vibrant and revitalized district in its downtown.

The BCRD is a 36-acre area of downtown Birmingham where several significant events in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took place. The district was designated by the City in 1992 and covers a six-block area. The westernmost section, Northside, lies east of 17th Street between Fourth and Seventh Avenues North. Other major historic landmarks that are assets in the district include the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, restored Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, renovated Carver Theatre and Negro Southern League Museum.

The City decided to focus on the BCRD because of its rich history and pivotal contributions to the fight for human and civil rights. It was here that the nation recognized the need to end discrimination and welcome diversity through the efforts of activists such as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. It is vital for the City of Birmingham to acknowledge its past and thrust forward by sharing a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the significance of civil rights with a global audience.

The renovation of the A.G. Gaston Motel is proposed to revive this vacant landmark and anchor new business development within the district while serving as a national model for other small-scale redevelopment projects. The new Freedom Center will be a place of learning, collaboration, scholarship and a center for change—hosting human rights exhibits, academic learning areas, green space and foster collaboration among scholars and students. These two projects have the potential to positon the BCRD as a central hub for scholars, educators, students and activists while also increasing tourism and enhancing nearby neighborhoods. But to fully capitalize on this opportunity, the City recognizes the need to create a physical development strategy for the district along with an economic growth strategy and connectivity plan to the greater city.

The City sees the following opportunities in the district today:

  • National Landmark Recognition
  • Removing historical stigma and redefine Birmingham
  • Transportation (Bike Share Program)
  • Connectivity and prosperity of the 4th Avenue Business District
  • Providing business incentives — Commercial Revitalization District
  • Encouraging appropriate land uses
  • Promoting green infrastructure
  • Increasing cultural attractions
  • Promoting pedestrian-friendly character

But also recognizes the following challenges:

  • Leveraging private dollars
  • Sustainability and financial resiliency for this area
  • Population growth
  • City Center livability
  • Adapted reuse of unoccupied structures (i.e., big box)
  • Catalytic development

The City aspires to take its rightful place at the forefront of the global and civil rights movement; however, how do we do this effectively? Questions for the Rose Center:

  • How do we increase population and private investment in this area that capitalizes on existing assets such as the Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Carver Theatre and Negro Southern League Museum and catalyzes economic benefits for the community?
  • How do we connect this area to greater Birmingham?
  • How do we create sustainability around the proposed Freedom Center and the soon-to-be renovated A.G. Gaston Motel, including ensuring that they won’t require public subsidy for operational expenses?
  • What are some unique ways to leverage private dollars and reinvestment for these institutions and for the district?
  • How do we bring attention to the Freedom Center to gain designation as a National Landmark and Heritage Destination?
  • What additional advice or guidance can you offer us?
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