Well-designed cities share a common characteristic: they each have a center. These centers breed development – both commercial and residential – and community while physically functioning as a metaphorical focal point.
Tuscaloosa’s “center” is being reformed. After falling victim to the shopping mall like many other cities over the past decades, the city’s plan to renew and reestablish its downtown area is being brought to fruition.
The intersection of 21st Avenue and 6th Street offers a glimpse into the opening stages of the new downtown. On one side, the new $67 million federal courthouse is taking shape. On the other, Government Plaza, the park behind City Hall, gleams in the sun and has since last fall.
Government Plaza, the adjacent intermodal facility and parking deck were the first major physical manifestations of Tuscaloosa’s Downtown Urban Renewal Project, which was adopted by the city council in 2005. This park, although slightly hidden from University Boulevard, can emerge as the mainstay for downtown’s progress by following the tenets of a successful urban space.
As Jane Jacobs writes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” these include: an intricate design, enclosure and diverse use.
In terms of intricacy, Government Plaza already succeeds. It steers away from a cookie-cutter format, lacks monotonous symmetry and blends in to the theme set by the surrounding municipal buildings. Once the trees fill in, the shade they create will help cool off any visitors.
The four edges of the park comprise its enclosure, even though not all of the sides are completed yet. To the north, City Hall attaches quite nicely, and the courthouse to the east will open later this year. The park’s southern border with 7th Street remains a question mark, as many buildings on the opposite side of the street remain undeveloped. Along the western side, the intermodal facility lacks tenants in its available spaces for restaurants or shops.
Once the courthouse opens and brings in the bustle of its employees, the southern and western edges should fall into place soon after. Hopefully, the choices to fill those spaces will be strategic with regards to the use of the park.
Achieving diverse use with a park means that the space is utilized at different times of the day for different reasons. For instance, City Hall and the courthouse will supply employees looking for a place to eat lunch at midday. If a restaurant were to open in the intermodal facility, it would draw afternoon and nighttime visitors, and possibly morning customers if it served breakfast.
The one aspect missing is residential. That is what the southern border with 7th Street would ideally provide. There have been talks of developing more lofts downtown, and no better place to do so exists. Residents here would increase the number of park visitors in the early morning and late at night.
The ability to host events such as Druid City Arts Festival and take advantage of football game days in the fall will bring in short, temporary uses of the park. But they are not to be relied on.
An empty park is a wasted park. It seems unsafe, unattractive and unimportant, no matter how many dollars and how much effort were invested into it.
In regard to Government Plaza, Bill Snowden, the city of Tuscaloosa’s economic development director, told The Tuscaloosa News, “The whole purpose of this was for this to be the formal center for the city of Tuscaloosa.”
City officials must remain patient and diligent to accomplish this. As residents, we must recognize this success as it develops. Cities of all sizes all over the country are realizing the need to revert back to an urban center, and Tuscaloosa is in the process of just that.
Wesley Vaughn is a junior majoring in public relations and political science. His column runs on Wednesdays.