Downtown Tuscaloosa will undergo renovations

Adrienne Burch

With enrollment at The University of Alabama growing each year, the city of Tuscaloosa has responded with major additions and renovations to the downtown area to help better serve this influx of students.

Ground is expected to be broken on a new upscale hotel in the spring, the city council just approved the renovation of the old PNC bank building to add over 100 apartments to the downtown area, and the Riverwalk area along the Black Warrior River has exploded in recent years with the addition of the Ampitheater and Rivermarket.

“What we are seeing today is the culmination of planning that has been going on for a few years now,” Mayor Walt Maddox said. “We are taking advantage of the growth of the University, and commercial and residential are working in harmony to bring vibrancy to the downtown area.”

Maddox said with the geographic location of the University so close to the downtown area, it is only natural for there to be a synergy between the two. Lee Garrison, Tuscaloosa city councilman for District 4, said he definitely believes student growth has been essential in pushing the city to renovate downtown.

“The student growth has defiantly impacted Tuscaloosa in a positive way,” he said. “Now the city has to respond to these challenges. Downtown is continuing to evolve in a positive way.”

One of the largest projects currently underway downtown is the construction of an eight-story Embassy Suites hotel on the northwest corner of Greensboro Avenue and University Boulevard.

The Tuscaloosa City Council approved Kemmons Wilson Inc. contracting company’s plans for the hotel last year, and they are set to begin construction in spring 2013 with an expected completion date in July 2014.

“There is a clear need for an upscale hotel in the city of Tuscaloosa,” McLean Wilson, vice president of Kemmons Wilson Inc. said.

The hotel will feature 154 bedrooms, an indoor pool, 5,300 square feet of meeting space and a fine-dining restaurant on the street level.

Councilwoman Cynthia Almond said the process of planning this hotel has been long, but it will be worth it in the end.

“We will see downtown come to life,” she said. “The hotel will be well used.”

Garrison said he is also excited about the conversion of the old PNC bank building on the northeast corner of University Boulevard and Greensboro Avenue into apartments.

Heritage Land and Development Co. LLC out of Memphis, Tenn., announced this month they will convert the top eight floors of the building into 100 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

“This will bring more bodies to the downtown area,” Garrison said. “The private sector economy will just continue to improve.”

Garrison said he believes much of the reason many of the private sector projects are beginning is because of the public investments made over recent years to improve the downtown area. Some of the public investments include the new Federal Building and improving streetscapes.

“Improving the area attracted these private investors,” he said. “Good public and private investments are what make for a solid downtown area.”

Garrison said he is also working on plans to better connect the downtown area to The University of Alabama campus.

“We want to make it a seamless connection between the Federal Building and the Strip,” he said.

Garrison said this will involve improving sidewalks, streets and utilities in this area. He compared this renovation to the connection made between campus and downtown along Bryant Drive. He also said the city hopes to add public transportation options to carry students from campus to downtown.

One of the major public investments the city has made for the downtown area has also been the revitalization of the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk area along the Black Warrior River. Wendy Riggs, director of Arts and Entertainment for the City, oversees the Rivermarket, Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and the Transportation Museum.

All three of these attractions have been built over the past two years, with the Amphitheater in its second season and the Rivermarket and museum opening last April. The Tuscaloosa Amphitheater was one of the first attractions brought to the downtown and Riverwalk area in recent years, and it has spurred on much of future growth. The 7,470-capacity venue has brought many big-name headlining acts to Tuscaloosa including Luke Bryan, Kelly Clarkson and The Avett Brothers.

“A lot has changed since the opening of the Amphitheater,” Riggs said. “It brought live music back to the downtown area.”

The River Walk also recently launched its Holidays on the River project featuring an ice rink open until Jan. 6, 2013, with appearances by Santa, holiday films and train rides.

“We are really excited and hope students take advantage of these opportunities,” Riggs said.

Mayor Maddox said the city is not close to finished with the downtown and Riverwalk areas.

“We have been talking about downtown for years, and we’re not done yet,” he said.