BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – A new downtown Birmingham development that mixes residential and office space with innovative food offerings and a community gathering spot is poised to become another boost for the city’s thriving tech sector.
Bayer Properties’ $66 million redevelopment of the historic Pizitz department store is in its final stages, with the first residents expected to begin moving in around late November or early December.
Along with 143 apartments, the project will include 11,000 square feet of office space and The Pizitz Food Hall, which was called a “foodie’s heaven” by The New York Times.
The long-awaited redevelopment was initially conceived years before Regions Field, Railroad Park, Uptown Entertainment District and many condo and apartment projects became reality as part of the modern renaissance of downtown Birmingham.
The hope is that The Pizitz, always envisioned as a cornerstone of revitalization at the heart of the city, will help keep the strong momentum going, said David Silverstein, principal at Bayer.
“Pizitz is benefiting from these other projects, and hopefully Pizitz will now be a driver for even more development,” he said. “Just looking at the revitalization that is occurring in downtown Birmingham today is exciting and astonishing and representative of a city that’s finally getting hold of what’s been happening elsewhere and making it happen here.”
Much like the downtown development boom, the city’s growing contingent of entrepreneurs and innovators is gaining momentum, too.
A recent funding wave for startups and others underscores the rising profile of Birmingham’s tech sector, and more activity is on the horizon.
Devon Laney, president and CEO of the downtown business incubator Innovation Depot, said projects like The Pizitz help sell the city.
“As we continue to focus on downtown Birmingham as a hub of Innovation, the development of resources and amenities like The Pizitz Building further enhances that positioning and increases our ability to recruit and retain entrepreneurs and their companies,” he said.
A study from Brookings Institution cites the emergence of new urban models called Innovation Districts. Birmingham’s Entrepreneurial District has been renamed the Innovation District, and it has the traits that the study’s authors deem crucial for “open innovation” to thrive.
Innovation Depot is the hub of Birmingham’s Innovation District, and surrounding developments such as The Pizitz make a significant contribution, too. The development will provide places where entrepreneurs can meet, mingle and collaborate, as well as live, work and play, all in close proximity to like-minded peers.
The districts, by Brookings’ definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions including research universities, hospitals and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators, Brookings’ Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner write.
“Our most creative institutions, firms and workers crave proximity so that ideas and knowledge can be transferred more quickly and seamlessly,” they said.
While Bayer is working with a couple of potential tenants for the office space at The Pizitz, part of it will be what the developers are calling beta office space, which can be rented out for shorter periods of time.
Such a set-up might be attractive to startups, which don’t necessarily want to sign a five-year lease, Silverstein said.
“Our hope is to offer to the market that type of office, which would give more flexibility,” he said.
THE FOOD HALL
Meanwhile, The Pizitz Food Hall, set to open in mid-December, is a new experience for Birmingham’s dining scene.
It features 15 food stalls, where chefs and entrepreneurs will have small restaurant concepts. The menus vary widely, feature twists on traditional fare and include homemade Israeli cuisine, Latin-inspired ramen, Asian dumplings, Mexican street food and Southern biscuits, among other choices.
There’s also a stall supported by REV Birmingham that will serve as an incubator for up-and-coming restaurateurs.
“This is an interesting way to help someone get into the business,” Silverstein said. “The chefs will rotate, probably quarterly, and this affords them the opportunity to get their name and food out there.”
Two full service restaurants also are a part of the food hall: Ghion Cultural Hall, known for authentic Ethiopian fare and coffee, and Fero, which serves rustic Italian cuisine.
The centerpiece of the food hall is The Louis, named for Louis Pizitz, the building’s original owner. Serving milkshakes, sodas, local beers and cocktails, this will be a community gathering spot by day and a bar at night.
“It’s truly a mixed-use project that incorporates quality of life and innovative features,” Silverstein said. “We’re also very hopeful that Sidewalk Film Festival will occupy the lower level of the building, and our objective is to have two movie theaters there as well.”
Birmingham-based Bayer is no stranger to innovation in its work.
The company pioneered the lifestyle center concept that combines open-air shopping with high-end shops that were traditionally reserved for malls. Its flagship development, The Summit Birmingham, opened in 1997, and Bayer has replicated the format in communities across the U.S.
“I think that’s certainly part of our development culture, to try to be creative and visionary in working with the communities where we’ve been able to develop,” Silverstein said.
A key part of The Pizitz renovation was the use of state historic tax credits. They helped offset extremely costly aspects of the projects, such as the refurbishment of the terra cotta façade of the 1920s era structure.
The credit program has since expired, when the Legislature did not renew it earlier this year. However, Silverstein said he is hopeful that state lawmakers will take it up again, because it was such a valuable tool in spurring the redevelopment of aging buildings across the state.
In fact, The Pizitz probably would not have happened without the credits, he said.
Silverstein praised Birmingham city officials for helping the project proceed smoothly.
“Working with the city of Birmingham has been so positive. The mayor and council should be commended for helping make Pizitz a reality,” he said.
As for what’s next for Bayer, Silverstein said more new development plans are in the works for Birmingham.
“We believe in Birmingham,” he said. “We hope to continue to invest in our city and in our community. There are other projects we’re certainly looking at and looking to develop here, and we hope to announce more in the near future.”