Jun 29 2007

Downtown in Ruins

Tuscaloosa News

By Tommy Stevenson

A visitor to Tuscaloosa who hasn't been in town recently could be excused for concluding that Iraq-like major combat exercises have taken place downtown, where whole blocks now lie in rubble. But no, all that devastation you see is just progress they tell us.

The demolition of more than 15 blocks, defined roughly by 23rd Avenue to the west, Bryant Drive to the South, 20th Avenue to the west and all the way across University Boulevard nearly to the river to the north, is to make way for United States Sen. Richard Shelby's grand new federal courthouse. The plans are to build the courthouse, complete with a couple of reflection pools and who knows what else, on two blocks south of University Boulevard between 20th and 21st Avenues.

That would be in the northwest corner of 15 blocks south of University Boulevard where nearly all of the buildings, including the old Tuscaloosa News Building, which is already nothing more than a pile of bricks, are marked for demolition. The hope is that the new courthouse, just down the street from City Hall, will serve as a magnet for new development and create a downtown Renaissance.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but to tell the truth, I think it's worth a shot.

When this grand new remaking of downtown Tuscaloosa was just a gleam in Shelby's eye, he met with our editorial board and told us what he wanted to do. It was six or eight years ago when the Tuscaloosa senator had gained enough clout in Congress to get the money for such a huge project (the existing federal courthouse on Greensboro Avenue is indeed well past its prime), but it seemed to come out of the blue. The area he had in mind for demolition had nothing really worth preserving in it, Shelby said at the time, and new, substantial businesses and housing development would give downtown a much needed shot in the arm.

After the meeting, I went out and drove around the area, concentrating on assessing just the buildings, and found he was right -- most of them were aging one- and two-story brick and wooden structures containing things like consignment shops, tire stores and other marginal businesses.

Contained here are some shots I took Tuesday afternoon, including the sites of the old News building and the former downtown post office, as well as a shot from the air where you can see the rubble right in the middle of the picture, and a link to a nifty interactive graphic we ran over the weekend.

You'll notice that while some future construction projects are designated, a lot of them are just "artist renderings" of buildings that could be built by the private sector.

So will downtown Tuscaloosa rise phoenix-like from the rubble? Only time (and a lot of it) will tell. Right now, however, things aren't very pretty in downtown Tuscaloosa.