Entrepreneurial District in the B’ham News

Birmingham News
Business is booming in enterprise sector
Lofts, storefronts among new projects
Thursday, May 17, 2007
DAWN KENT
News staff writer

Birmingham’s Entrepreneurial District is the site of at least $47 million in planned, ongoing or new developments, a trend that downtown advocates expect to grow with the recent opening of the expanded business incubator, Innovation Depot.

Offices, lofts and storefronts are among the new projects in the district that lies on downtown’s western edge, an area that has not kept up with the development pace of neighborhoods closer to financial and government centers.

But things have been changing recently. Besides the new buildings, plans are in the works for park and streetscape improvements in and around the district, as well as special signs that denote the area, like those in the Loft District.

“I think it’s becoming known as the place for entrepreneurs, particularly technology-related businesses,” ONB President Michael Calvert said. “We’re optimistic that the Innovation Depot will really be the catalyst to take it to the next level.”

The Innovation Depot, a $17 million project which opened last month, combines the former Entrepreneurial Center and UAB’s Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries in the revamped former Sears building.

The 140,000-square-foot space, with its soaring ceilings, concrete pillars and exposed ductwork, has the capacity to house 60 to 65 biotechnology, life sciences, information technology, light manufacturing and business services companies.

The Innovation Depot is a signature development for the district and offers confidence to other entrepreneurs looking to set up shop there, said CEO Susan Matlock. “It really can be an entrepreneurial district,” she said.

Elsewhere in the district, geotechnical engineering firm Gallet & Associates Inc. bought the former Entrepreneurial Center and plans to renovate it for a corporate office, a $2.6 million project.
Another $500,000 is going into the Acme building, which Matthew Myers is renovating for his scooter restoration shop and dealership, along with other commercial and loft space.
Additional residences in the district are planned at the former Cabana Hotel, now called Leer Tower, and the Jefferson Loft building.

The Entrepreneurial District, which stretches from Interstate 65 to 18th Street North, covering First and Second avenues, got its name several years ago as a part of a series of initiatives aimed at advancing technology in Birmingham.

The signs denoting the district, which show a stylized lower-case “e,” were designed by BIG Communications, and the measure is still in the proposal stage, Calvert said. An ONB task force, which includes developers with projects in the district, is planning to pursue funding for the signs from public and private sources. They also must get permission from the city to install the signs on street lamps.
Cost estimates on the signs are not complete.

The Innovation Depot goes a long way toward giving the area an identity as the epicenter of technology and enetrepreneurship, and Calvert said he thinks the signs will complement that.  Developer Jeremy Erdreich said the signs will promote the district as a place and help create a visual brand that the public can recognize. Erdreich and his sister, Anna, are partners in Metropolitan LLC, which is developing the Jefferson Loft building. The project would include 23 luxury condos, with an investment that would top $6 million. The Erdreiches also developed The Phoenix building and its 74 units, which opened two years ago and is 100 percent leased.

Metropolitan has been a pioneer in the district since the purchase of The Phoenix building in the late 1990s. Since then, the Erdreiches have seen plenty of activity in the district and also projects just outside of it, such as the Jemison Flats lofts and the new Social Security Administration building. The Erdreiches see a need for more high-tech companies to move in and build new headquarters in the district, along with bars, cafes and galleries.

Other projects planned in and around the district include streetscape improvements on 14th Street from UAB to 8th Avenue North. The city has budgeted more than $1 million for street borders, trees and streetlights.

The planned Railroad Reservation Park also is just outside the district.
At Leer Tower, a sales center is expected to open by the end of next week, said developer David Leer. The $20 million project will include 60 high-end units, with base prices ranging from $239,000 to $580,000.  “For us, it’s very exciting to see they’re putting a real emphasis on this area, and we’re really right in the middle of it,” Leer said.

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