The Birmingham News Co. can’t demolish its historic former home just yet.Two weeks ago, the Birmingham Design Review Committee (BDRC) said it could no longer deny the News a demolition permit because, under law, the committee could only deny such a request for six months.
In the BDRC’s Wednesday, March 28, meeting, however, Chairman Sam Frazier said he had interpreted the law incorrectly and that the committee’s denial actually can be permanent and prevent the News from ever receiving a demolition permit. The committee then voted unanimously to sustain its denial of the News’ demolition request.
“We now make it clear that the denial is on record and that there has been no demolition permit granted,” Frazier said. “I misled the committee by my interpretation of the law [last meeting].”
The confusion apparently existed because the BDRC had been operating under the belief that the old Birmingham News building sat within a commercial revitalization district – which would have allowed the committee to only enforce a denial for six months. Those six months ended in mid-March, and that’s why the BDRC said in its meeting two weeks ago that it could do nothing else to prevent the News from receiving a demolition permit.
However, city maps show that, more specifically, The Birmingham News’ old home also sits within the Downtown East Redevelopment Plan boundaries. According to the BDRC, design review must now be guided by the statutes in that urban renewal plan, which state: “A demolition permit shall be processed only upon written approval of the Design Review Committee … or if “six months have expired … and the Design Review Committee has not acted on the application.”
“That is not the case here,” Frazier said at the meeting. “We had voted to deny the building’s demolition, and there is nothing in this resolution that we are adopting … that allows us to grant the applicant denied a demolition permit, of a new demolition permit.”
Victor Hanson III, publisher of the News, was not in attendance, and, when reached by phone, declined to say what he thought the News might do next. “Well, I don’t have any comment. I wasn’t there, so as it stands I don’t have a comment. I’ll have to get more information.”
Bill Gilchrist, director of the City’s Planning, Engineering and Permits Department, said he has not read the resolution in full. “It’s a point of law they’re making, so our attorneys will have to look at it, but the urban renewal districts do guide changes in commercial revitalization districts.”
Wednesday’s surprise will come as good news to local preservationists and developers who have recently suggested that Hanson was not willing to truly work with anyone to find a reasonable way to save the old building. Hanson has said he didn’t receive any legitimate offers over the past six months. Until Wednesday, he was operating under the assumption that the News’ plan to replace its former home with a parking lot had been cleared. In an interview with the Weekly last week, he had said demolition would probably begin within a few months.
Frazier’s announcement also came as a welcome surprise to BDRC members. Two weeks ago, they were frustrated by an inability to prevent demolitions of historic structures such as this one. Now, it appears, they just might be more powerful than they ever thought.
The matter could eventually wind up in court, but the next move will come when the News appears before the BDRC again. Frazier says it’s up to the News to show up and challenge the decision.
– Phillip Jordan