BY SHARMAN EGAN | Contributing Writer
Is it just me or does living in Mobile these days feel like an episode of “I Dream of Jeannie”? Awhile back, my husband, Kevin, and I adopted a new puppy. “Adeline wants a dog park nearby,” I said one day. Poof! A dog park appeared on Ann Street, a few blocks from our home.
Months earlier I’d said, “Sure do wish we had a decent downtown grocery store.” Poof! The charming Greer’s Downtown Market replaced a dingy Sav-a-Lot. “A Mardi Gras park.” Poof! Heavy equipment took over the weed-infested lot at Government and Royal.
It hasn’t been quite that easy, of course, but no matter what you’ve wished for in Mobile, suddenly it seems like all your wishes are coming true. Over the last two years, countless historic buildings have been saved from ruin: Barton Academy, the Protestant Children’s Home, the Van Antwerp Building, St. Francis Street Methodist Church and a slew of others.
Businesses are being born in incubators all over town. A music festival well past its “best by” date was replaced by a new one that’s free. Beer lovers got their growlers. Skaters got their park. Police and firefighters finally got their long-overdue raises.
It looks like soon we’ll have two new breweries, waterfront apartments downtown, a Midtown Publix and bike lanes on Broad and Water streets. Maybe even a smooth Ann Street. Miracles do happen.
So much is happening so fast, it’s hard to get your head around it. “Mobility” will look at all this positive development, stitching together the pieces to assess the overall impact on this place we call home.
We’ll look at what has changed since 2014, what things will look like by 2020, and keep you up to date on projects in progress. We’ll focus on real projects, ones that are funded and in the works — not just dreams that may or may not happen someday — and, in particular, ones that are having a significant impact on the city.
Three questions to start. What’s driving all this development? Where’s the money coming from? And who are the players?
Our city government implemented two major changes in the last two years that help set the stage. The first is the Map for Mobile, a citywide plan to guide future growth. The city is now working on a review of zoning and land use that will take the plan down to the next level. The second is the new “form-based code” for downtown. It relies on new urbanism principles to support historic neighborhoods and make the city more pedestrian friendly. It attracts developers by allowing more design freedom and making development easier.
Where’s the pot of gold coming from to fund all these improvements? Our city taxes are a major source, of course. But much is coming from a gumbo of private investors, grants, foundations and even ordinary folks like you and me. For example, 114 individuals and six corporations donated over half of the money for the dog park (the rest came from the city). Mobilians are stepping up.
Word has spread that Mobile is ripe for investment. Out-of-town investors are playing a much larger role. They were behind the sale of the Gayfer’s and Staples Pake buildings downtown, Marine Street Lofts, Old Shell and Russell schools, and many others.
The restaurant and drinking scene is being transformed by out-of-towners: Five and Chuck’s Fish (both out of Birmingham), Southern National (Atlanta), G’s Bakery & Café (the owner relocated from Oregon), The Firehouse Wine & Bar Shop (New York), Haint Blue Brewing Co. (Seattle) and Bun-D (based in the U.K., this will be their first restaurant in the U.S.). Brookley Aeroplex is seeing an influx of companies from outside Mobile, with at least 12 setting up operations there since last September.
In terms of who’s driving things, it’s not just the usual players. While the Downtown Mobile Alliance, the Chamber, city government and similar groups continue to play a major role, new citizens groups are having an impact. Since 2014, One Mobile, Midtown Mobile Movement, The Peninsula of Mobile and the Delta Bike Project have organized, just to name a few. They’re not just meeting and talking, they’re getting things done.
The Nextdoor online community has taken off, making it easier for neighbors to get to know each other and collaborate on projects. Nextdoor now has 167 Mobile neighborhoods onboard, with more than 3,800 members in the downtown and Midtown areas alone.
One Mobile has been a major player. The Midtown Mobile Movement is just one of the projects born there. Others include Startup Weekend, Mobile Streets Alive, Pop Up Broad Street, Math Path and the new Mardi Gras Trail. It also sponsored the dog park.
New foundations are having a big impact. The Mobile Airport Authority Foundation, formed in 2014, is running on jet fuel. They’ve renovated Doyle Park, opened the Whiz Kidz Laboratory, held the 5K on the Runway and Aerofest events, and have other major projects in the works. The Jake Peavy Foundation seems to be all over the place. It has sponsored the TenSixtyFive Music Festival; the Fuse Project, a co-working space for nonprofits; and the Create Change Mural Mentorship Program.
The Barton Academy Foundation, working with the Mobile County school board, completed the exterior renovation of the building. They were recently awarded a $1.25 million grant to help create the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies. And these are just a few examples.
Keep those wishes coming, Mobile. Poof! They might just happen.
Next up in Mobility: We’ll begin a series of tours, starting with the Mobile waterfront.