By Michael Tomberlin
Birmingham’s Pizitz building has a presence about it and that presence has been felt.
From its construction in 1923, the massive, six-story home to Pizitz department store shaped retail and helped make that part of downtown Birmingham a shopping mecca for the region.
When the last elements of the Pizitz store closed in 1988, its presence was also felt as a sizeable vacancy and its emptiness spoke to the decline of downtown Birmingham in the face of suburban growth and shopping malls.
In the multiple false starts of renovation and restoration that followed, the Pizitz generated excitement befitting its size, only to be followed by equal amounts of disappointment when planned condos/offices/apartments/retailers never materialized.
Now Pizitz will have its presence felt in a positive way once again.
Bayer Properties has nearly completed its $70 million restoration of the 250,000-square-foot Pizitz and the property’s new life as a mix of apartments, office space, restaurants, retail and theater space is set to begin.
“We’re a little over 90 days from the first residential units opening. After close to 15 years of working on the project, we’re very excited,” said David Silverstein, principal of Bayer Properties. “We hope that it will be well-received by the community. We do believe it will be transformative for the downtown area.”
Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor, said scaffolding that has surrounded the historic building for more than a year will begin coming down this month. The first of the 143 apartments will be ready for residents in November.
Silverstein said the city of Birmingham and Mayor William Bell supported the project and pledged streetscape improvements to make the Pizitz renovation possible. He said the city supported the Pizitz revitalization as it had Bayer’s development of The Summit shopping center on U.S. 280, which is in the city limits of Birmingham.
“Mayor Bell has always been supportive of our initiatives here,” said Silverstein. “We really do think that this is reflective of how it is to do business in the city of Birmingham.”
A new 18,000-square-foot food hall and bar on the ground floor is expected to open in December or January.
“You’re going to see such an ethnic mix of food unlike you’ve seen in one place in this city before,” said Bayer Properties CEO Jeffrey Bayer.
Bayer consulted with food blog “What to Eat in Birmingham” in coming up with the concept for the food hall. He said to expect such diversity as dumplings, Ethiopian food, coffee, ice cream and maybe a bakery.
A large bar will be at the food court center under an old clock uncovered during the restoration.
Bayer said a well-known restaurateur from New York will open a restaurant and operate the bar in the Pizitz.
REV Birmingham is working with sponsors and Bayer Properties to establish a restaurant incubator in the food hall.
The incubator will help startup restaurateurs learn everything from inventory control to handling cash flow and managing a staff. It will also serve as a proof of concept for the restaurants’ menu, pricing and other elements.
“If you look at the businesses that have been at the forefront of the resurgence of Birmingham, they have been food-based,” said Deontée Gordon, director of business growth at REV. “Those are the most impactful but they are also the hardest to get started.”
After four to six months, the restaurant will be expected to move into its own space and allow a new restaurant to set up in the incubator.
Regions Bank, Bayer Properties, Wood Fruitticher, Appleseed Workshop, Maynard Cooper & Gale and private foundations are sponsoring the incubator and will continue to work with restaurateurs after they graduate to help them get established.
In addition to restoring the exterior of the building to its original appearance – including replacing and cleaning the terra cotta – Bayer added an atrium through the center of the building to bring natural light to the apartments and the food hall.
The mezzanine will have more than 14,000 square feet of office space for either a single user or flexible office space for multiple users.
The lower level of the building will be home to the Sidewalk Film Festival. The organization will have its offices there along with its own bar and two theaters.
Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk, said what will be known as Sidewalk Cinema will be a perfect fit in the building.
“We intend to screen first-run independent films and offer retrospective film screenings as well,” Cook said. “We see the Sidewalk Cinema driving traffic to the food hall and serving as a great companion to the building overall, serving food hall patrons as well as residents of the building.”
The Sidewalk Cinema will be open seven days a week with nightly showings Monday-Wednesday and daily and nightly showings Thursday-Sunday, Cook said. There will be special showings during the lunch hour several days each month and other showings of educational programs for students along with events for professional filmmakers.
Sidewalk Cinema will join the Imax Dome Theater across the street at the McWane Science Center and will be a block or two away from the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, the Carver Theatre and the Red Mountain Theatre Company Cabaret Theatre in what is known by some as the Theatre District.
“The Sidewalk Cinema will further enliven the Theatre District in several ways – a new venue in the district that will not only be open for special events but every day, driving traffic to the area on a regular basis – increasing foot traffic, shopping and dining in other nearby businesses,” Cook said.
Silverstein said the addition of Sidewalk gives the Pizitz an added dimension.
“They really do enhance the cultural well-being of our community, so to add that type of user to the building and entertainment truly makes the building a mixed-use project,” Silverstein said.
Adding further to the mix of uses will be shops on the ground floor.
“Along with the food hall and restaurants, there will be one or two traditional retail users,” Bayer said.
The apartments will have high ceilings, large windows and a variety of views of the city.
Tom Walker, development manager with Bayer Properties, said the top floor of the building will feature a rooftop pool, meeting space, fitness center, locker rooms, Wi-Fi and other “millennial-friendly” offerings. The building has its own adjacent parking deck and a crosswalk into the building.
Its location at 19th Street and Second Avenue North is a key selling point, Walker said.
“When we open up, we will have very public space opening our arms to downtown Birmingham in the middle of what’s going on in the Parkside District and what’s going on in the Central Business District as well,” he said.
Bayer agreed that, as with most real estate projects, location and timing make all of the difference.
“In many ways it is the bull’s eye,” Bayer said of the Pizitz.
Bayer believes the mix of apartments, office, food, retail and theater space is the combination that will give Pizitz the presence it deserves. Knowing that makes the years his company has spent on the project worth it.
“We’re all very conscious of those who have come before us, and do not want to suggest that this is the pivotal project, but in the long history of great projects we believe this will be one of the next good projects for the city,” he said. “It’s gratifying. We’re thrilled for the city. We think it will make quite a difference and we’re thrilled to be involved in downtown Birmingham.
“Timing is everything.”