Downtown Redevelopment and Dexter

April 16 will mark the one decade anniversary of the first-ever pitch at Riverwalk Stadium. The baseball field is more than the home to the Montgomery Biscuits. It’s also a symbol of downtown Montgomery’s rebirth. Many Montgomery residents don’t even remember a time before the stadium was completed in 2004. They can’t imagine the downtown landscape without the Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center (completed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama in 2008 at a cost of nearly $200 million). It’s also probably worth remembering that The Alley was still becoming a viable site for downtown nightlife as late as 2009.

The Winter building

The Winter building

But it’s 2014 now and the most glaring unfinished piece of downtown redevelopment is along Dexter Avenue. You bring friends to town and want to show them areas made globally famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. They ask you, “Why are all the stores boarded up?”

That’s changing. Two big companies have begun aggressively developing both sides of Dexter Avenue. On the one side (your left if you’re at the fountain and looking up Dexter at the Capitol), is the Kress Building. On the other is the old Belk building (the side of the street that once had a Subway sandwich shop on it). The Kress side has the still-functional City Drug. The Belk side has the newly-functional Irish Bred Pub.

A New York-based company called MarJam, a building materials supply firm, has largely purchased the Kress side. Technically, they’re renovating their newly-purchased properties by doing business as a company called ELSAJA Dexter. These are buildings purchased from the City of Montgomery. The plans appear to call for mixed residential and commercial uses. We don’t know a lot about this side of the street and it’s unclear whether the buyers have even completed their due diligence inspections to finalize the sales. We’re hoping they like the properties and spend a ton of money redeveloping them. We did go to an art show in the Kress Building once, and it was awesome in there. Let’s hope MarJam and ELSAJA Dexter can build on their impressive track record of developing historically significant properties while retaining the unique character of the old buildings.

It’s the other side of the street that has been grabbing headlines lately. The “Belk side” of Dexter begins at the Court Square fountain with the Winter Building, which is where you’ve probably seen the historical plaque on the sidewalk saying that the telegraph commencing the Civil War was sent from this building. That’s a pretty big deal.

SAMSUNG CSC

Inside the Winter building

The Winter Building was home to the Montgomery offices of the Balch and Bingham law firm up until a few years ago, and has been sitting empty for quite some time. It is currently owned by a group that actually owns a whole bunch of the buildings on that side of the street. That ownership group has recently reached out to a property management company called Foshee. This is why you’ve probably seen recent headlines about the downtown “Market District” and the cool red banners being placed on downtown building facades. Those signs that say things like “Look Ma, No Cars!” and “It’s a bad time to be a cobweb” are part of an overall development plan to re-energize Dexter by turning abandoned commercial properties into vibrant mixed-use buildings. Oh, and closing down the area around the Court Square fountain to automobile traffic on weekends.

So, that’s all pretty ambitious, and we would have remained skeptical outsiders until we were extended an invitation to investigate the Foshee side of the street. We got to wander through some of the buildings they’re developing and imagine for ourselves what they might be like. Here’s what we found:

Who is Foshee? There are actually a couple of locally-owned companies using the Foshee name. They started out as mostly developing and managing apartment complexes, but have recently developed their own construction and design components too. There are two Foshee brothers in charge, John and Golson, making this a company run by third-generation Montgomery residents. You may have seen Golson doing the various bits of PR work when the most recent announcements about the Market District happened (the one where Mayor Strange swung a sledgehammer to knock a brick out of a pillar to begin the demolition of the awning in front of the Belk building). John was kind enough to recently show us around some of the buildings.

What buildings are we talking about again? We already mentioned the Winter Building, which is surprisingly large. We can confirm that — contrary to what you’ll hear if you take the Haunted Hearse Tour around Halloween — there are no chains and slave manacles in the basement of this building. It does have a ton of character though. The basement unites the multiple parts of the building, while upstairs there are a number of small offices, many with very nice windows and fireplaces. There’s a whole area that used to be the law library in the back, with enough multiple floors of shelves to make a bibliophile jealous.

The Belk basement

The Belk basement

The place that used to be home to Subway is also part of the Foshee package, as are the old Belk building and several others. They’ve got the one that sports the sign saying “Right-On Steins” (which was once “Your complete men’s store”). They’ve also got two others, just past a city-owned building with a “general pants” sign on the front. One used to be a beauty supply store.

These are all empty spaces, some of them unimaginably large — especially if your only experience is driving past the boarded up facades. The buildings we toured stretch from the Winter Building down to just before you get to Irish Bred, then back past the Winter Building around the corner almost to Cuco’s.

What are they like in there? Aside from being enormous, the buildings on the Belk side of Dexter are pretty much what you’d expect. They are big, empty and old. They radiate character and are really, really cool. If done right, you’d want to live there. If there’s adequate parking (and it seems like there will be, given the 300+ spaces in the nearby deck that will be made available) and the right retail shops express interest, you’d want to shop there. For now, these buildings that mark the heart of Montgomery are exposed brick and gigantic expanses of vacant floor space. Because they are essentially a blank canvas, you are free to imagine an awesome bowling alley or performance space or record store or anything else. 

The view of the Kress building from the Belk basement

The view of the Kress building from the Belk basement

What are they going to do with them? First, they’ve got some work to do. Sunshine will come in, hardwood floors and brick will be highlighted, and everything will be polished into a state that will show the true beauty of these old buildings. While that’s happening, they’ll be seeking interested retail folks who might want to open a shop or restaurant. Indoor putt putt golf? They’re open to the idea. Imagine a Korean burrito joint next door to a book store and a place that sells furniture to hipsters

The Belk building is especially huge and they’re willing to divide it into somewhat smaller spaces. They’re going to work on it first. It includes multiple rooftop spaces that could be gardens or terraces, perhaps private or communal, depending on how the lofts get partitioned and designed.

What’s the Market District? Essentially, they’re branding that lower part of Dexter. They’re naming it after Market Street, which was named after the markets (slave and otherwise) that were once conducted in the area. 

“We’re not afraid of our history,” Foshee said. [Editor’s note: See additional clarification in the comments section below.]

The idea is to build a downtown neighborhood. There’ll be apartments and shops and in the future you may hear someone say, “I’m going downtown to that great ice cream shop down in the Market District.” One thing the Market District isn’t going to be is a bunch of bars. Foshee was clear with us that their plans for Dexter are “family friendly,” which might mean restaurants and a bowling alley, but probably won’t include nightclubs and saloons. “We have the Alley for nightlife and that’s where it really shines,” Foshee said. “It’s nearby and if people want that kind of entertainment, it’ll be over there.”

Is this going to work? Anything can happen in the unpredictable world of economic development. But barring some sort of economic collapse, these buildings ought to get redeveloped and find some excited tenants. If you build it, they will come. Urban density is exactly what downtown Montgomery needs right now, and if they get good companies selling things people want to buy, this ought to work. It’s certainly our very best shot at repairing the damage caused by previous generations, so let’s hope it works. 

The future of brick-and-mortar retail has been cloudy ever since the Internet bloomed. But, non-chain stores with great customer service in cool historic buildings? It works elsewhere. It could work here. Really.

What else is going on down there? Foshee also owns a building that they are calling “the 40 Four” building. You may know this as “44 Market Plaza” or, depending on how old you are, as part of the Regions building (and before that First Alabama Bank) overlooking Court Square. Regions sold the big tower to Renasant Bank (whose name is now atop the tower at 8 Commerce St.) and the smaller adjoining building is now Foshee’s “40 Four.” The company is using the top part of that building as a headquarters and is planning on turning the middle 5 floors into lofts, while putting retail on the bottom.

You probably saw the headlines about the collapse of the city’s Questplex plans. What’s the Questplex? Well, it’s the former Colonial Bank building that emptied when the bank failed. You know, the giant building facing the Court Square fountain? That’s it. The city purchased it and had plans of putting a children’s museum in there, along with maybe a branch of the public library and maybe some other stuff. Although the city made a bunch of pronouncements, the financing wasn’t secured when the big talk commenced. After applications for tax credits fell through, the whole project is back up in the air again.

“We were disappointed, but that isn’t going to have any impact on our projects,” Foshee said.

Rumor has it that the Bell Building (207 Montgomery St.) has also been sold and will soon be turned into a modernized mixed-use building.

Why do I keep hearing about downtown lofts? Because they are awesome. People want to live downtown. The ongoing hurdle for a lot of folks has been that they want there to be a grocery store down there so that they can shop for groceries somewhat near their homes, while enjoying the proximity to restaurants and bars and minor league baseball. By all accounts, there are waiting lists of folks wanting to live in cool downtown apartments and lofts.

Artist's rendering of Belk building

Artist’s rendering of Belk building

Foshee has 21 apartments called Printing Press lofts downtown near the Biscuits stadium. There will be more lofts in the 40 Four building.

Belk Sidewalk View

Belk Sidewalk View

What’s the city’s role in all of this? Foshee downplayed any major government hand in the process, emphasizing that the buildings’ owners were not among those buying property from the city. “That’s all on the other side of the street,” he said.”We just took our idea to the city, and they said, ‘Go with it.'”

Still, when the mayor is out front swinging a sledgehammer at a press conference — and traffic is being diverted from the Market District every weekend — the city is a pretty major partner in the project. Creation of the Market District may not come at any direct expense to taxpayers, but we are all invested in whether this project comes to fruition or not.

This is great, right? Yep. So far, so good. We’re thrilled that a locally-owned company is putting some money behind improvements to one of the most famous streets in the world. Our city is only as strong as our downtown, and if Foshee and MarJam are both successful with their visions for Dexter Avenue, our city is going to be shining for decades to come.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Stephen says:

    A valuable bit of clarification from John: “It was called Market Street long before slaves were sold around the fountain. To be very technical, New Philadelphia had Market Street and East Alabama Town had Commerce Street. When the two towns formed around the natural spring (watering hole), Court Square and the fountain came about.

    So, most downtown areas in the United States have a “Market Street” and/or a “Main Street”. The streets are named, very fittingly, where trade and commerce occurred. It just so happened in Montgomery that where grocers, farmers, textile shops, clothing stores, and other retails sold their wares on Market Street, the despicable act of selling other human beings also took place. I just don’t want anyone to have the impression by reading your article that a street in Downtown Montgomery, or our newly named Market District, was named because it was where a slave market had once operated…”

  2. DrM says:

    Foshee has a terrible “F” rating from the better business bureau, be very concerned!
    How can we have a market district when there is no market – nowhere to buy milk or basic supplies?

  3. Truth Teller says:

    This is all hype and smoke and mirrors. TEN YEARS? Go to Bhm- see what Avondale and Lakeview have done in that timeframe, without having to loot the city to do it. This is all a bunch of crooks looting a dying city. Did you hear about the murder on Mt. Meigs road today? Right where those poor saps are building a tapas lounge? These city promoters have no shame and will sucker anybody. It’s pathetic.

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