Student Selects a Big Idea for Birmingham
By Charles Buchanan
Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to generate ideas for the block of land next to Railroad Park, a 19-acre green space along the tracks that has become a popular downtown destination. With $72,000 in prizes and the opportunity to create a new Birmingham landmark at stake, the contest attracted 1,115 entries from around the world.Earlier this year, an ordinary parking lot near UAB became the subject of intense scrutiny. It was the focus of Prize2theFuture, a competition organized by the
When it came time to find a winner among all the ideas, the foundation turned to someone who knows the neighborhood well: UAB Undergraduate Student Government Association (USGA) president Bradley Watts. “It was an amazing opportunity to represent both my school and my constituents,” says the Springville, Alabama, native and member of the University Honors Program.
Searching for Impact
Watts was one of 33 judges, who included nationally known architects and designers, community and business leaders, and politicians; he was the only university student on the panel. Each judge received between 50 and 80 entries to evaluate, Watts says. “We used a sliding scale between 0 and 100 to score five different factors relating to each project’s appeal, how it complemented Railroad Park, and feasibility.” The foundation aggregated scores from multiple judges to create a final score for each entry.
Watts says he was looking for “impact” among the ideas, which included everything from giant Ferris wheels to fountains, marketplaces, museums, theaters, and a social entrepreneurship center. “I tried envisioning how the entry would revolutionize the lives of people in Birmingham,” he says. But that’s not all he had to keep in mind. “The biggest challenge was balancing the wow factor and magnetism with the feasibility of a project. There were multiple projects that were absolutely amazing and strikingly innovative, but I knew there would be no way that the foundation or city could realistically implement their design. That was hard.”
The winning idea, developed by a Birmingham resident and announced in May, is a multipurpose facility that contains a community computer lab, performance spaces, a collaborative space for civic organizations, and an external projection wall, among other elements. Watts says the concept, known as One Birmingham Place, will benefit UAB as well as Birmingham once it replaces the existing parking lot. “The concept, in conjunction with Railroad Park, will revolutionize and revitalize Southside. Imagine green spaces that have entertainment components in combination with a family-friendly community atmosphere,” he says. “For me, the winning concept and the energy behind these projects represent the beginning of a Birmingham renaissance.”
Watts will complete his second term as USGA president and graduate next spring with a double major in political science and history. He plans to pursue law school and a career as a CIA intelligence analyst, and he believes that serving as a Prize2theFuture judge will help him along the way. “I got firsthand knowledge of how people judge your written work and presentations,” he explains. “I now understand how a single word, badly constructed sentence or phrase, and spelling errors can ruin an entire application’s chances.”
He also found some inspiration for the future. “Seeing this vision for our city become a reality was awe-inspiring,” Watts says. “Being a part of this process—and helping to judge the winning entry—made me realize the impact I could have on the community I love. There was something spiritual about that moment—something amazing that I am so thankful I experienced.”