Alabama boasts many distinctive towns that radiate a special quality and identity. One that tops the list is Tuscumbia, part of the Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area. Incorporated in 1820, it’s one of Alabama’s oldest communities whose charming downtown is noted for its large inventory of historic buildings.
Yet even the best communities can make improvements. That’s what brought a team of designers to Tuscumbia to brainstorm ideas and generate solutions through DesignPlace, a local design and planning initiative sponsored by DesignAlabama. Residents and community leaders joined forces with design professionals to find ways to make Tuscumbia an even better place to live, work and visit.
Jason Fondren, an urban designer with KPS Group, served as team facilitator. He and his team identified several noteworthy assets that can be built on in Tuscumbia’s revitalization efforts. Its historic downtown, small town atmosphere and Helen Keller’s birthplace. In addition, its green space known as the Commons and Spring Park, a downtown attraction featuring a 51-foot fountain and a waterfall constructed with over 2,000 tons of sandstone.
Fondren says Tuscumbia citizens expressed interest in boosting tourism and accelerating private investment in their downtown in retail, restaurants and residential development.
The team recommended improving community gateways so visitors know when they have entered Tuscumbia and also as a means to foster civic pride. Therefore, a top priority is to develop a new brand identity to help market Tuscumbia to potential visitors and a wayfinding signage system to lead visitors to all destinations Tuscumbia has to offer, Fondren explains.
Such a plan would begin by creating the new brand identity with associated graphics and then prepare a wayfinding master plan. The new community brand would be incorporated in the design of wayfinding signs. Fondren says the sign system would likely be fabricated and installed in phases due to cost.
Develop the north section of the Commons for passive recreational use was also recommended. The Commons green space, Fondren believes, was intended to surround the original city limits. It was laid out as a large rectangle, but only the north side of the rectangle ended up as a linear green space, he adds, and the east and west sides became streets.
To increase downtown residential development, the team suggested moving the public works department out of its present location between the downtown and historic district and replace it with housing. And complete a private project to turn the adjacent former board of education building into additional housing.
A major benefit of DesignPlace is community involvement, notesTuscumbia Mayor Kerry Underwood, who appreciates the forum DesignPlace provided that allowed citizens to express their ideas.
“Tuscumbia has many historically significant assets that are not only locally important, but internationally as well,” he points out. “One of the ideas we presented was how we can better connect those assets and make them more of a part of our everyday lives. This is true not only for those who live here, but for our tourism guests as well. The project that I was most intrigued by was their designed use of our Commons area on the north side of the city.”
What remains of the Commons is the best example of the grassy square that was laid out around the entire city when originally platted in 1817, he notes. Set aside for public use, it is predominantly undeveloped green space that would be better served as usable green space.
“The design team envisioned a beautiful space connected by walking trails and sculpture gardens that allow for all citizenship to enjoy outside activities at an area that is uniquely Tuscumbia. The funding and completion of this area would be of high interest to me because of it’s linking to our past while enabling current use as a quality-of-life improvement.”
Councilman William Foster agrees that DesignPlace was a good fit for Tuscumbia, and he also appreciated how the team found innovative ways to implement the citizen’s ideas. Also, how the design professionals managed to identify problems and suggest solutions that were “not even in our radar.”
Citizens want to increase connectivity and make their town accessible to all, along with attracting more businesses and customers to the downtown district while maintaining its historical significance. The Tuscumbia Historic District contains 461 contributing properties and covers about 232 acres of the town’s original boundaries. The oldest houses in the district are Tidewater-type cottages, a style native to the Middle Atlantic. The district also contains some of the oldest commercial buildings in Alabama and a block known as Commercial Row developed in the mid-1830s.
Foster says Tuscumbia is one of only two cities in the United States — Boston being the other – with a Commons that surrounds the entire city. Tuscumbia is also noted for Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, and an annual Native American gathering called Oka Kapassa held in Spring Park. Tuscumbia is also where the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is located.
“We have such a great town and the people of Tuscumbia are great,” Foster says. “Simple things as in signage, branding, and use of space is key to bring it all together and make us noticeable. Tuscumbia is a small city of less than 9,000 in population. We are one of four cities that makes up the Shoals, so it is hard to compete with other cities in the same area. Getting our own Identity without disrupting what we have is tough.”
Foster embraced the idea of creating a logo for branding purposes, likely to be implemented early and to include waypoints and signage throughout the city. He also favors the proposed use of green space and walking trails, and would like to see these enhancements implemented soon.
Working with the city to help make DesignPlace a success was Carson Brite, a senior at the University of North Alabama in Florence who serves as an assistant to Mayor Underwood. Brite assisted with logistics such as scheduling and making arrangements for the design team’s visit.
“Additionally, I had the opportunity to participate in several brainstorming sessions regarding Tuscumbia’s unique opportunities. This included a visit to Montgomery to strategize with the DesignAlabama team, as well as multiple site visits.”
Brite says he gained a unique perspective on the relationship between local governments and the range of services and organizations they partner with to deliver improvements to their constituents.
“Being able to assist Mayor Underwood in this process has certainly improved my ability to navigate complex projects while remaining consistently effective throughout,” adds Brite, a senior majoring in political science with a minor in public administration.
On the design team with Fondren were Amy Smith, a landscape architect with Studio A Design; Andrew Bryant, an architect with Design Initiative; Stephen Schrader, a landscape architect with Renta Urban Land Design; and Nathan Willingham, a planner with Rural Innovation Strategies.
Challenges are part of any ambitious endeavor. For Tuscumbia, this includes securing funding for proposed public projects and gaining control over a key downtown building, which until recently housed an essential downtown business but is now vacant, notes Fondren.
Another challenge is finding effective ways to increase tourism. Tuscumbia and its neighboring towns collectively contain many interesting places and activities that can attract significantly more visitors. By working together, the communities in the Shoals can significantly increase tourism. A win-win for the entire region.
*Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of DesignAlabama