Let’s Talk About the Literal Elephant in the City, Legion Field

So yes, all of the funding appears to be in place for the long-held dream of a brand new, open-air stadium as a new home for UAB football when the project is completed in (boy lets hope) the summer of 2021.

But that leaves the other half of the equation; what to make of Legion Field. The Blazers’ former home, upon their departure, will have no use other than a handful of special events, the Birmingham Bowl and the Magic City Classic, if those events don’t also decide to relocate across town.

There are a lot of voices on social media expressing their concerns, and the most frequent refrain I have seen is that Legion Field must be invested in, because without that stadium and the events that come through that area, the Graymont and Smithfield neighborhoods are going to continue to decline, get neglected, and eventually wither away.

I can appreciate the sentiment behind this thought, but I can assure you it is misguided.

Some of the motivation behind it is the theory that in having this new stadium, all effort, energy and money will go into the new complex and stadium, which will shift attention (and revenue) away from the Legion Field area and send those neighborhoods – which are already struggling – even further downward.

Here is the thing; it is absolutely crucial for the city of Birmingham to make sure that they invest in the area surrounding Legion Field to ensure that it is brought along in the renaissance the city is having one neighborhood at a time right now. Investing money in Legion Field is quite possibly the worst way you could achieve that goal.

Lets consider the facts:

Now there is indeed this upcoming project on the horizon:

This is nice, but even if we add this in, that makes a grand total of $2.5 million dollars that has been invested in Legion Field in the last twenty-seven years. If you take a look at a list of projects which would flourish, or heck even sustain, with that size of investment over nearly three decades, a 91-year-old stadium would not be on that list.

Here is a list of all of the current college football stadiums that are at least 80 years old, and which have invested less than $20 million in their stadium in the last 20 years: UAB, San Jose State, Toledo, Army, Northwestern, and Illinois.

Northwestern, Illinois and San Jose State are all currently in the midst of spending tens of millions on other facilities upgrades, so stadium investments are in their future.

Lets not forget that in the case of Legion Field, prior to the $2.5 million in touch-ups that have occurred in the past three years, the only renovation that occurred between 1991 and 2015 was the removal of the upper deck, because the seating wasn’t needed and because it was in such poor shape that it would need a complete and expensive overhaul just to get up to code.

I work in healthcare and always talk with patients who undergo orthopedic surgery (aimed at repairing structural damage on their bodies). One of the key things I discuss with them is that the timing is crucial.

If you wait too long to repair the damage, the compensations the rest of your system has had to make will be too great to overcome, and even if the surgery is successful, it won’t make their body better from a functional standpoint.

Similarly, you can’t have a stadium that is 65 years old, go another 25 years without a single meaningful monetary investment in the upkeep of that facility and its infrastructure, and then just decide one day that you are going to invest the amount of money necessary to fix the place.

Those last 30 or so years of minimal upkeep have cause damage and structural issues that have compounded upon themselves, and I can assure you that turning Legion Field from a 91-year-old stadium that has been neglected for decades into a 94-year-old stadium with plenty of years left to live is unquestionably going to cost far more money than it is actually worth.

[Birmingham City Councilor William] Parker said he wants city leaders to think outside of the box on how to improve Legion Field and develop the immediate area. He said it could involve purchasing neighboring buildings for parking or park space.

This is an absolutely terrible idea. And you consider that to be thinking outside the box?

Legion Field is a nearly century-old structure that, including surrounding parking, takes up a ton of land that could be used for a number of other purposes that would benefit the surrounding neighborhoods far more than a concrete monstrosity that currently is used for eight football games per year and a smattering of other times throughout the calendar.

Do not keep Legion Field standing and turn the surrounding neighborhoods into parking or park space. Turn Legion Field itself into park space. Or perhaps a community center.

Perhaps it could become low-cost housing for the blighted neighborhoods around it, so that those residents would have somewhere to live while the city reinvests in the surrounding areas?

I understand that there is a lot of history and emotion behind Legion Field, and people have had it there for their entire lives, which makes it difficult to conceptualize any other way forward.

However, if you are truly going to serve your populace well, you have to accept that eventually, some facilities have outlived their usefulness, and it is time to reimagine a space by filling it with things that better suit people’s needs.

The stadium currently hosts a number of non-sporting events, and none of those need to go away if the stadium does. Literally the only impact of demolishing Legion Field is that the Magic City Classic consistently sells 60,000+ tickets per year, and the new BJCC stadium will max out at 55,000 seats.

But there aren’t ever actually that many people in the seats at the game, and losing that capacity at Legion Field for that one event per year will be more than made up for by the increase in events and revenue that will be generated by a new BJCC complex and a newly re-imagined Legion Field area.

Perhaps we can keep the lion statue and have it at the entryway to an amphitheater that sits within the old Legion Field footprint, with the “Welcome to Legion Field” facade brought to ground level as a “Welcome to Legion Theatre” sign?

Downsizing from a giant 70,000 seat stadium and equivalent parking to a modest 20,000 seat amphitheater would leave plenty of room for other development nearby that could continue in that vein. Perhaps there could even be space for a Birmingham Sports Hall of Fame.

That’s just one idea that I personally like, but there are no doubt plenty of others. This new stadium is happening, but it’s still about three years away.

Use this time wisely and develop a new plan for Legion Field and the surrounding area focused on demolishing and repurposing that area, so that three years from now the city and the residents of that area aren’t in the same position they’re in now.

Sitting around, hoping that someone wants to use their stadium badly enough to ignore what a forgotten relic it has become.

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