It’s no secret that Birmingham’s City Center is seeing a construction boom, both new builds and renovations. And the developers range from one-person operations to large companies.
Among that crowded playing field are two young developers — John Boone and Hunter Renfroe of Orchestra Partners — who seem to be on the verge of dramatically raising their profile in the city.
Site work is complete on Founders Station, the company’s mixed-used development in the 2000 block of First Avenue North. The Woolworth, its new social house concept in Five Points South, should open in August.
Boone and Renfroe bought a big chunk of Avondale’s commercial district in 2017. And they have an innovative plan for the long-gutted “You are Beautiful” building in Parkside.
The men are working hard to change the common perception that real estate developers are mostly rapacious capitalists who chase tax incentives and short-term profits and build cookie-cutter projects that add nothing aesthetically to communities.
Instead, Boone said, he and Renfroe seek to engage community stakeholders and avoid being seen as the “big, bad developer that just comes in and looks at the bottom-line return” instead of what an area needs.
And their investments have a common thread: a professed desire to help create and sustain walkable urban communities and city life.
Renfroe has long had a passion for real estate and construction. “I love real estate because it’s an opportunity to create a real impact,” he said.
He earned bachelor’s degrees in business and physics at Birmingham-Southern College in 2007 and 2008, respectively; a master’s in civil engineering at UAB in 2010; and an M.B.A. at Boston University in 2015.
A Birmingham native, Boone earned a bachelor’s in history at Birmingham-Southern in 2006 and a master’s in history at UAB in 2010 before entering business.
The men, who became friends while attending Birmingham-Southern, started Orchestra Partners in 2015.
Renfroe’s primary role with the company is handling the finances, while Boone focuses on business development and community outreach.
Founders Station, a 44,500-square-foot redevelopment of some historic commercial buildings, will include condominiums, retail and office spaces and eateries, including The Essential, opening this summer. The project features a plaza that will provide a new connection between First Avenue North and historic Morris Avenue.
“People take pictures on Morris Avenue, but they don’t see it as a place to eat and drink and hang out,” Renfroe said. “We want to change that.”
Renfroe said Morris Avenue has long been “perceived as a gem” but has been an underused asset.
Orchestra Partners plans to complete construction on The Woolworth, in the old Bailey Brothers Music space on 20th Street in Five Points South, by July. A team from El Barrio and Paramount Birmingham helped Orchestra Partners create the facility, which will offer food, beverage and games, including duckpin bowling.
Boone and Renfroe were inspired by Pinewood Social in Nashville and similar facilities in other cities.
Orchestra is also redeveloping the former Base Camp space at 1024 20th St. South for use as a bar or restaurant and plans to create a large courtyard that Boone said will be reminiscent of The Garage.
The men are investing heavily in the future of Five Points South, which enjoys proximity to UAB, Vulcan and the city’s oldest neighborhoods, as well as Homewood.
“The Five Points brand is historic” and the district has “tons of character,” Renfroe said.
“It’s walkable and has residential density,” Boone added.
However, Five Points South — like Morris Avenue — has been “squandered,” in their opinion, and Renfroe blames property owners who didn’t reinvest in their buildings or who chose tenants strictly by convenience.
Greedy or absentee landlords “are two of the worst things plaguing this city,” said Boone, who lives in Five Points and is a member of Five Points Alliance.
“We come up with a game plan, with what we think the community wants and needs, and we execute over a long period of time,” Renfroe said.
The men made a splash in October when they purchased several properties on 41st Street South in Avondale, including Avondale Brewing Co., from brewery co-founder Coby Lake and his partners.
They sold the brewery to Good People Brewing to keep the asset locally owned. They now own the land under popular Avondale spots such as Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Wasabi Juan’s, and those establishments continue to operate.
Boone and Renfroe have some additional plans for the area but were not yet ready to discuss them.
Orchestra Partners purchased the two-story commercial structure at 201 18th St. South, called the “You are Beautiful” building because of its iconic graffiti, in 2017. They’ll develop the structure as shells that can be sold and built out by homebuyers as custom houses, according to Renfroe.
Boone and Renfroe are bullish on Birmingham.
“There’s a ton of momentum.” Renfroe said. “I think Birmingham is just seeing the beginning of the re-urbanization of the city.”
“There’s still room to grow,” according to Boone, who said Birmingham hasn’t become overcrowded, inaccessible or “irritatingly busy,” like Nashville and Atlanta.
This story originally appeared in Iron City Ink.