In many respects, Liberty Park is a typical gated community that one can find in any American metro area worth its salt. It may be a bit hokier than most with a replica of the Statue of Liberty near the entrance of the planned community, but it complements the regional Boy Scout headquarters that squats in its shadow.
Liberty Park has excellent access to the rest of the Birmingham metropolitan area. The original master plan of the community includes upscale rental apartments, condominiums and 7.5 million square feet of commercial and retail space. The original plan also called for approximately 2,200 single-family homes in carefully delineated price ranges. As time has gone by, one subdivision after another has been finished out and the plan has been tweaked in response to the vagaries of the local real estate market. As is common in this type of master planned community, the most expensive homes are behind a gated and guarded entrance. The rental units and the half million dollar homes outside the gate are certainly in a majority in terms of numbers, but the mega-mansions dominate the most beautiful section of a gorgeous site that is heavily wooded and beautifully preserved.
At the time of the 2000 Census there were 456 households in Liberty Park. The Census listed 22 Black households. Although this was less than 5% of the total households, it is 5% higher than neighboring Mountain Brook. The rest of the development is strictly Non-Hispanic White. The 2010 Census will be much more informative on racial trends as the community will have dramatically more households due to the on-going construction.
The topography of Liberty Park is quite beautiful, rugged, and heavily forested. The developers have paid meticulous attention to the carefully landscaped and award-winning common areas. The land surrounding Liberty Park is lightly developed and the Cahaba River, an important watershed for the metro region, loops lazily around the community. The developers of Liberty Park, Torchmark, created a plan that is environmentally sensitive and designed to allay some critics’ fears of such a large planned community in a fragile ecosystem. The net effect is that Liberty Park feels like the country, yet is centrally situated in the Birmingham area. It is convenient to the Summit, Birmingham’s premiere upscale festival shopping center, as well as to the Riverchase Galleria, a large regional mall eight miles to the west. There is easy access to Liberty Park as it has its own I-459 exit, uncluttered with tacky retail developments and jammed traffic. The only downside to Liberty Park’s location is the paucity of neighborhood shops. The Prominence Shops, completed in 2002, provide a minuscule 30,000 square feet of retailing. The developers have dubbed this upscale strip mall a “town center”. Of course it is only a town center in the dreams of some marketing hack. Located between the office park and the residential areas, it is only accessible by car.
Liberty Park had a complicated and difficult first few years. The developers originally hoped to annex the entire development into next-door Mountain Brook. Mountain Brook’s top-rated public school system and its blue-blood pedigree would have been extremely attractive to new home buyers. Similarly, Liberty Park’s huge office and retail tax potential was a potent lure to Mountain Brook. However, annexing Liberty Park might have re-opened a federal consent decree concerning the integration (or complete lack thereof) of Mountain Brook’s school system. After a wall of opposition from Mountain Brook citizens, city officials passed on the tax-rich prize of Liberty Park. With recent Supreme Court rulings squashing any hint of using race to integrate schools, it looks like Mountain Brook’s fear of integration has ultimately cost them the tax rich prize of Liberty Park.
What’s a developer to do if your first love, Mountain Brook rejects you? The logical geographic second choice would be its northerly neighbor Irondale. Unfortunately, Irondale’s downscale image and mediocre county schools would just not do for wealthy and demanding Liberty Park homeowners. Upper-middle class parents are not going to send their kids to lower-middle/working class schools. Instead, the developers turned to the second most prestigious suburb of Birmingham, Vestavia Hills. Vestavia has an excellent school system and some nice upscale neighborhoods (although none are wealthy enough to make the Higley 1000.) One major problem: Vestavia Hills was not contiguous to Liberty Park. In fact, it was 3 miles away and blocked by Birmingham and Mountain Brook corporate limits. This hurdle was overcome when the state legislature simply passed legislation allowing the annexation to go forward. In 1992 Liberty Park was annexed into Vestavia Hills. The matter was challenged in court by the city of Birmingham and would not be settled until the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the annexation in January of 1995. The Alabama legislature has set a dreadful precedent by allowing developers to cherry pick their municipal partners unencumbered by the rule of geographic contiguity. Non-contiguous annexation strongly reinforces the already dominant rule of socio-economic segregation…. or in the vernacular, the rich get richer.
As an interesting aside, when the city of Birmingham attempted to annex a large tract of land that was bequeathed to the city in the midst of the suburbs, it was killed in the state legislature. The prized piece of property is located in midst of the rapidly growing Shelby County overwhelmingly white and middle class. The very thought that the poor and African-American central city would annex this prime bit of real estate could not stand. The bottom line was that a rich white suburb of Vestavia Hills got a tax rich prize in Liberty Park, and the central city, desperate for tax revenue was rebuffed. After a complex deal between the suburb of Hoover and the area’s largest landowner (USS), Mr. Spain’s bequest of this beautiful piece of land to the city of Birmingham ultimately became the site of a high-school for tax rich Hoover: Spain Park High School.
The clouded annexation, the developers decision to lead with large expensive lots, and somewhat higher prices have meant that Liberty Park has been much slower to develop than arch-rival Greystone (another extensive planned gated community located further out crowded Highway 280). Whereas Greystone is close to being built-out, Liberty Park has only filled about 25% of its single-family home potential when the Census was taken in 2000. Construction has been strong for the last 7 years and the 2010 Census will show a much larger community.
Liberty Park currently has almost 260 lots in the gated section of the community. Although there are a variety of price points behind the gates, Old Overton Estates and the King Mountain area are the premiere subdivisions. The large lots and rugged terrain ensure a beautiful streetscape of large mansions irregularly placed on large heavily forested lots. Homes in Old Overton Estates and the newer Kings Mountain estate section range in price from $750,000 to $5,000,000. Homes that cost between $400,000 and $1,000,000 can be purchased behind the gates in neighborhoods dubbed Tartan Glen, ClubRidge, Old Overton River Estates, and Old Overton Ridge Estates. The gated subdivisions are platted around the Old Overton Club, an exclusive private country club.
Outside the gates are four neighborhoods that are conventional upscale subdivisions in that the lots are relatively level, treeless and smaller. A large, well- equipped sports complex is located next to Vestlake Village, a run-of-the-mill subdivision with homes in the $500,000 to $800,000 range. Liberty Park’s master plan calls for 300 rental apartments and 500 condominiums. The 300 apartments, the Colonial Grand, have been completed. The condos are, as they say, “in development”. The apartments are upscale and geographically segregated from the single-family homes. The large enclosed shopping mall that was originally envisioned at the southern end of the property appears to be dead due to the lack of a dedicated freeway exit and a swiftly changing Birmingham retail market. The Liberty Park Mall was proposed before the construction of the extremely successful upscale retail development called “The Summit”, a lifestyle center. A lifestyle center is an upscale strip mall.
The geographical gap between Vestavia Hills and Liberty Park was recently bridged with the annexation of a large unincorporated community called Cahaba Heights. Cahaba Heights is perfectly located at the intersection of a freeway(I-459) and Highway 280. This dreary collection of fifties ranch houses and disheveled retailing undoubtedly will be redeveloped over the coming years and become an important source of revenue for the city of Vestavia Hills. It should have little effect on Liberty Park property values and may hasten the construction of a new middle school that would serve both communities. Liberty Park already has its own excellent elementary school and fire station. Unfortunately, high school students are forced to make the 5-mile trek to the excellent Vestavia Hills High School, and there are no current plans for a new campus to serve Cahaba Heights and Liberty Park.
In summary, Liberty Park is a well-located neighborhood in a beautiful physical setting. Due to Vestavia Hill’s fiscal foresight through an aggressive annexation strategy and its superior schools, Liberty Park appears to be headed to full build out in the years to come and much Republican happiness behind the Gates will follow…