Turning a Space into a Place

An artist and a developer combine forces to reimagine Judge Roy Bean.

Jason and Ameri’ca Tickle

I once won a chicken drop.

Fifty squares — or some other number, no one remembers anymore — were drawn on a large sheet of plywood set on the ground. Wagers were placed and the chicken was set loose to roam the squares. When the hen stopped to do her business, that number was the lucky winner. I had the lucky number that afternoon, and I won yet again that night when my sister bet me my bar tab that I wouldn’t pick up the chicken and carry it around for the rest of the night. I did, and my sister paid the tab.

Perhaps that’s not the most glamorous or even dignified anecdote by which to remember Judge Roy Bean, but it was a good one. And countless other locals from both sides of the Bay have decades’ worth of fun memories of Judge’s. Its founder, Jack West, was a natural placemaker, according to award-winning artist Ameri’ca Tickle (pronounced Ah-ma-rica). Placemaking is about creating a space where people want to go, a place worth caring about. Jack understood the concept before anyone in this area used the term.

With a little triangle of land in Olde Town Daphne, right on the border of Montrose, West built his social institution on the site of the old Embassy lounge. Before that, the spot was a Catholic church, the predecessor to the Shrine of the Holy Cross that now sits half a block away. So the location of Judge’s was and had always been a gathering spot for the community.

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Ameri’ca, a (fifth-generation) resident of Daphne and descendant of the original Allegri, understands the sense of place that Judge’s represented. So when she and her husband, Jason Tickle, were looking to find the right spot for their first joint development project, the site was the perfect fit.

While Ameri’ca might have a true Baldwin County pedigree, Jason is a newcomer. Brought to the area as a developer for some high profile, large-scale properties, he soon found he was growing weary of the collateral damage brought by commercial institutional development. Too many bad examples of suburban sprawl, stormwater runoff issues, endless parking lots and places where you really don’t want to visit left a bad taste in his mouth, and he dreamed of doing things a different way. “There comes a time when you look around and realize you are the grow-up in the room,” he explains. “If I’ve got the background experience and skill set, it’s time to step up and do something right.” Fortunately, a group of visionaries had been working across the country to lead the way toward what is now known as “new urbanism.” Put simply, it’s a way of designing buildings and spaces that puts the person before the automobile. Jason admits that new urbanism doesn’t have all the answers, but it is certainly taking steps in the right direction.

The initial renderings for Judge’s Square, designed by Birmingham architect Jeffrey Dungan, show green space, courtyards and water as central parts of the design.

It’s true that new urbanism is about adding green spaces, benches, lighting and sidewalks. But it is much more than that, Jason explains. Just because you build a plaza or park doesn’t mean people will go there just for the pleasure of it. Jason references the plazas in Europe as the success stories with their three- and four-story buildings that open right onto the street, allowing people to flow through commerce and sidewalk cafes in a pleasurable and meaningful way. For some reason, since WWII, in the United States we have moved away from building like that, shifting the focus entirely on what works best for our cars instead of our minds, bodies or communities. Jason says new urbanism, on the other hand, is simply about building to human scale and incorporating nature in a way that makes people feel at home.

Combining Jason’s experience in development and Ameri’ca’s creative eye, the husband-wife duo envisioned a mixed-use complex of upscale apartments, boutiques and cafes that would create a little village for the neighborhood and be open to the entire, diverse community. They teamed up with some of the top architects and landscape designers in the country — leaders in a new kind of development — to craft a plan that would utilize everything in the new urbanist’s tool kit: green space, natural elements, sidewalks and seating all applied to the former Judge Roy Bean site in a way that best suited that particular property. It isn’t cookie-cutter development; there is no one-size-fits-all design here. In the end, they hope to create a place where people want to spend time, choose to linger, and leave feeling refreshed and reconnected. Reconnected to themselves, to nature and to their community. It’s a lofty goal, but one worth pursuing in our architecture. “Jack West was ahead of his time,” Ameri’ca says. “He set up opportunities for meaningful experiences to happen. We hope to learn from him how to bring that sense of community. That was his success.” The Tickles hope it will be theirs as well.

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