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Urban alleys become pathways to revitalization

Big game of Jenga in Five Points Alley

From Seattle to Washington D.C., forgotten alleys are being reinvented as people-friendly places. Often perceived as dirty and dangerous, alleys are now moving beyond garbage and garages to become havens for pedestrians, public art and small business.
This might just be the most desolate alley in Denver.

Under the Evans Avenue Bridge and a stone's throw from the railroad tracks, this is an absolutely forgotten urban place, complete with the requisite tires, mattresses and beer bottles amidst the waist-high tumbleweeds.

Most of Denver's 4,000 alleys have been paved, and there are plans to pave the remaining 150 unimproved alleys by 2016. But the alleys are home to tens of thousands of dumpsters, which in turn attract illegal dumping, which in turn means plenty of scavenging.

But change is afoot. Last fall, the Rialto Cafe organized Brewer's Alley, a beer-tasting event, in the alley behind the restaurant. Several plans are in the works to activate downtown alleys off of the pedestrian 16th Street Mall.

Urban passageways
Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia. Photo by Kjetil Ree.
Of course, alleys haven't always been unkempt urban voids. Alleys are as old as cities themselves, and they started off as public spaces. Dating to the early 1700s, Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia is the oldest residential street in the country.

The word alley is more than 600 years old, owing its origin to the French allee, meaning 'walking or passage,' and aller, or 'go.’ Walking and going are rarely what modern alleys are all about -- but they inherently remain passages.

While U.S. cities have largely eschewed alley uses that don't involve garbage or garages, pre-automobile cities all over the world have historic alleys that were meant for people, complete with housing, stores, restaurants, bars and parks.

It follows that many cities are trying to activate -- or re-activate -- their alleys and make them human-scale places, sometimes with restaurants, retail and outdoor art. Cities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., are activating alleys for temporary special events as well as making aesthetic and functional improvements for the long haul.

Cincinnati reclaims its alleys

Five Points Alley, Cincinnati.

Five Points Alley is in the heart of Walnut Hills, one of Cincinnati's most historic commercial corridors, with five alleys intersecting in the heart of a busy block.

Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, says revitalization is underway in the neighborhood, but as the street side started to bounce back, the alleys resisted change.

"The alleys were a safety problem and a problem in general," says Wright. "They were a dumping ground, a source of drug dealing and prostitution."

But they also have some serious potential. Of Five Points Alley, "There's nothing else like it in the city, maybe in the country," he contends. "There's a very unique sense of discovery. You would have no idea it's there. It just needs a little TLC and activation."

Wright says he came up with a way to do just that about two years ago when he explored the then-blighted Five Points Alley with a pair of collaborators.

At the intersection of the five alleys, an overgrown parcel caught Wright's eye. "This green space was covered with trash and weeds that became trees -- they were literally 30 feet high," he says. "That got my mind moving."

Five Points Alley during clean-up.

Wright came up with a plan to activate Five Points Alley as a public space: community cleanup days followed by pop-up beer gardens centered on the once-overgrown green spot.

For 2014, Wright is looking to bring the activation of Five Points Alley to the next level. The goal is to reactivate the space with regular events. A coffeehouse has opened, and a historic public restroom called the Public Comfort Station will be reborn as a bar.

"In 18 months, [Five Points Alley] will become a really nice space with activated buildings around it," Wright says. "I think it's going to be a huge piece for us."

Seattle-style: Clean, green, activate

Several cities, including Seattle, are hotspots for alley redevelopment. Alley activator Daniel Toole's interest in alleys arose after he moved to Seattle in 2008 to work as an architect.

Walking to work every morning, "I noticed the alleys and started walking through them," Toole explains. “You are in kind of a different world in an alley. It's a real genuine experience of a city."

He soon started taking photos and blogging at Alleys of Seattle (he was even questioned by FBI agents after unknowingly clicking a few snapshots of their HQ in the city). He looked at established commercial alleys like Nord Alley in Pioneer Square and helped launch the Alley Network Project in Seattle. "They've put together a small master plan," he says. "It's been awesome to take part in it."

Seattle's Firehouse Alley. Photo courtesy Daniel Toole.

Today he's studying urban design at Harvard and designing "a totally new pedestrian alley” for a Florida developer who contacted him through his blog, featuring "retail, restaurants, multiple levels and terraces."

For all of his work on alleys, Toole won a traveling fellowship from the American Institute of Architects and wrote a book, Tight Urbanism, covering alley architecture in Tokyo, Kyoto, Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago.

Toole says alley revitalization is a hot topic nationally. In San Francisco's Chinatown, "No one wanted to claim [the alleys]." As a result, the city commissioned a master plan for the alleys in the 1990s and has successfully transformed them into vibrant public spaces. Today the city is a leader: "There's street furniture, art, plants and names."

Detroit’s sustainable alleys

Activating alleys is not just about beautification, it's about improving infrastructure. Chicago is known as the alley capital of the country, with 13,000 alleys. Its Green Alleys program has outfitted more than 100 alleys with more sustainable infrastructure, including permeable pavers, to redirect flow away from overtaxed sewers.

Photo by Marvin Shaouni

The Green Garage, a sustainable business incubator in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood, has also privately spearheaded a push with neighbors to green up their alley.

"If you've got an all-cement alley, the water can't go anywhere," says Peggy Brennan of the Green Garage. The solution, the Green Alley, includes permeable surfaces, garden beds and other sustainably minded tweaks.

And it's not just green in the sustainable sense of the word. The alley has a park-like feel, and serves as the venue for an annual dinner, a music festival and other events.

"There's aesthetic purpose with all of those plants," says Brennan. Before the 2010 project, "There was trash everywhere, mattresses, hypodermic needles. It was pretty bad." Today it's a different story. "There's mothers walking with babies. A lot of dog walkers come by." Patrons from Motor City Brewing Works around the corner utilize the space.

Unlike Chicago, Detroit's Green Alley was privately funded by property owners and assorted grants. Landowners can petition the city to make an alley private, but Brennan says this didn't align with her philosophy, noting, "We don't think we should own public walking space."

She sees it as a small step towards a less expensive alternative to infrastructure upgrades. "It would cost billions to replace the water drainage system in Detroit," says Brennan. "Our goal is to set an example of what's possible."

Others are seeing the big picture. Midtown Detroit has announced plans for four more green alleys. Claire Nelson and Francis Grunow of Model D have argued that the first Green Alley should be the centerpiece of an entire walkable "Alley District” in Midtown.

Unexpected art in Minneapolis

Alleys have in recent years been reclaimed with public art. For instance, The Alley Project in southwest Detroit, an initiative of Young Nation, offers a block-long outdoor art gallery and common space, with murals on fences, garages and other surfaces.

In Minneapolis, writer-artist Andy Sturdevant exhibited his "Alley Atlas" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in late 2013. Looking at the city's omnipresent alleyways, he says he thought, "What if we could name Minneapolis' alleys?"

Alley Atlas. Photo by Andy Sturdevant.
For the exhibition, Sturdevant created a map and curated a book of alley articles, many of them by longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist and alley champion Barbara Flanagan, and walls of alley photographs. Locals bequeathed colorful monikers on the alleys like Possum Trail, Pineapple Plant Alley, Vera's Territory and Crazy Clown Alley.

Sturdevant says most alley activation in Minneapolis is informal, including "an ongoing poster show” by local designer Erik Brandt, gardens and play areas for kids. Not that this is new: It's just a return to form.

"At one time, they were an important social hub," says Sturdevant. Until the 1920s, alleys were often residential, he adds, but by the 1960s, Minneapolis bulldozed more than half of the city's once-bustling alleys. Where they remain, Sturdevant says alleys "represent an incredible opportunity to make those areas denser and more walkable."

DC alley spurs redevelopment

Builders and developers are waking up to the possibilities of alleys, too. For instance, a major DC developer is planning ways to redevelop the alley that sits adjacent to its latest project.

If Berkeley Shervin, President and COO of The Wilkes Company, has his way, Prather's Alley will be the next alley to come alive in D.C. The company's new Lyric at 440K apartment building abuts the historic alley.

"It's got a wonderful history," says Shervin of Prather's Alley. "Back in the 1800s, it was one of many popular alleys in the city." During Prohibition, it was a hotspot for speakeasies and still has the feel of a place that's hidden in plain view.

It's also a popular pedestrian route in a lively neighborhood, and Shervin wants to enhance its walkability and add storefronts on the alley off of Lyric at 440K, but he's not able to make physical improvements without untangling a lot of red tape.

"The way it works in this jurisdiction is that it’s a public space, but we are responsible for maintaining it," says Shervin, noting that enhancements can't interfere with the alley's utility. "It's used for truck access for the office building next to us, as well as the loading for our apartment building. You suddenly become very limited."

Some cities have remedied similar logistical hangups by regulating when trucks can pick up trash and make deliveries in alleys and blockading them at other times with car-proof barriers that are permeable to people.

In Pasadena, California's Mercantile Alley, for instance, deliveries can only be made between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Other cities have changed their trash policies so their alleys are no longer first and foremost the domain of grumbling garbage trucks.

Alley activists dish on how-to

Brewer's Alley at the Rialto Cafe in Denver.
Downtown Denver Partnership is working with a University of Colorado at Denver class that's developing a plan and three pilot concepts for Denver's downtown alleys. The class will unveil its plan to the public on May 13 in an alley behind Larimer Square. The City and County of Denver is also developing a master plan for alleys due in June.

Ryan Sotirakis, Public Realm Design Specialist with Downtown Denver Partnership, says the biggest priorities are cleanliness and safety. "Cleanliness is a problem that's plagued the alleys for a long time," he says. "Safety is more of a perception issue."

But "trash is a big one," he adds, because Denver's municipal service does not serve downtown -- several private companies handle that detail, meaning there are several garbage trucks that need access, not just one. He points north to Fort Collins, Colorado, where a program consolidated trash pickup and beautified the alleys, catalyzing private investment in alley storefronts and patios.

Buy-in from property owners and other stakeholders is a critical component of alley activation, he adds. "The goal would be that businesses see the benefits and activate them more."

Locals can take alley activation into their own hands. Toole of Alleys of Seattle says it's mostly about just being in the alleys. "In Seattle, we started having alley parties in the summer," he says. "We'd play music and roll couches and benches out there. One time, we roasted marshmallows. It lets people see the alley as something different.”

In the end, it's as much about changing attitudes about alleys as anything else.

"Alleys have always been portrayed on TV shows as seedy and dangerous spaces," says Wright of Cincinnati's Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. "It's fun to be part of the reversal of that perception."


Eric Peterson is a Denver-based writer and editor specializing in technology and travel. He's written about music for Westword, skiing for the New York Daily News, and tech startups for Confluence Denver, while authoring dozens of guidebooks for Frommer's Travel Guides. He's also written his own Ramble Guides series, including Ramble Colorado. Contact him here.
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