Wednesday, April 30, 2014

U.S. Cities Recognizing New Value in Alleys

From: - Blind Alleys of Urban Branding - Downtown Colorado Inc. April 9th 2014
Michael Scott is the Editor of UrbanWebcity, an online community examining the intersection between people and the urban environments in which they live. Michael can be reached at

"In many historic European cities, alleys have long been an integral part of urban landscapes, revered as epicenters of cultural and civic activity. In the U.S., they have traditionally been seen as unappealing service corridors between buildings, synonymous with crime, vice, and bottle-toting street vagrants, not for public use." 

Sacramento's Old Soul Coffee patrons enjoy the alley atmosphere

"From a broader perspective, alley revitalization efforts that support the efficient use of urban space are being increasingly seen as a key strategic piece in the overall branding identity of a city. This is particularly true as local governments seek ways to boost declining revenues during our nation’s economic recovery. Many alleys because they are too narrow for a steady flow of vehicular traffic, are primed to serve as walkable thoroughfares, fueling consumer spending and commerce. Other benefits include bike storage and recycling, among other functional possibilities."

[Until recently, some members of the senior management at the Office of Historic Preservation in D.C. have considered D.C. alleys as being useful for only two things: - (a) trash and (b) service access. This is slowly changing. Ed]

"Alley rebranding projects taking place in U.S. cities often have a grassroots, organic feel to them. In the eclectic Midtown District of Sacramento, citizen-infused momentum is building around efforts to revamp these small urban spaces. The alley where Old Soul Coffee is planted is just one example of how aesthetic improvements can spur creative use of space for nearby businesses and homes. The story behind Old Soul Coffee and the rogue arterial it used to be is similar to that of a band finding an off-the-beaten-path garage space to practice in. I spoke to Jason Griest, one of the founders Old Soul, to get his take on the evolution of the alleyway as a destination point for local residents."

Old Soul’s home, Liestal Alley

"Despite their history as dark, abandoned corridors decorated by graffiti-stricken dumpsters, unsavory characters and delivery trucks, alleys are now finding value as nodes of public vitality and economic activity. These long underused passageways now represent key avenues of community connectivity and civic pride, a major component of urban rebranding efforts."


Read the full article to see suggestions about how to accomplish alley revitalization. [Ed]

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Proposed Alley Classification System

Category 1 (lowest)

There are no remaining historic buildings within the alley and there is no opportunity for thematic development based on historic provenance.

Category 2

1 or 2 historic buildings exist that retain elements of their historic nature. The alley in general is no longer intact and most of the buildings have been destroyed through neglect or intentional demolition.

Category 3

5 to 10 historic buildings exist and the alley is reasonably “intact” with potential for development and preservation of the historic buildings through incorporation but preservation.

Category 4

10 or more historic buildings exist and the alley is almost completely “intact” with a high potential for thematic development and preservation.

Category 5 (highest)

The alley is fully developed to its maximal potential and thriving either commercially or as a residential community. 

The "Corrugated Alley" - Durr

“A sense of place” is something that one intuits.

Despite readily discovered “rules and regulations of urban design” that have been layered over the years on top of previous “rules and regulations” it ultimately comes down to one’s personal initial reaction. What fits? What doesn’t fit? How does a place make you feel? Do you get a sense of the past and the present gently comingling or is it jarring? Do you feel comfortable and want to stay or do you feel discomfort and want to leave?

1958 Ford Edsel - one of Time Magazine’s 50 worst cars of all time.

A “sense of place” hits one viscerally. For example you don’t need to be a car designer to intuitively either appreciate or abhor a car’s design. In many ways the Ford Edsel was not intrinsically a “bad car” for its time, but the poor sales revealed that most people thought it was pretty ugly. With a more imaginative grill/fa├žade and rear treatment, it might have sold well. Time Magazine speculated on another interesting reason for its poor sales!

Durr alley (between 11th and 10th and M and N Streets) is a category 1 alley in the author’s alley classification system (which means that there are no historic alley buildings to protect and development potential is limited for the foreseeable future). The alley is essentially a homogeneous collection of rollup doors passively and patiently facing each other. 

So, putting corrugated cladding on the rear of a new building backing onto the alley does not seem so out of place because the sense of place is already established. In another location with a different sense of place, it would stand out like a sore finger. 

Dubbed “The Finger Building” 

Probably nice for those who are on the inside looking out. Not so nice for those on the outside.  Most observers have a strong immediate visceral response one way or another. 

There is a place for everything. Just the right place. 

Sometimes, to quote  Gertrude Stein, "there is no there, there."