Alleys, in the American context, are cramped spaces tucked behind commercial buildings that house the ancillary services businesses and households require such as trash removal, utility access, and deliveries. Glimpsed only momentarily by passing pedestrians, these spaces are often perceived as dirty, unwelcoming, and even unsafe. In contrast, pre-automotive cities such as London, Kyoto, and Melbourne, have a network of alleys (or laneways) meant explicitly for pedestrians. As shortcuts and intimate retail spaces alleys in these cities are clean, safe, and home to creative expression. Now small towns and cities across North Carolina like Kinston, Brevard, and New Bern are seeing successful renovation and investment in alleys. How can other communities looking to bring value and vibrancy to downtowns energize these neglected spaces?
The Benefits of Investing in Alleys
Alley redevelopment and improvement can benefit communities North Carolina and rest of the country in creating high value retail space, critical pedestrian connectivity and walkability, and improved environmental sustainability and public safety. Alley retail spaces can be an affordable home to local businesses, or intimate shopping experiences of alleys can attract high quality retail. Alleys repurposed as inviting and engaging pedestrian corridors provide convenient access from offsite parking to downtowns. Improved storm water control through alley greenways is taking off throughout the country, while the diminished blight that activity and cleaner streets brings can reduce the perception of crime.
Importantly, even small communities with few downtown alleys can utilize alley redevelopment as an alternative to expensive new construction to increase the supply of retail space and bring the vibrancy of a city block to Main Street, USA. Ultimately the benefits of these nimble spaces will be driven by the goals of the community and the forethought to engage these spaces in a new way.
Developing a plan
As communities begin to consider alley redevelopment, factors such as unclear ownership, low visibility, and maintaining integral services, are important challenges that must be understood and mitigated. Cities and towns in North Carolina can pursue solutions to these problems and take steps towards activating and ultimately redeveloping their alleys by clearing barriers to development, generating interest in alley spaces, and building on past success.
- Understand: Often shared semi-public spaces, alleys can have unclear ownership arrangements. Alleys may be owned and maintained by the municipality, State transportation agencies, or privately owned by abutting property owners. Securing this information through reviewing land records and informing property owners of obligations to maintain private alleys may be the first step in the feasibility of alley investments. Conducting a full survey of alleys can be the best way to understand their ownership, current condition, and overall redevelopment potential.
- Activate: Even before significant resources are invested in alleys, municipalities can begin a community dialogue on how to use the space. Putting on events, such as concerts, festivals, or movie screenings can be a great way to activate and de-stigmatize alleys for very little cost. Seattle’s Alley Network Project shows how public events generate interest and give neighbors a vision for future activity. As buzz and comfort with these spaces grows, communities can institutionalize these events to attract private developers.
- Plan: Once the community has decided to invest in the alleys, municipalities should plan for the future success of alleyways by developing a plan that targets development that brings out the natural strengths of the space and accomplishing public goals. While bringing neighborhood or high end retail may be most attractive to a municipality, it is important to look at a community’s alleys and their many uses holistically. Following successes in two pilot projects, Fort Collins, Colorado developed an alley master plan that envisions storm water reduction, pedestrian networks, and artistic expression, as well as retail and restaurant spaces.
- Invest: To generate the best return on alleyway redevelopment, municipalities must often invest in critical infrastructure investments that will bring out the strengths of the spaces while developing and implementing policies that are compatible with a mix of uses in alleyways.
- Infrastructure: On publicly maintained alleys infrastructure investment is a critical way that local governments can improve the feasibility of private redevelopment. Decorative pavers, storm water management techniques, more attractive dumpsters, and plantings are just some of the ways to bring people—and investment—into alleys. Experiences in Fort Collins, Asheville, and Los Angeles show that landscape, street lighting, and other infrastructure improvements can run $450,000-$1 million per alley, but these successful alley redevelopments show that investments can bring millions in private development. Funding for these projects have included synthetic TIF financing, CDBG funds, local park funds, or monies privately raised.
- Policy: More users and less space means that cramped alleyways need creative responses to maintain or expand services like trash removal and delivery access. Policy changes to accommodate these uses while minimizing impact on a newly activated space should be evaluated on a community or even individual alley level. Teachable examples of policy adaptation include implementing shared dumpster programs, increasing frequency of trash collection to allow for fewer, less obtrusive dumpsters, or subsidizing trash compacters where appropriate. Furthermore, delivery times can be restricted to when pedestrian access is lowest to minimize disruption of both delivery workers and passersby.
This guide can be used to start planning for renewed vibrancy, safety and value in alleyways in North Carolina. The examples provided offer a range of successful strategies that follow the public interest to transform alleys into productive public assets.
Peter Gorman is a Master’s candidate in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in Economic Development and a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.