Best of 2010: How to make urban alleys work

An imaginative design competition focuses on one alley in Pioneer Square, coming up with ideas we should apply around the city.

Crosscut archive image.

An alley that works in Europe, using simple green plantings, and emphasizing the ornamental features of buildings.

An imaginative design competition focuses on one alley in Pioneer Square, coming up with ideas we should apply around the city.

(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published March 17.)

Urban alleys in Seattle may soon be making a comeback, thanks to a recent design competition that highlighted how safe, active, and delightful they could be with the right design talent, programming. and management.

The U.S. has always been a bit conflicted about alleys. Unlike our mother country, we have never embraced the concept of the English Mews — a narrow, tree-lined lane with facing shops and houses. Nor did we seem to appreciate the French version of winding passages packed with tiny art galleries, clothing makers, cafes, tearooms, and coffeehouses that still lace the Left Bank of Paris. Cities in Japan and other Asian countries are chockablock with little, lively lanes. Only recently has the more Dutch version, the woonerf — a public passage that vehicles, people, and plants share equally — taken hold in a few North American cities.

We do have some American examples. There is the well-known Maiden Lane off of Union Square in San Francisco, which allows for service vehicles and deliveries in the mornings but is packed with cafes during the day and evenings. In Memphis, several widely-known restaurants, such as the Rendezvous, a renowned barbecue joint, are found in back alleys. Schubert Alley in New York is not really an alley at all, but a wide walkway lined with theaters and restaurants. More recently, Chicago has been aggressively pushing the envelope with an expansive and innovative Green Alleys Program.

But, for the most part we have either deplored alleys, assuming they are havens of antisocial and criminal behavior, or relegated them to being lined with trash bins and truck-loading docks. Many cities have even taken them off the books so to speak. Recent generations of civil engineers saw no value to them at all and removed them from their manuals. But the death knell was probably sounded by modern fire marshalls who hate such constricted spaces. Nope, not much of an alley culture in this country.

Seattle has been more fortunate than most other cities in holding onto a few precious alleys. The multi-block stretch of Post Alley between the south end of the Pike Market and Virginia St. is about as good as it gets anywhere, with its plethora of vegetable stands, fishmongers, bakeries, coffee bars, French and Italian cafes, an Irish pub, and diminutive specialty shops.

But the rest of Post Alley further south has never fared nearly as well, despite several attempts to enliven these blocks. One of my personal favorites with untapped potential is the segment behind the Colman Building. There, the old brick walls are support a fanciful collection of fire escapes right out of New York’s Little Italy. All that waits is a new development to replace to parking lot and create a lively outdoor room as magical at the segments further north.

Recently, Seattle’s Department of Transportation co-sponsored a competition with the Seattle-based International Sustainability Institute to see if our community of creative designers could concoct ideas for Nord Alley, between S. Main and S. Jackson Streets in Pioneer Square. At a recent gala, several winners were announced with great fanfare and kudos by Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, chair of the council’s parks committee.This could bode well for the cityscape, as this is the same committee that is converting Bell Street into a future urban park.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation is now supporting the creative use of the public rights of way in the city. Alleys are a relatively simple way of creating unique public spaces without needing to purchase expensive land. They are also opportunities to demonstrate cutting-edge principles of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. That so many designs were submitted indicates the level of interest in these previously overlooked spaces. Two design submittals shared the Grand Prize category. (Disclosure moment: I happen to work with several of the people responsible for one of the winners; but I had no involvement in their creation.)

The first winner captured the attention of the jury by mocking up an imaginary guidebook that would explain the many visual and experiential delights of alleys in Pioneer Square. A team led by Lesley Bain and Kit Kollmeyer roughly followed a format used by Eyewitness travel books to map, depict, and briefly describe landmarks, walking routes, points of interest, and regular events. The design visually and vividly celebrates the varied life and choices that great cities have always offered.

Although this guidebook does not exist, one wishes that it did. Perhaps in this era of hundreds of unemployed architects, some enterprising young designers could form a new kind of publishing house revealing the secrets of Seattle. A few decades ago, one unemployed French architect created gorgeous little ceramic models of Italian hill towns and other well-known cities. He is doing better at that venture than his previous profession.

The other grand prize winner was a team of four designers: Animish Kudalkar, Brianna Holan, Clint Keithley, and Yoshi Ogawa. Their idea borrows from the construct of iPhone apps. Using similar iconography, the concept proposes a series of basic upgrades to alleys involving paving, storm water infiltration, lighting, and trash and recycling containment.

The group also envisions a monitoring system for energy use so that passersby can gauge the progress in achieving the 2030 Challenge. A host of other cleverly invented apps can each trigger a different environmental condition with customization for different daytime and evening experiences. Let’s hope this group of talented folks has a patent pending before Apple bites it off and makes another zillion.

Honorable mention was given to a submittal by Noriko Marshall and David Vasquez. Taking cues from the Japanese Yokocho (alleys lined with tiny businesses), they proposed a combination of micro-commerce and micro-agriculture. Their proposal included another touching idea — although not, strictly speaking, limited for alleys. That is to replace one out every seven London plane trees with a brilliantly red-hued, Chilean fire-bush, a tree that attracts hummingbirds with its ample, tasty nectar. Such a supremely beautiful, simple idea!

Other notable contributions include a proposal by the SvR firm for “triple bottom line” enterprise zones for alleys; a concept by Chris Ezell for mechanical devices that capture or reflect wind, rain, and light; and a rather goofy idea by Kenny Wilson for slender, traveling cranes that support narrow, new building blocks.

All of the competition entries offer up an abundance of wonderful images and ideas. Let’s just try some and see which work.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).