Written by: Steve Raabe
Consider your stereotypical alley. Dumpsters. Odors. Graffiti. Furtive activity. Now consider your ideal alley. Clean. Visually appealing. Pedestrian pathway. And, maybe, entertainment destination.
Activating alleys for commercial purposes is a trendy concept in urban planning. The idea will get its first substantial tryout in Denver at the Z Block development in Lower Downtown.
“I’m hoping we can set the example and get the concept going,” said Chad McWhinney, CEO of Z Block co-developer McWHINNEY. “We want to do something so special and unique that people will want to get married in the alley.”
McWhinney and partners Sage Hospitality and Grand American have ambitious plans for the alley between Blake and Wazee streets, running from 18th Street to 19th. The alley bisects their development, which will include a new 172-room hotel and six-story office building along Wazee, and renovation of historic buildings facing Blake.
When the project opens in late 2016 or early 2017, the alley will become the first of its kind in Denver to provide a permanent array of retail, restaurant and entertainment uses.
“There’s a lot of buzz about this concept of activating alleys,” said John Desmond, executive vice president for Downtown Environment at the Downtown Denver Partnership. “We want to make them more than just utilitarian alleys,” he said. “They’re an underutilized resource. There’s a finite amount of public space, and we need to maximize the use of that space.”
McWhinney said his interest was stimulated by visits to lively alleys in New York City, Seattle and San Francisco, and, most recently, by a vacation to Barcelona where alleys often have more commercial and pedestrian activity than the streets surrounding them.
To date, Denver’s experiments with alley activation have been temporal and largely cosmetic.
According to Denver Community Planning and Design, alleys have been the focus of:
- A series of single-day “pop-up” parties with food, drink and entertainment.
- Lighting upgrades and painted murals in some downtown alleys.
- An infrastructure analysis by Denver Public Works that recommended improvements to several downtown alleys to make them more pedestrian-friendly.
- A Mayor’s Design Award to “Art Alley” in the River North neighborhood.
- A move by the Cherry Creek zoning task force to encourage alley activation. “There are all kinds of creative uses if people are given the opportunity,” said task force member Mary Morissette.
- An award-winning study of downtown alleys by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning program.
At Z Block, the idea is to advance beyond studies, artwork and temporary events.
Preliminary plans call for retail and artisanal uses, including a distiller, chocolatier, coffee-bean roaster, ice cream maker and a selection of restaurants and clubs. The businesses will face the alley and, in some cases, use alley space for stalls and tables. The corridor still will need to accommodate its traditional use as a pathway for deliveries and trash pickup. Those functions will take place in early-morning hours. For the rest of the day and evening, the corridor will be open to pedestrians.
“The challenge is that you have to maintain the practical functions,” said project architect Christopher Shears of Shears Adkins Rockmore. “But we’ll plan to minimize the practical and maximize the active uses and retail exposure. Every time you walk in this alley, you will have an experience.”
The development plan is possible because the block’s longtime owner, Grand American, filed with Denver in 1996 to have the alley converted to private ownership. Most other alleys in Denver are public rights of way. In those alleys, property owners seeking commercial uses would need to similarly request a transfer from public to private control.
One of Denver’s few alley-facing retailers is Wines Off Wynkoop, across the alley from the Tattered Cover bookstore in LoDo. Co-owner Jonathan Gelaude said having an alley entrance is “a bit of a Catch-22. People remember very well that we’re here, but before they can remember, they have to find us.”
Retail broker Stuart Zall of The Zall Co. said the Z Block alley may prove to be a popular destination. “Initially, it may take some exploring,” he said. “But if they bring in the right mix of tenants, people will find them. It’s an innovative and exciting concept.”