Blind Alleys of Urban Branding

9 Apr

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

It’s the early morning of January 20th and I’m being driven around Sacramento by a friend of mine in hopes of finding my stop for the day, a popular coffeehouse in Midtown called Old Soul Coffee. Having navigated a series of one-way streets for nearly 30 minutes, it became apparent that this place was more than a bit tricky to find. We stopped on a side street to reorient ourselves, and discovered a clue that provided the insight our struggle needed: the coffeehouse is actually located in an alleyway adjoining the listed physical address.

Old Soul Coffee is a Sacramento gem that requires some urban savvy to locate. Nestled in an unpretentious alley connecting 17th and 18th streets, this gathering place resides in a loft-like warehouse space brimming with an eclectic mix of independent workers, casual readers and wandering bohemians.

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.

Cities like Sacramento are refreshingly reversing these perceptions, recognizing alleys as assets to their social landscape. Transcending their traditional role as corridors of commercial delivery and trash collection, many alleys are being repurposed in pedestrian-friendly, economically viable public spaces that promote walkability and community. Cities like Seattle, Indianapolis and San Francisco have embraced the redesign of urban alleyways, using them to drive economic development by igniting street activity that draws people to local businesses and the cultural arts scene.

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.

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.

“My business partner and co-founder Tim [Jordan] and I wanted to open our business in an alley, but we were broke,” said Griest, who had owned area coffeehouses before. “We desired a space where we could practice our respective crafts, which, for Tim was cooking and baking, and for me, coffee.”

What the duo couldn’t know is that their coffeehouse dream would evolve into the diamond in the rough that it is today. “We opened in 2006, strictly as a wholesale coffee business. This was a pretty beat-up alley building with no plumbing, lights or dishwasher. There was no air conditioning or heating, so when it was 100 degrees outside in August, the month we opened, it was often 114 degrees or more inside. Outside, the structure was spewed with graffiti and the alleyway was littered with potholes. And to make matters worse, I started sleeping on the floor of this place because I had just lost my house. In one sense, it wasn’t a pretty picture. But I was thrilled to be working with my friend and business partner Tim in making the business better every day.”

The business was unexpectedly shut down in late 2006 after an unexpected visit from state regulators who cited them for running a business without the proper permits and licenses. After this setback, Old Soul began to forge a different vision for the business when it rebooted in early 2007. Griest credits the alley as being the ideal ecosystem for his business’s growth. “People would just wander down the alley and smell the coffee roasting.”

This activity spurred Griest and Jordan to diversify their business and move from their original wholesale model to one that could cater to the growing number of walk-ins patronizing Old Soul. “We priced every purchase at two bucks. Our motto became ‘grab what you want and throw your money in the jar.’”

Old Soul’s home, Liestal Alley, is one of the pilot projects being facilitated by the City of Sacramento. Improvements to make the thoroughfare more bike and pedestrian-friendly were funded through a public/private partnership. Lights were installed for safety, and big planter pots were strategically placed to calm the flowing traffic. Griest has heard reports that nearly 40% of Sacramento is composed of alleys. “If this is true, think of all the great things Sacramento could do for urban infill by fostering these alley projects,” he said.

Now that the alley has been beautified, Griest says that there is a great deal of pride had in keeping it neat and clean. “With anyone frequenting the alley, we stress the importance of picking up trash and not letting it sit. If you see trash along an alley and don’t pick it up, it’s a subtle sign for others to engage in that behavior.”

Dovetailing off of the Old Soul example, urban design is gaining prominence as a tool for transforming gritty alleyways into attractive, functional spaces. In the end, the hope is to attract pedestrian activity and turn what are otherwise seen as dark and dangerous passages into catalysts for civic and economic vibrancy. Models using alley regeneration as a branding strategy can be found in many North American cities. Some of the most notable are Seattle’s Nord Alley, San Jose’s Paseo de San Antonio, and San Francisco’s Belden Place.

Alley activation projects are also taking place in smaller, less recognized cities across the nation. Ferndale, Michigan, a Detroit metro area city with a population of around 22,000 features a downtown alley that provides public space for local events, as well as outdoor restaurant seating for eateries that back up to the alleyway. Acquired by the City of Ferndale in a land swap, the reconstituted alley has been landscaped with trees and flowers, giving it an attractive feel, amenable to foot traffic.

Despite the advantages resulting from the repurposing of alleyways, efforts undertaken to pursue the rebranding of these thoroughfares have met with varying levels of success. One big roadblock often is the logistics of converting what has been a vehicular arterial into a path amenable to foot traffic. As is the norm in dense environments, local drivers use alleys as cut-throughs to avoid traffic. In commercial districts, alleys are an access point for trash haulers or trucks making deliveries to merchants whose stores back up to the alley.

To facilitate the pedestrian-friendly quality of alleys, commercial districts must either restrict delivery and trash removal access to designated hours, or close the passageway down completely. Pasadena represents one model where delivery access is strictly controlled and enforced. Deliveries in the Mercantile Ally of the Old Pasadena Management District are restricted to designated hours. This flow is managed with retractable bollards, which are wooden or iron posts that open and close during the designated hours. Trucks that need to make deliveries outside these hours must call the municipality management to obtain special permission to reopen the bollards.

In addition to the economic and community development benefits associated with alley revitalization, cities are striving to incorporate environmental practices into their framework. Chicago’s Green Alley program, launched under former mayor Richard Daley, is perhaps the best example of this sort of initiative. Considered the alley capital of the U.S., Chicago boasts more than 13,000 of these passageways, encompassing more than 1900 total miles. The city’s ongoing repurposing efforts have slowly converted alleyways into green, permeable thoroughfares that absorb storm water and improve local water quality.

Fostering clean, environmentally sustainable alleys represents a fundamental shift from the trash-encumbered, grimy repute that these spaces are too often known for. In response, many downtown business districts are exploring trash management practices that incorporate new forms of collections and recycling. One of the most popular trends has been to exchange unsightly collection dumpsters for enclosures that accommodate commercial trash compactors and recycling containers. This offers a number of benefits over traditional trash collection methods: fewer hauler pickups, which means lower collection costs, better management of waste volumes, odors and rodent associated problems, and more efficient use of alley space.

The city of Boulder, Colorado has underway some of the most progressive efforts in support of the “greening” of its alleyways. The city currently offers a merchant program to incentivize environmentally sustainable waste reduction activities such as recycling and composting. City subsidization of composting provides merchants with a $2.50 per-cubic-yard reduction on their composting invoice when they elect this service through their designated waste hauler. Boulder has also moved toward the adoption of a “single stream” recycling system, enabling merchants to mix all recyclables together, with the goal of reducing trash collections to weekly.

During my most recent study tour stop in San Francisco’s lively Mission District, I discovered, still another creative use of alleyways: as graffiti-infused art designed to add flair to an area heavily frequented by young millennials and hipsters.

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.



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