A couple of years ago, a few downtowners got together and started talking about renovating the alleys of the city’s core, making them more pedestrian-friendly with new pavement, paint and lighting, transforming them from stinky backstreet vagabond thoroughfares into bright, artistic retail and dining corridors.
They made a plan, which began like a lot of other plans. Meetings were held. Drawings were made, and excitement ensued.
But something is about to happen that will set this plan apart — it’s about to become a reality, even if only partially at first.
A project going to construction bid this month will give a major facelift to one entire downtown alley and a portion of another.
The alley between Tejon Street and Cascade Avenue, bordered by Platte Avenue on the north and Bijou Street on the south, will be repaved with stamped, decorative concrete. Walls facing the alley will be repainted, and old crumbling parking bollards will be replaced with new, decorative ones. Dumpsters will be consolidated into one area, planters will be added and lighting will be draped from building to building.
The same thing will be done at the entrance to the alley entrance across Bijou to the south. Work there will span from the entrance to about a third of the way down the alley.
The work, estimated to cost about $200,000, should be complete sometime this fall.
“This is really about making downtown safer,” said Downtown Partnership CEO Susan Edmondson. “It’s also about beautifying downtown, supporting the merchants and highlighting the city’s parking options.”
Highlighting parking options is a priority for this project because that’s what’s footing the bill.
City Parking Administrator Greg Warnke kicked in the $200,000 for the project from the city’s parking enterprise fund, which is earmarked for downtown renovation projects.
His interest is increasing use of the city parking garage that connects to the alley bordered by Platte and Bijou.
“That garage has historically been underutilized,” Warnke said. “It is designed to empty out into that alley, and we’ve heard that people don’t feel safe using it because of the homeless people hanging out back there. So, I see this as an opportunity to make improvements not only to the alley but also to my garage and get people parking there.”
“Greg has been awesome,” said Andrea Barker, one of the initial participants in the planning group and principal at HB&A architectural firm, which was commissioned to create concept drawings of the alley redesigns. “He said, ‘You need money? I’ve got money. Let’s do this.’”
Initially, when the planning group — including merchants, arts representatives, city officials and other downtown stakeholders — began dreaming up the project, it envisioned the redevelopment of most, if not all, of the downtown alleys west of Tejon.
[pullquote] “This is the beta project. And we’re hoping everyone will see just how great it can be.”
– Susan Edmondson,
The network of alleys was envisioned to become the “Alley Arts District,” an idea that began with 35-year-old Brett Andrus, who co-owns the popular art galleries Modbo and S.P.Q.R., just inside the alleyway south of Bijou where the renovation work will be done.
“With the galleries, we bring a lot of culture and cool events downtown,” Andrus said. “Some of our art openings draw 600 or 800 people, so many that you can’t even drive through the alley, and we thought we should expand it to include all the alleys into the arts district.”
Andrus said he became enamored of the idea while visiting Italy, where alleyways have been utilized for hundreds of years with cafés and storefronts.
Considering how many people Andrus’ galleries have been drawing, the alley district was an easy sell for some downtown merchants, like Sam Eppley, who owns Sparrow Hawk Cookware at 120 N. Tejon, which backs up to the “Arts Alley” near Modbo and S.P.Q.R.
“He brings a lot of sharp young people downtown, and that’s just what we need,” said Eppley, who is also president of the Downtown Partnership board of directors.
And while attracting support for an Arts Alley District concept might be easy, finding the money for such a project is not.
That’s why the initial work is considered a first step that will hopefully stoke interest — and financial support — for further alley renovation projects.
“We’re really hoping that people and downtown business owners will say, ‘Wow, this is what can be done downtown,’ and want to continue the work,” Edmondson said.
Role model up north
That’s what happened in Fort Collins, which became a model for the concept here.
About eight years ago, a similar group of Fort Collins merchants led by their Downtown Development Authority began talking about how to redevelop downtown alleyways and connect their historic downtown area to the Colorado State University campus.
“We began with two pilot projects, downtown alleys that were already heavily used as shortcuts,” said Matt Robenalt, executive director of the Fort Collins DDA, and we wanted to enhance them and turn them into something you see when you stroll down any alley in Europe.”
He said the pilot projects provided great learning opportunities for the city about how much money should be spent on what, and what’s reasonable to expect on a limited budget.
Robenalt also said it was a valuable chance to win over critics.
“We had a lot of issues and hurdles to overcome,” he said. “And it’s what I’d call the skepticism phase. It gave us a chance to answer a lot of the ‘why-would-you-do-this’ questions and address the ‘that’s-a-lot-of-money-for-this’ complaints.”
The Fort Collins DDA plugged along with the work, and two years later the city adopted an alley redevelopment master plan, the Downtown Alley Enhancement Project, of which the first of several phases has now been completed.
“Now we get calls all the time with people asking, ‘When are you going to do my alley?’” Robenalt said.
He said merchants quickly got on board with the idea when they saw that the alleys were being used by more people and it was a way to maximize profit. The renovated alleys had an effect on real estate.
“Properties that were near the alleys where work was scheduled were rented quickly,” he said, “and no one wanted to buy properties that were not on the master plan. You’d be surprised how well it works, I mean, these are alleys that hundreds of people are already using as cut-through paths anyway. People use alleys more than you think.”
That’s the kind of synergy Edmondson and other proponents here are trying to create with the first leg in Colorado Springs.
“This is the beta project,” Edmondson said. “And we’re hoping everyone will see just how great it can be. We’re hoping we can get all downtown business owners to get on board.”
Aaron Briggs, a planner with HB&A who is a project manager for the alley renovation project, said the real benefit to business owners would come with adopting a master plan, because business owners can coordinate back-door reconstruction or dining patio development to coincide with alley work.
“That’s the one thing I’d advocate for is a master plan,” Briggs said. “That’s when we’ll get the most use out of our alleys. I’m hoping this first phase is well received.”