Reclaiming Alleys in Pioneer Square

What can a downtown alley be used for? More than you think -- and a group in Pioneer Square has been working to prove it. The network of businesses connected to the historic Nord building (near 1st Ave. and Main St.) has created a vibrant and charming social space by hosting parties in an unlikely locale: the alleyway behind their offices.

Todd Vogel of the International Sustainability Institute bought two floors of the Nord in 2007, and began using it for his own office space as well as renting space to a number of for-profit and non-profit tenants. When he moved in, he began doing small things to clean up the alley and send a signal to others to respect the space. "We began by cleaning, painting, taking boards off the windows, adding plants and putting nicer doors up," he says. "I bought a table on Craigslist and put it out there, and as soon as I did that, people started taking care of it better. They had been using it as a bathroom, but when it looked nicer, people walked through it more often; they were taking wedding photos there."

The Nord residents (which include local pedestrian advocacy group Feet First) and neighbors began gathering for meetings to discuss what could be done to further improve the alley. Jones and Jones Architecture, which owns a nearby building, called to offer their assistance. The firm hosted a charrette with community members and representatives from City government, and the group decided to create a plan for attracting even more people to walk through the Nord alley. This October marks the one-year anniversary of the first Nord alley party. The events, which have drawn as many as 500 people in one evening, regularly feature live music and local art.

The group recently applied to the City for a Neighborhood Matching Funds grant of $15,000 to go toward an Alley Art project that would bring unique permanent steel installations from local artists to the space behind the Nord. Jones and Jones has donated the design, Vogel has contributed his time as a project manager, and Glasshouse Studio has donated $25,000 worth of glass artwork to meet -- and exceed -- the matching requirement. Eventually, the community may work with One/Northwest to create a system that would encourage pedestrians to text their feedback on the project to a common number.

We've posted several times on the opportunity to turn urban alleyways from nuisances into assets. Earlier this year, a new pilot program took a big step toward making Seattle's downtown alleyways cleaner and clearer. Seattle Utilities removed about 700 Dumpsters from downtown alleyways, eliminating a common shelter for crime and a common deterrent for pedestrians. Garbage collection contractor CleanScapes now collects bagged trash from the alleys several times each day, which means there's no need to store refuse in hulking metal containers. As a result, the opportunity to create useful pedestrian spaces in existing alleys suddenly seems much more feasible.

Vogel believes, and I tend to agree, that alleyways hold a kind of natural fascination for many people. "I think the reason is, it's right there under our nose," he says. "All it requires is a slightly different mindset, and you get huge results. Alleys are a huge wasted asset, but it won't require too much to reclaim them for the city."

If the Nord festivities are any indication, clearing and re-activating these valuable pathways will make a safer, more enjoyable and more inviting walkable neighborhood. And, with Park(ing) Day just behind us, I found this an exciting new movement for re-evaluating the bigger picture of small spaces.

Here a bit of "citizen photojournalism" from last month's event in the Nord alley, via my mobile phone:

Setting up for the event at 5 pm

Croquet at the ready

Plant-bedecked balconies and warmly lit windows contribute to an inviting ambience

One attendee finds a secure parking space

With music, food, wine and company, the event drew a crowd


How fabulous! One person's vision, initiative and energy sparking a community.

Posted by: Kathleen Scott on September 23, 2009 5:12 PM

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