Alleys of Seattle

Firehouse Alley Event 1

Posted in Pioneer Square by seattlealleys on September 30, 2010

A week from today, the first event to celebrate and gather awareness of the tentatively named Firehouse Alley will take place.  I have been meeting with community members lead by Tom Pantaleoni, owner of Distant Lands Importers in Pioneer Square for the last few months, and we have set up a great event that will tie in with a Nord Alley Party.  There will be a light show, a green wall demonstration, music, and local food from 5-9pm.

I will also be exhibiting my findings from the alleys of San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as a set of recommendations for the alley that the community and I have come up with on some moving walls constructed of reclaimed pallets.  We have a temporary permit and a tentative small sparks grant for this.  With your input and attendance, the alley can begin to gather more momentum, and we can potentially begin a survey, and design ideas for its’ transformation!

I would like to thank ABC imaging for its’ kind donations for printing our display boards!

Bring a friend!

Sydney and Melbourne itineraries

Posted in Melbourne, Sydney by seattlealleys on September 29, 2010

This Saturday, I will be heading down under for two days in Sydney and about twelve in the myriad of laneways in downtown Melbourne.  I will be checking out the arts program currently in Sydney’s blossoming laneways, as well as a series of city-catalyzed bars and restaurants that have been encouraged through public funding to develop along the laneways.

In Melbourne, I will do research into the history, management, and development of the hugely successful laneways around the downtown.  Please let me know your suggestions!

Detroit overview

Posted in Detroit by seattlealleys on September 21, 2010

Detroit has been the most powerful experience in this research endeavor to date.  In a city devastated by social, urban, and financial situations for the last half-century, the transformation of space can have incredible impact on its existence.
The folks at the green garage, Tom and Peggy Brennan, purchased an old model T warehouse in 2008 adjacebt to Motor City Brewery with a vision to transform the incredibly blighted Midtown into a green hub. The building is to serve as an incubator for small businesses focused on green practices and technologies through a communal style office. The alley behind the business just finished construction this month and is already established its presence as a harbinger of change to the neighborhood, and perceptually the whole Midtown area.  This project really serves as a witness to the power of community members taking initiative and executing a good idea.  This alley will transform, no doubt, the block and community in many ways in the years to come.

I was also able to visit the abandoned Central Train Station and Mies’ Lafayette Park near the downtown.  The amount of ruins in the city is phenomenal and almost surreal.  Plants have begun to take the buildings back into the earth due to half a century of neglect.

I would like to thank Tom and Peggy Brennan of the Green Garage, my friend and former classmate Jessica Hartwig, and The Motor City Brewery for a fantastic lesson in American urbanism.  You can follow the Green Alley and Green Garage’s progress here

Chicago day 3

Posted in Chicago by seattlealleys on September 17, 2010


After meeting with David Leopold and Janet Attarian of the Chicago department of transportation’s green alley program I have a more clear idea about how the citys alleys work.
As in San Francisco, the city owns the whole alley and property lines end at walls. There are names for all the alleys that run east west that typically end in “place”. Business loading and pick up areas then have their own address. Many blocks have t- shaped alleys so through traffic on a commercial building back does not run into a residential one. It is also illegal to have parking garage access off an alley.
As far as the green alleys, I got to see the main downtown pilot one, Couch Place which unified the stage enttances for a handful of theaters. This alley now is flanked by gates with signs ovethead to announce to the street. It has high albedo concrete sides and permeable brick-looking pavers that allow for water to soak down into the ground at about a half inch a minute during a typical storm, alleviating many basement floods caused by overloaded shared drains flooding and backing up in peoples buildings. The whole city’s sewer infrastructure was recently modeled to study these bottlenecks. There have been about 100 alleys greened throughout the metro area predominantly on the fringe of downtown. They continue to green them through selection based on these plumbing bottlenecks.
Before leaving, I had to go see Perkins + Will’s office at wabash which was incredible. It is on the 35th and 36th floors if more’ last building and gas floor to ceiling glass views of everything as it looms right over the north side of the river.

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Chicago day 2

Posted in Chicago by seattlealleys on September 15, 2010


After speaking with downtown photographer, Bob Thall at Columbia College, I continued to move north through the alleys bumping into the beautiful Prie Scott building and a couple other Chicago gems.
Bob described a Chicago with a fleeting past – a downtown losing its best century through souless envelope maxing developments without the scale of the beginning of the city. His book on alleys is the third in a series of four on various layers of the downtown. He seems to have a similar fascination with their ability to very bluntly show history and give a sense of the city that cannot be experienced in the continually remodeled streets and storefronts.
I then spent a good deal of time looking at the first downtown green alley, Couch Place, which unifies a fee theaters’ entries south of the river. The permeable paving looked similar to small bricks with gravel in the joints. The clean lines have the space a more civic appearance. I hope to meet tomorrow with the department of transportation office responsible for the green alleys to discuss their successes.

Chicago day 1

Posted in Chicago by seattlealleys on September 14, 2010


Chicago is an American Manhattan. After an early morning trip to Oak Park to see frank Lloyd wrights prairie work as well as his home, studio, and the jewel box Unity Temple, I walked from congress parkway and wabash through downtown, across the river all the way through old town and back through Wicker Park.
The city grows seemlessly as Manhattan from neighborhood to neighborhood stitched together by the visibility of the incredible collection of a century of skylines and the rickety crash of the elevated metro.
The collect of alleys here is certainly staggering. Most downtown ones maintain a very utilitarian existence similar to their Seattle counterparts yet old town has a more residential breed that is flanked by back steps, carriage houses converted to garages and children riding bicycles and skateboards about. This area is very rich in texture and apparent history. Two additional highlights were stumbling across one of the remaining four alleys with the use of treated wood pavers and Gaslanp Court, where you have to ask to be let in the gate to see its collection of timber fire escapes, planters, and fountains. This is apparently an old alley once lit by gas lamps and now serving as a backdrop courtyard space for a couple shops, offices, and condominiums.

Chicago/Detroit alleys itinerary

Posted in Chicago, Detroit by seattlealleys on September 8, 2010

This Saturday, September 11th, I will embark on trip two.  I will spend four days in Chicago and three days in Detroit.  While in Chicago I will be meeting with the Department of Transportation in regards to their Green Alleys program that has successfully remodeled a number of downtown alleys.  I will also be meeting with photographer Bob Thall, whose book, City Spaces, explores alleys and their role in the city’s identity.

“Investigating these spaces reminded me of my earlier sense of the city as a mysterious landscape to explore. My history as a Chicagoan, my history as a photographer, the history of the city, and, in a small way, the history of photography—without any plan or anticipation, these photographs brought these histories together for me.” – Bob Thall

While in Detroit, I will visit the Green Garage and their freshly remodeled alley on their grand opening day, Thursday.  I will also be taking an architecture tangent to Cranbrook while in the city.  Let me know if you have any additions to these maps, or if you know of any interesting alleys in either city.  Check back throughout next week for frequent posts.

San Francisco Chinatown photos

Posted in San Francisco by seattlealleys on August 13, 2010

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San Francisco day 4

Posted in San Francisco by seattlealleys on August 12, 2010

My final day of exploration lead me around, north park, downtown, north beach, and south of Market. I was lead by architect and fellow alley advocate, David Winslow. Before heading over to David’s, I revisited the V.C. Morris gift shop, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1948 masterpiece that I wrote my first paper in architecture school about. With a little more critical eye, this space only amazed me more.

After meeting David, we began by seeing his adaptive reuse of a warehouse off an alley into a mixed use catalyst containing a fold up coffee shop that draws a crowd out front throughout the day. the alley-like Linden Street is finally going through a remodel that David has worked for three years at getting constructed. As with most alley projects encountered this far, a serious political battle must be braved for even the simplest thing to happen in these spaces.

After reviewing construction progress and a few other north park alleys, we headed down to Commercial Street.

Commercial Street runs east-west and links the Chnatown neighborhoods with the financial district to its east, containing a myriad of shops, restaurants, and tabletop friendly dining experiences on the lunch hours during the day.  After speaking to the Hair of the Dog restaurant manager, apparently tenants renew an annual permit to place tables and chairs into the alley from 10 am to 2 pm every day, providing an automobile free, pedestrian-friendly experience.  This pattern is seen throughout San Francisco at places like Belden Place, the Irish Bank, and others.  Coming from Seattle, this is remarkable policy, as it’s seemingly impossible to place a table and chair into an alley without doing it guerrilla.  Not only is this simple permit great for the pedestrian experience, but it certainly grows an owner’s square footage and ability to draw a crowd.  Apparently Maiden Lane and Belden Place both began as some of the roughest spaces in the city before brave entrepreneurs had ideas to transform them.

We then preceded to an amazing alley that recalls Lawrence Halprin directly east of the iconic Transamerica pyramid.  This alley is one of my favorites thus far on the trip.  Despite a lack of draw to the space, it tees into Redwood Park, a quarter block’s worth of large redwood trees in the middle of the city, and possesses a great level of detailing with plants breaking through a random paver pattern bearing ferns, flowers, and abundant seating.  The alley is gated with no vehicular traffic and frames a view of the base of the tower behind it.  Drainage is to the street in a simple slope style, but plant material and moss has started to grow between pavers giving it a great sense of being half landscape, half cityscape.

Hotaling alley is a collection of wanderfully small brick buildings that lined the edge of the old northeastern bank of the city before the fill began in the early twentieth century.  This alley was apparently remodelled twenty or so years ago and has a lively paving pattern, ballards, and seemingly thriving planters.  A map and plaque at the mouth of the alley tell the story of the area’s history.

San Francisco day 3: Chinatown

Posted in San Francisco by seattlealleys on August 10, 2010


San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second most dense part of the United States besides downtown Manhattan. It is the birth place of  San Francisco and was settled in the 1850s during the gold rush due to the large influx of hopeful young immigrants looking to make their fortune. Building stock is now 60% comprised of single resident occupancy (SRO) units consisting of 8 by 8 foot units that house bunkbeds full of families in the only affordable district in downtown that has services in place to facilitate immigrant relocation.
The alleys are packed full of everything from produce markets to senior family organizations, where the smell if hot tea and the sound of stringed instruments being played starts around 8 in the morning. Culture thrives in these alleys. The Chinatown alley masterplan has created signage, seating, plants, and a cohesive environment in the remodeling of 12 of 30 total alleys in this district.
A large part of the controlled cleanliness of these spaces was a revamped waste dipsosal regiment. As with most alleys in heavily trafficked areas, illegal dumping was a latent problem. As I witnessed today, dumpsters are no longer present, but owners and merchants keep regular trash bins in the back of their spaces and take them out to the mouths of the alleys everyday for pickup, eliminating illegal dumping and the need for garbage trucks to run down the alleys.
The masterplan continues to grow, and I was fortunate to snap some pictures as the last pavers were being placed in the newest remodel, Beckett Alley.
The primary thing I have not been able to learn is how these alleys drain runoff, as it has not rained on my trip, and there don’t appear to be any downspouts. This set of alleys pays testament to the fact that if you want to change something in your city, you only need to take action, be dedicated, and understand your community’s needs. The transformation of spaces such as these require political and social finesse. As they are typically not considered, these spaces  require new legislation which takes time, but when done right, transforms the city and many lives for the better.

I would like to thank the Chinatown Community Development Center, the Reverend Norman Wong, and my fantastic tour guide Jessica for a rich experience and inspiration.