The Tacoma Sun


Alleys As Assets

By Morgan Alexander

Part of 3 in a series on commercial development in Tacoma.

I’ve been thinking about alleys lately. This topic came up about a year ago over on and again in some recent articles. I’ve always been a fan of alleys but became very interested in them several years ago while taking an urban planning course at the University of Washington. Since then, alleys have become one of my (many) obsessions. Especially after learning that public right-of-ways (streets, alleys, sidewalks and parking strips) make up about a quarter of the land mass in most cities – Tacoma included.

Of these right-of-ways, alleys receive the least amount of thought and attention. Out of sight, out of mind. As a result, not much thought has been given to include alleys in the broader context of issues such as sustainability, urban revitalization, and the environment.

Green Alleys
A New York Times article last year declared Chicago the alley capital of America and went on to outline Chicago’s plans to retrofit 2,000 miles of alleys with environmentally sustainable materials under a Green Alley initiative. The article continues, “In a green alley, water is allowed to penetrate the soil through the pavement itself, which consists of the relatively new but little-used technology of permeable concrete or porous asphalt. Then the water, filtered through stone beds under the permeable surface layer, recharges the underground water table instead of ending up as polluted runoff in rivers and streams.”

Tacoma is sometimes referred to as “Little Chicago.” Reading the New York Times article immediately brought to mind Tacoma’s effort to clean up the Thea Foss Waterway. A former designated Superfund site, many years and many millions of dollars have been poured into cleaning up this long abused waterway. Officials thought they were good to go when tests revealed that whatever polluted the waterway in the first place continues to do so today. One can only imagine the state of the soil underneath much of downtown from 100 years worth of dumping toxic chemicals directly into the ground.

One solution to help flush the pollution out of the soil could be by converting our alleys to permeable concrete like Chicago is doing.

Alley Density
Another way we can make better use of alleys is by utilizing their potential to create walkable neighborhoods. Mother-in-law apartments – or Accessory Dwelling Units as they are called in planner-speak – are nothing new. Yet for some reason, whenever the topic of increasing density comes up, NIMBYs rise up and scare Tacoma’s politicians, who generally have weak constitutions anyway.

Here’s an example from Toronto of a “laneway house” built in an alley. True, it’s not the prettiest house, but it’s better than nothing! According to the website, “one estimate puts the amount of units that could be added if the city’s 2,433 alleys were all opened to residential construction at roughly 6,000.” While this number seems optimistic, serious consideration should be given to this idea as it is a low impact way of adding density to our neighborhoods.

Only by increasing density will we be able to create walkable neighborhoods with thriving business districts that have the amenities we need.

Urban Alleys
Tacoman’s hate references to Seattle, but here’s another one: Post Alley. Most people are familiar enough with this iconic little alley that runs through the Pike Place Market. In just a few blocks it features a dozen restaurants, bars, two theaters, a travel hostel, and other shops. The closest thing Tacoma has to it is Opera Alley which doesn’t even come close. But it has the potential to.

My mother-in-law loves to tell the story of how her dad would give her a nickel and she would head over to an ice cream shop that used to be located on Court C between 9th & 11th. It’s hard to imagine Court C as a thriving commercial alley, but it once was. Now, its buildings are vacant and boarded up. Waiting.

Photo Essay:
Distinct signage lets you know you are someplace special.

Opera Alley’s narrow street and zero lot line adds character and is helps create a walkable neighborhood.

No chains here. Over the Moon Cafe, has strong presence despite the size of its small storefront.

Embellish (aka “The Purple Building”) moved to this alley location on Court D after its former building was converted into condos.

The new Roberson Condo building on Court D off of 7th Street looked to the past for inspiration and incorporated live work units in the alley.

Boarded up alley retail at 11th & Court C.

Another view of 11th & Court C.

More underutilized space on Court C (between 9th & 11th).

The building with the red door has been for sale on the market for a number of years. More potential retail could be there.

Former location of the now defunct African-American Museum. This retail space is on the alley side of the Pythian Temple.

Side view of Pythian Temple showing “ghost billboards.”

This alley used to be filled with life. Will Tacoma’s turn come again?

published April 18th, 2008

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Andrew Austin // Apr 18, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Very interesting Morgan!

  • 2 phil brooke // Apr 18, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Not many blocks in the city with that level of unblemished historical integrity. Wonder why it hasn’t ‘popped’ or at least the facades been better organized?

    And, is that asphalt I see running down the center? Possibly covering street car tracks??!!

  • 3 David Boe // Apr 18, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Alleys are typically misunderstood as an urban design principle. In Tacoma this can be seen at its extreme with Court ‘B’ (i.e. Commerce Street). So Tacoma puts it’s major mass transit downtown in an area that should have remained an alley – thus allowing the garbage cans to end up on Pacific Avenue?

  • 4 Morgan Alexander // Apr 18, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    And, is that asphalt I see running down the center? Possibly covering street car tracks??!!

    I wish! Most likely the city did some repair work on a sewer line- which maybe it could have avoided by using permeable asphalt.

    Streetcars ran on the main arterials: Pacific, Broadway, Tacoma Ave, etc. The alleys (Courts A, B, C, D) were for minor retail and service entrances.

  • 5 Morgan Alexander // May 6, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    This just in: The founder of Baskin & Robbins, Irvine Robbins, started off scooping ice cream at the shop on Court C that my mother-in-law used to go to when she was a kid.

    What a strange small world Tacoma is!

  • 6 Jennifer Boutilier // Aug 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    I’m a little late, but I’m new to town and I just discovered you. This alley bit is awesome. Right up my alley, actually. When I first saw the headline I imagined referring people to the NYT article on Chicago … but, no need, I see.

    I would love to see some more on this topic with input from a bunch of alley experts. Bravo!

  • 7 Dave L. // Oct 31, 2008 at 2:26 am

    Although I wasn’t quite old enough, and living in Lakewood at the time, The long-gone Court C Coffeehouse and shops was an incredibly important focal point of downtown Tacoma life, arts, and activism. Check out all the ephemera in Court C file in the “coffeehouses” section of the clippings file at the library. Or ask anyone involved back in the day; Flannigan, folk from Watermark or Victory Music… Court C played a pivotal role in pre-blog Tacoma.

  • 8 RR Anderson // Feb 12, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    in a previous life I probably owned a small curio shop off one of these alleys. Great post. I’m sorry I missed it when fresh.

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