Downtown alleyways — once the domain of daily delivery vehicles and the occasional trash truck — are now mostly dark and dingy, even seen by some as dangerous.
But a few entrepreneurs in the Crossroads arts district are out to change that perception. They’ve taken over a few backways and turned them into vibrant, pedestrian-friendly corridors by adding artwork, decorative lighting, flower-filled planters, decks and patios, and even storefronts.
Take the new 18th Street Alley Shops between Baltimore and Wyandotte streets.
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An overhead sign on 18th Street points the way, and a painted cobblestone-like pathway leads to the storefronts. Planters full of flowers hang from the windows, and at night glowing Italian courtyard lights add to the ambiance. Visitors looking north can see the top of the Power & Light Building, and to the south the Liberty Memorial rises over the skyline.
When the alley made its debut at June’s First Friday gallery walk, visitors said they felt as if they were shopping in an old European city, or discovering a hidden bazaar.
European cities have a long history of commerce-filled alleyways, but American cities are just now coming on board and realizing several benefits to the development. Landlords make the most of their buildings by leasing unused or underused spaces. Startups can locate in high-traffic areas for lower rent, and the new businesses add to the tax base. Alleys with commercial and public offerings can even become tourist attractions, adding to a city’s brand.
“It is an example of how cities are examining all of their streets and public ways,” said Aaron Renn of the Manhattan Institute in New York, which supports and publicizes research on public policy issues. “Instead of using alleys to move cars and store trash cans, they are thinking of them as real estate. What is the highest and best use of this land?”
One of the best alley conversion examples is Annie Street Plaza, which began in the heart of downtown San Francisco in November with a goal “to improve and enliven the public realm.” Now a popular public gathering space, it has an average of three events a week such as pop-up art galleries and short film screenings. The alley has moveable tables and chairs, as well as a small stage.
Long-term plans call for creating a pedestrian corridor from Market to Mission, two of San Francisco’s busiest streets.
Other cities have turned an alley or two into public places with big screens showing documentaries and sporting events such as the Tour de France. In Boulder, Colo., several shops have added back entryways to entice consumers who are cutting through the alleys to get to parking lots.
Adapting to the space
In downtown Kansas City, Ron Berg was one of the first to put his main business entrance on the alley.
Berg bought the building at 1523 Grand Blvd., planning to put his commercial photography studio on the second floor. But clients would have had to walk through the first floor business to access the second floor.
So Berg created a “front” entrance off the alley, renovating a gravel-covered, weed and rat infested courtyard into an attractive alley entrance like ones he had seen in commercial alley districts in San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
“I said, ‘Let’s embrace it. Let’s be different,’” Berg said.
In 2005 he started renting his studio in the evenings and weekends as Berg Event Space. The courtyard — with its ailanthus tree — became a favorite place for couples to wed.
“It’s not for everyone,” Berg said. “They either love it or hate it. But these spaces were forgotten about, underutilized. They can help connect the fabric of the community so you don’t have dead areas.”
Manifesto opened in the basement of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange at 1924 Main St. in 2009, and it made the back door its entryway in keeping with its speakeasy theme.
Two new tenants in the Screenland Crossroads building at 1701 McGee St. also have alley entrances.
One of them is CinemaKC, a nonprofit organization that promotes area filmmakers. It is moving to the Screenland building from its midtown offices over the next few months. The other tenant is the Vow Exchange wedding chapel.
Vow Exchange owner Kathryn Hogan had looked at several other spots before taking the alley space in Screenland for an October opening.
“It had the most potential for being something unique — gorgeous glass block windows that bring in beautiful natural light, and it’s more quiet, more secluded than being on a main street,” Hogan said. “It’s an unexpected entrance for sure. Right now it looks very much like an alley, but Butch painted a picture of an alley that would be more of a courtyard.”
Butch is Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Crossroads. He wants the alley entrances to look as nice as the front entrances.
“Landscaping, additional lighting and decks and patios, things to make it look more friendly, comfortable and interesting,” Rigby said. “The alley culture is more pedestrian. The backs of these buildings are beautiful, and if a trash truck goes through there, well, that’s part of the experience.”
Creating a ‘fun environment’
The owners of the Bauer building only had to take out the bricks that had shuttered west windows and carve out some entryways to create the alley shops between Baltimore and Wyandotte.
“We wanted to turn the alley into a fun environment,” said Jeff Owens, managing partner of the Bauer.
Shop Future, the first alley tenant in the Bauer building, opened in November. At first it wasn’t drawing many customers off the street, but it has many followers on social media who have made the trip to the brick-and-mortar location.
“It is hidden and out of the way, so people feel like they are discovering something new, kind of a secret,” said Lane Leavens, owner of the shop, which sells such items as vintage Levi 501 jeans, as well as vintage African, Tibetan and Native American jewelry, and ceramics from artists in Kansas City, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Coki Reardon, owner of Coki Bijoux Fine Jewelry, had her studio in the Bauer building for three years. Now it has an entrance off the alley and a retail shop, reminding Reardon of the Parisian commercial alley districts where she was a jewelry and metalsmith apprentice.
Peregrine Honig, who founded Birdie’s lingerie and swimwear boutique 12 years ago on West 18th Street, is now opening All is Fair in Suite 107 of the alley shops. The new transgender undergarment design studio is scheduled to open this summer.
“I wanted a clean, well-lit space that felt both private and accessible,” Honig said. “My customers won’t just shop here; they will shop with everyone on the block. People spend their money where they feel accepted and comfortable.”
Happy Trees Painting Co., a painting party business, had been in the All is Fair space. It will move to the basement of the Bauer with an entrance in the south alley.
Other surrounding businesses also plan to build on the Bauer’s new offerings.
Snow & Co. at 1815 Wyandotte St. had always planned to add a back patio to its bar and restaurant. Now the patio is scheduled to open in late summer, or early spring 2016.
Rigby said: “It’s like the riverfront. Everyone knew we should be utilizing it and we weren’t. Any chance I get I’m going to do more.”
To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at JoyceKC.