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Denver Alleys in Line for a Makeover

The alley off of the 16th Street Mall is now an outdoor gallery.

Sabin Aell's "Sunpatterns" shines.

The alleys off of Larimer Square will get enhancements in 2015.

Larimer Square's alleys could feature micro-retail in the nooks and crannies.

With new public art and lighting, the alley off of the 16th Street Mall between Curtis and Champa streets is ready for its close-up. Expect to see more alley enhancements in Denver in 2015.
After Brewer's Alley beer tasting events last fall and this August, the alley that's adjacent to the Rialto Café on the 16th Street Mall got a splash of color in the form of four larger-than-life photographs.

Dubbed "Connect," the series includes works by Claudia Mastrobuono, Ryan Everson, Sabin Aell and a collaboration of Tobias Fike and Matthew Harris. Blake Adams of the OneWall Project headed up selection of the artists.

"This was an attempt to connect geographically the art districts that surround downtown," says Adams.

It follows that each of the four photos had a different curating gallery: Svper Ordinary in RiNo brought in Mastrobuono; the Golden Triangle's Walker Fine Art chose Aell; Ryan Everson is from Gildar Gallery in Baker; and Fike and Harris are cohorts of David B. Smith Gallery in LoDo.

All four of the works are 15' by 15' enlargements of abstract photos printed on adhesive vinyl. Adams says the material's lifespan is typically one year, but it could last five or more. Besides the art, the alley features permanent strands of lighting and splashes of color on pipes. It's a dark urban alley no more.

"Really, it's because the properties got engaged and wanted to activate it," says Ryan Sotirakis, public realm specialist with the Downtown Denver Partnership. "It all started because the Rialto Café approached us. They wanted to know, 'How can we have an event in the alley?’"

When Sotirakis mentioned the concept of alley revitalization, Catrina Mullins, the Rialto's director of sales, saw a unique urban venue in the alley next door. "Ryan opened the door and I was right there to jump through it," she says.

That conversation led to Brewer's Alley. The 2014 edition attracted 160 attendees to sample the wares of 12 Colorado breweries -- about double the number of each at the 2013 event. Mullins plans to make it an annual affair.

The event helped spur collaborations with city officials, the DDP, CU Denver, the LoDo District and several businesses to enhance alleys all over downtown. Denver's Department of Public Works is now finalizing a plan for alley revitalization.

Spaces for peopleThe alley off of the 16th Street Mall is now an outdoor gallery.

Jennifer Hillhouse, project manager, says the plan's creation involved looking at case studies of alley enhancements from Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities, then surveying alleys in Denver. Alleys were classified as targets for "upgrade," "circulate" or "enhance" -- possible sites for infrastructural, pedestrian, and commercial improvements, respectively.

The former included more lighting and permeable surfaces, while latter two include wayfinding and alley naming as well. Names might be sold to interested parties or named via public contests. Hillhouse says alley names will let pedestrians aware that alleys are "people spaces."

The "enhance" targets "would also include micro-retail and patios for outdoor dining," says Hillhouse.

After the plan is finalized, the city is going to move forward on some pilot projects for alley enhancements off of the 16th Street Mall. But Public Works can't do it alone, says Hillhouse. "Having 100 percent stakeholder support is paramount."

In commercial areas downtown, that means all of the businesses need to be on board for any sort of alley enhancement project. Trash collection is one logistical hurdle; numerous private collectors work the downtown alleys for the businesses.

"We always have to respect that service area -- 16 feet for trucks," says Hillhouse. "It takes a lot of coordination. You have to consolidate trash. . . . How do we incentivize that?"

It follows that the alley plan aims to balance infrastructure and placemaking, she notes.

"It's an urban designer's toolkit," Sotirakis says of the city plan. "The conversation now comes down to property owners banding together to do something."

Larimer Square's alleys could feature micro-retail in the nooks and crannies.Larimer Lane 

Under a single management company, Larimer Square has fewer logistical hurdles than most downtown blocks, and Semple Brown Design is working on plans for alley revitalization after a May event that unveiled alley concepts from a CU Denver planning class.

"The idea is to make it seem authentic and appropriate, not theme-y," says Sarah Semple Brown, principle of Semple Brown. "You want to have a bit of grittiness so it seems like an alley."

The alleys will be named -- likely Larimer Lane between Lawrence and Larimer streets and perhaps Cook's Alley between Larimer and Market -- and could feature micro-retail, art, landscaping and new surfaces. But first comes improving lighting, surfaces and the processes for garbage and grease collection. "Having a good system for extracting grease -- no one wants to talk about that, but you have to do it," notes Brown.

Work on Larimer Square's alleys could begin by late spring 2015, she adds. 

As for the Rialto alley, Sotirakis says the surface "needs some serious work," and funding sourced have yet to be unidentified. But the art and the lighting have made it much more people-friendly.

"In the evenings, a lot of people use it as a shortcut from the bus stop on 15th," says Mullins, noting that she's seen less "mischievous business" in recent weeks.

"It's not just an alley -- now it's an interesting place there people want to go and take a look," echoes Erica Endorf, general manager at the adjacent Courtyard by Marriott Denver Downtown. "We have hotel rooms that look out at the alley. Wouldn't it be crazy if people started requesting that view?"

Mullins is making the 180-foot long alley available as a venue for parties and other events, noting that the alley can accommodate 250 people. "We're looking forward to working with people throughout the city looking for a unique space," she says.  

Not that neighborhoods outside of downtown can't have fun with their alleys. Some residents have topped their backyard fences with oddball art and murals are popping up all over town; dumpsters are also being phased out in residential neighborhoods. In Whittier, Darrell Watson won a $7,000 grant to colorfully connect four underutilized alleyways as part of the city's new P.S. You Are Here program.

Alley activation might just mean rallying the block for a party in the alley. "You can do that now," says Hillhouse. "We have a process. We want to encourage those types of uses."

For his part, Sotirakis is pushing ahead on more alley enhancements downtown. Next up: lighting for several more alleys off of the 16th Street Mall "to create a consistent light level in the alleys," he says.

But better-lit alleys are just a small part of his plan. "Art is going to be my focus," Sotirakis says of future enhancements. "It brings a sense of discovery and whimsy to downtown, which sometimes is lacking that."

Read more about alley activation nationwide here.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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