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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: City joins broader effort to reclaim downtown alleys as cultural, artistic pathways

UPDATED: Mon., April 1, 2019

Spokane Mayor David Condon picks up trash along Railroad Avenue in 2017. Last week, the city launched its Innovation Alleyways project to make some of downtown’s alleys “places of connectivity and vibrant arts culture.” (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor David Condon picks up trash along Railroad Avenue in 2017. Last week, the city launched its Innovation Alleyways project to make some of downtown’s alleys “places of connectivity and vibrant arts culture.” (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The unappreciated alleyway.

That underside of a city’s rosier facade, where service doors and electrical conduits mingle with graffiti and wayward weeds.

In Canada, these little roads are called laneways and in Japan they’re roji. Here in the U.S., they’re largely avoided. That’s beginning to change, including in Spokane.

Last week, the city launched its Innovation Alleyways project to make some of downtown’s alleys “places of connectivity and vibrant arts culture.”

The project, which is focused on Railroad Alley and Steam Plant Alley on either side of the railway viaduct, aims to transform these forgotten alleyways into vibrant pedestrian spaces.

“Alleyways are often overlooked links that could provide unique opportunities for pedestrian and bicycle safety and connectivity,” according to a city survey about the project.

The city is in the early stages of this project, and is still seeking feedback from people, so there are no details on what it could bring. But other cities have successfully used alleyways as pathways to urban revitalization.

From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., alleys are being reclaimed as what they once were: public spaces. Look at Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, one of the oldest residential streets in the nation, which has gone through urban renewal and decay, and is still around thanks to preservation efforts. It was built as a cart path in 1706, but faced destruction as the personal automobile stormed American cities.

Beginning in the 1930s, local historians preserved the lane as an example of a colonial-era street, and in the 1960s, it gained National Historic Landmark status, protecting it from elimination when Interstate 95 was built. Today, it remains a residential street with its original 32 houses. On the first Saturday every December, Elfreth’s Alley residents welcome the public into their homes, and the street is filled with Colonial carolers and musicians, as well as baked goods and cider. A similar party happens on the alley during Fete Day in June.

Elfreth’s Alley is somewhat unique in America, but pre-automobile cities around the world have vibrant alleys meant for people. A visit to Rome or Tokyo will confirm that.

Though Spokane was also built before the proliferation of the personal car, it won’t have any luck if it wants to recreate, say, the milelong Pontocho Alley in Kyoto, Japan – a tiny, magical street that runs parallel to the Kamo-gawa River and is lined with traditional shops and restaurants.

Spokane may do well to emulate the Green Alleys program in Chicago, the nation’s alley capital with 13,000 alleys. The program has retrofitted its alleys with sustainable infrastructure in an attempt to divert stormwater from its overtaxed system. Sound familiar? Spokane has been on a similar quest for the past decade.

In Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, the Green Alley has a similar approach, but takes it a step further by lining the alley with garden beds, making it feel something like a park. Gone are mattresses, needles and other abandoned refuse, replaced by a welcoming walkway.

There are more lively examples of what alleys can become: Brewer’s Alley in Denver, Blagden Alley in D.C., the numerous art alleys in Minneapolis, and Santee Alley in L.A.

Or look to Seattle. Daniel Toole, an architect based there, has spent years visiting and thinking about alleys. He had a popular blog in 2015 called Alleys of Seattle, wrote a book about alleys called “Tight Urbanism,” and is behind the Jade and Steel alleys in the high-end Miami Design District.

“The American alley is on the rise for sure,” he told the website CityLab last year. “Because I think the alley in an Asian or European city goes through cycles – they’re more built into the fabric. They were always a place for people to be, whereas in America they were for horses or cars or garbage, and now we’re starting to realize they’re just as powerful as a park or plaza, potentially.”

Though Spokane’s alley ambition is probably not as grand as Toole’s vision, his ideas still can inform what could happen to the city’s forgotten, but not gone, pathways.

“Alleys tell a story. Even if there’s an edge of danger, there’s something romantic about them,” Toole told CityLab. “They’re a uniquely American space, and part of our culture here, even though they’re related to other types of city spaces around the world. I imagine arriving in Seattle or Chicago or Denver and finding a different brand of alley. In Melbourne you’re much better served to go from Point A to Point B through as many laneways as you can, and to think of that happening in American cities is exciting.”

To learn more and take the city’s survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/innovationalleyways.

De-stud those tires!

Do you know the sound of metal studs biting into the pavement?

That’s the sound of a $136 fine for keeping your studded tires too long. March 31 was the deadline to remove the tires.

Take them off. You probably didn’t need them anyway, says the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Four streets to mind

Spring is in the air, and so is road construction. Today marks the start of a number of projects that could affect your commute.

Starting today, the left-hand turn lane on southbound Monroe Street at Main Avenue will close for work related to the Spokane Falls Boulevard stormwater tank.

Also beginning today, Martin Luther King Jr. Way will be closed from Trent Avenue to Sherman Street as the city finishes up the street, which it couldn’t do before winter set in.

East Sprague Avenue is getting some much-needed maintenance beginning today, with a grind and overlay project between Scott and Helena Street. The south half of Sprague will be closed, and the north half will be open for two-way traffic.

Finally, work on Sunset Boulevard resumes today. The road will be reduced to one lane in each direction from F to Royal streets.

Hamilton westbound ramp closes again

Work to complete deck repair resumes today on the Hamilton westbound on-ramp to I-90. The ramp will be closed to traffic through early summer. On April 8, crews will begin hydro-milling to remove the rest of the deteriorating bridge deck. When complete, new concrete will be poured.

The $1.43 million project is focused on deck repair on the aging bridges, which opened in the early 1970s. Their state of disrepair required extensive maintenance.

Sidewalk work downtown

Work that began in 2013 to improve downtown’s pedestrian walkways has awoken from its winter slumber. Aside from sidewalks being off limits to people, the work has implications to some motorists:

  • Lanes will be closed near Stevens Street and Sprague.
  • The parking lane on the west side of Washington Street is closed near Sprague.
  • The north-side parking lane of First Avenue is closed in the vicinity of Stevens Street.
  • The parking lane on the east side of Post Street is closed near Sprague.

The $1.4 million, federally-funded project will repair and replace sidewalks, including work on underground vaults, street tree installation, replacement of hazardous street tree grates, and installation of bike racks, planters and garbage cans.

30 days of biking

Today marks the start of 30 Days of Biking, which started in Minneapolis in 2010.

It’s a pledge to ride a bike every day in April, either to work, to the store or around the block. Keep your adventures to yourself, or share them online with the hashtag #30daysofbiking.

This year, organizers of the month-long ride are trying to raise funds for World Bicycle Relief, which is seeking to buy 100 bicycles and train a bike mechanic at a school in rural Zambia. The bikes, called Buffalo Bicycles, are very robust, specifically designed to carry heavy loads and survive the rough roads of rural Africa.

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