Trendy back-alley businesses bring bucks downtown

Modbo and S.P.Q.R. galleries draw crowds on weekend nights to this otherwise deserted alley south of Bijou Street.

Something trendy and sophisticated lurks in Colorado Springs’ grungy alleyways.

And it’s drawing all the hippest, youngest and most cultured new business off the streets and out the back doors.

As prime storefronts on Tejon Street go empty, their darker cousins are filling with art galleries and yoga studios. And there’s a push from the Downtown Development Authority to see just how pumping the city’s smallest arteries can become. New business and an $8,000 research grant could shine a light on Colorado Springs’ hidden treasures.

S.P.Q.R. and Modbo Galleries have been doing swift business selling local art out of two 100-year-old stone cottages in the alley south of Bijou Street between Tejon Street and Cascade Avenue for more than two years.

Andrea Barker with HB&A Architects is leading an effort with the grant money to find out what stakeholders want in the alley and the one directly north of Bijou from it to be. A team of her architects are drawing up their biggest, boldest ideas now, knowing they will have to be phased in, and that there will be challenges with utilities, deliveries, garbage and the homeless population.

Meanwhile, top-end yoga apparel retailer LuluLemon Athletica quietly opened its doors down another of the city’s narrow passages east of Tejon Street between Bijou Street and Nevada Avenue just last week. The company did not issue a press release and its media representatives did not return calls or e-mail requests for comment.

“I think that’s how they want it,” said Lori Ondrick, the retail and investment specialist with Grubb & Ellis who leased the space out. “They wanted a low-profile.”

The store, which sells $52 tank tops and $99 yoga pants, is only open Thursday through Saturday.

“They have a very unique marketing concept,” said Danny Meintka, who co-owns the building. “They sort of let the buzz build about their product.”

The freshly redeveloped alley at 115 North Tejon Street with just the right blend of beautification combined with old-school grunge, of hidden-away charm and off-the-beaten path visibility was just the incognito spot LuluLemon was looking for.

“It was exactly what they wanted,” Ondrick said.

Once Becky Meintka heard from her husband, Danny, that the high-end yoga apparel store was going into the alley, she knew it was time to act.

“I was out of excuses,” she said.

She will open Brickhouse, a yoga, pilates and dance studio on Saturday, Oct. 1. It will be a sort of cooperative where private instructors who need a place will be able rent space and conduct classes.

As a Corepower-trained instructor, Becky doesn’t want to compete with the chain studios located on Nevada Avenue and Garden of the Gods Road that are so popular they both had to expand this year.

“We want to offer something a little different for Colorado Springs,” she said.

Brickhouse will offer ballet barre pilates and gentle slow flow yoga classes, she said. Corepower focuses on a faster-pace and heated spaces. There’s room downtown for more than one kind of yoga — and demand for it, she said.

She is embracing the marketing methodology of her neighbor and has no plans to do so much as launch a web site. Clients will be able to find the Brickhouse schedule on the company’s new Facebook page.

“I really like the exclusivity of being down the alley,” Becky said. “It gives it a private feeling.”

The alley is probably the only one in town outfitted with a sidewalk. Old fashioned light fixtures, rod-iron balconies from the upstairs lofts and a soft mural tagging the building as the “Carriage House Lofts” are part of what has made it a tempting location for cutting-edge businesses like these, said building co-owner Danny Meintka said.

But it wasn’t easy getting an alley to be this enticing for new business. Danny said he and his partner bought the building in 2005. It’s long and narrow, the way buildings used to be constructed. It also has beautiful wood floors and vaulted ceilings. They leased the Tejon Street frontage to First Commercial Bank, but that left a substantial vacancy in the rear of the building.

Danny had great ideas about how to redevelop the alley and turn it into something charming. The original idea was much more grandiose than the final outcome.

“It took us two years to get the city, building and fire department to understand and support our concept,” Danny said.

But in the end, the idea panned out and attracted exactly the kind of tenant downtown needs more of, Danny said.

He said both businesses are likely to draw a female demographic and an athletic base, which are important to thriving downtown centers and which combine well with other nearby national brands that have located downtown like Title 9, which sells higher-end women’s athletic apparel.

“We just need to reach the tipping point. Good retailers will survive downtown. We have a unique architectural feel to downtown,” Danny said. “I’m a believer in the city. These businesses will help attract other business.”

And one successful alley development might help another get off the ground.

Brett Andrus, who owns Modbo and S.P.Q.R. with his wife Lauren, wants to turn his alley south of Bijou into a downtown arts district. The downtown development authority likes the idea so much it funded the research grant.

The galleries, across the alley from the once-famous 15C martini and cigar bar, host live music in the alleyway outside their galleries some weekend nights and draw crowds of martini-soaked revelers out the rear door of the Rendezvous lounge.

The sound in the alley is superb for music events, Andrus said.

“It’s like an amphitheater, like you’re in a canyon,” he said.

He and other downtown advocates are rooting for a glamorous pedestrian-friendly arts alley district complete with lights and benches that feels warm, inviting, safe and comfortable, yet still a little exclusive.

“There are a lot of cities with thriving alley scenes,” Andrus said.

Alley dwelling, however is not without its challenges, he admitted. The homeless population does spend a lot of time in the Modbo alley, Andrus said, especially during the day. Also, the galleries are harder to find. No one just drops in because they saw the Modbo.

But there’s a sense of privilege that comes with finding the galleries, Andrus said. A feeling his clients have of being “in the know,” that has been its own brand of marketing.

There is one other major advantage to back alley business, he added.

“It’s a lot more cost effective,” Andrus said. “Rent is cheaper in the alley for sure.”