Downtown kicking around ideas for Alley Arts District

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A final look at how the alley could be redeveloped.

Alleys around the world have bad reputations to live down. And those in Colorado Springs are no exception.

The Downtown Partnership aims to transform Colorado Springs’ alleys, two of them to start, from smelly, dirty places where the homeless sleep and garbage stacks up to comfortable pathways from parking to downtown filled with art and culture.

The Downtown Partnership announced its Alley Arts District Improvement Plan this week and will host an open house at HB&A Architects at 102 E. Mareno Ave. from 9 a.m. to noon on March 5.

In many cases the alleys are the gateway to downtown. The city’s north end parking garage is on Cascade between Platte Avenue and Bijou Street and backs to the alley, which is the easiest and most convenient entrance to the downtown core for those parking in the garage, said Sam Eppley, who owns Sparrow Hawke Gourmet Cookware and is the president of the Downtown Development Authority.

The authority offered up an $8,000 grant in mid-2011 to research the prospect of improving the downtown alleys.

“We’d like to clean that up and make it an attractive well-lit, safety-conscious zone that would foster galleries and shops,” Eppley said. “And it would serve as a good conduit from the public parking garage.”

There are dozens of examples of cities that have found ways to beautify and use their alleyways, said Andrea Barker, a principal at HB&A and organizer of the local alley project.

“If you ever get a chance to go to Fort Collins, you need to look at their alleys,” Barker said. “They’ve done a fabulous job.”

She included slide-show photos of some revitalized alleys in Colorado, other parts of the country and in Europe. The photographs show prospering and high-end businesses like J. Crew drawing people into the narrow cobblestoned streets and families meandering past condo entrances in narrow passages.

The DDA grant paid for some brainstorming sessions, research and renderings of possible futures for the alleys on either side of Bijou Street between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street.

The future of downtown alleys could include an opening and direct entrance from Tejon Street where a shop owner does away with a building and opens the space to serve as an entry to the Alley Arts District. The opening could be used as a performance space. Restaurants could add outside café seating in the narrow passages and developers could build apartments and loft condos with alley entrances.

“Some of the ideas are a little grandiose,” said Brett Andrus, who owns Modbo and S.P.Q.R. galleries with his wife Lauren. “But we can get started with the realistic goals and the low-hanging fruit.”

The Andrus’ galleries are little cottages situated in the alley between Kiowa and Bijou Streets and between Tejon and Cascade. They used to be used as storage spaces for downtown businesses.

“We have been working on branding this as the Alley Arts District for years,” Andrus said.

Since the Colorado Springs native moved back after time in Savannah, Georgia and New York City and opened the Modbo Gallery three years ago, he’s been trying to bring culture and excitement to downtown, hosting summer concerts in Acacia Park and gallery openings every first Friday of the month throughout the year.

They have parties in the alley with music and dancing and art. The space fills up and it’s exciting, he said.

“We pretty much always have something going on here,” he said.

The alleys aren’t a stand-alone project, he said. Improving them, improves downtown as a whole.

“Downtown is the one place in any city that’s different,” Andrus said. “You wake up in the suburbs and it feels like any other city. You wouldn’t know where you were based on the Applebees. Downtown is where the soul is.”

That’s the refrain these days. Mayor Steve Bach, hosted his first town hall meeting since he took office in May last week to discuss a downtown renaissance.

“I believe our downtown is essential,” Bach said. “Successful communities have vibrant downtowns.”

And the alleys, while a small piece of the downtown, are a good place to start, said Downtown Partnership executive director Ron Butlin.

“There are some really great underutilized spaces downtown,” Butlin said.

And the alleys are included in that. They don’t have to be transformed completely over night to improve their attractiveness, he said.

“There are some great incremental things we can do,” he said.

Greg Warnke, the city parking administrator, said he will begin by painting the stairwell and alley entrance to the parking garage and will add some lights there to draw people in that direction.

“These are easy things to do,” he said. “Paint doesn’t cost a lot and neither does light.”

From there, Barker said consolidating garbage disposal and pick up will be a big challenge. She would like to see fewer dumpsters in the alleys and put consolidated canisters in screened-in areas, perhaps with trash compactors. The difficult part will be getting individual businesses to renegotiate contracts with their waste management companies, she said.

The downtown partnership will also encourage employees to park in the garage and repave the alleys, ideally with sandstone for water runoff management. Eventually, they’ll add murals, benches and lighting.

Barker said she’d like to see strings of oversized holiday lights like those that stretch across Larimer Street in downtown Denver mark the entrance to the alley off of Kiowa Street. She hopes that the downtown Business Improvement District, which pays for holiday lights on downtown trees, will cover the expense.

“This is a big project when you look at it all together,” Warnke said. “You kind of have to eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

The open house at HB&A will give people a chance to come together and see the possibilities and brainstorm solutions, Barker said.

“We’ve kind of wrapped up what we’d like to see and now we have to really dig into what’s possible,” Barker said.