Freak Alley has emerged has a major attraction for visitors and locals alike, despite the dumpsters, puddles and uneven pavement.
Across the way, the alley behind the historic Union Block building has more puddles and dumpsters. It has no murals to entice a crowd.
Both alleys will get an overhaul next year to become pedestrian-friendly and even outdoor-dining friendly. They serve as a first project for the city of Boise’s Parks and Public Places master plan that the City Council approved in February.
“They are not particularly pleasant places to be,” said Matt Edmond, project manager for capital improvements at the Capital City Development Corp., which is undertaking the alley improvements. “They are primarily used for deliveries and smoke breaks. We want to get a surface in there more conducive for people to get through.”
Or, as Anne Wescott, of the Union Block’s property management firm Parklane Management Company, puts it:
“We think the alley was pretty offensive-looking and smelly.”
The master plan outlines the next generation of downtown parks and public spaces that seeks to create smaller public places and appealing pedestrian/bicycle corridors. Often, these will be improvements of existing streetscape features, said Leon Letson, associate planner at the city’s Planning & Development Services.
The master plan is a city document, but the projects will often be carried out by outside agencies and the private sector, Letson said.
“Partnerships are essential,” he said.
The alleys between Idaho and Bannock streets are a collaboration between the Capital City Development Corp. and the owners of the Union Block, Fidelity Building, Key Bank Building and Idaho Building, represented by Parklane Management Company.
CCDC, the city’s urban redevelopment agency, plans to replace the alley asphalt between Capitol Boulevard and Ninth Street with paver bricks in the middle and concrete along the edges. The work is expected to start next year after the city replaces the sewer line in the alley in spring, said Matt Edmond, CCDC’s project manager for capital improvements. The dumpsters will be removed and replaced with a large compactor in the Idaho Street garage, Wescott said.
The objective is to have the new surface in place by September 2018, when CCDC’s 30-year-old Central District urban renewal district expires, Edmond said.
Overhead lighting will also be installed, he said.
“Hopefully, this will create more public space available for people,” Edmond said. “Alleys have the potential to increase public space in the downtown grid by 20 percent.”
Edmond estimates the cost of the Freak Alley and Union Block alley work at about $500,000.
The Freak Alley improvements emerged after the Union Block partners approached CCDC for alley improvements.
“There are three different owners and all are on board,” Wescott said. “In larger cities, you will see alleys that are active.”
Wescott’s husband, Ken Howell, owns the Union Block and Idaho Building. He proposes installing steps from the alley down into the Union Block basement, she said.
Wescott said the building owners intend to move deliveries out of the alley and onto Capitol Boulevard and Eighth Street. She envisions outdoor dining there.
ACHD has already done three downtown Boise alley improvements
As the high-profile Freak Alley gets a street makeover next year, the Ada County High District has already given similar paver-and-concrete treatments to three downtown alleys.
ACHD in August 2014 installed permeable pavers that can drain storm water into the ground in the alley north of Main Street running west from the historic U.S. Assay Office at Third Street to Fourth Street. The alley north of Main Street between 13th and 14th Streets got the same paver treatment, ACHD spokeswoman Nicole DuBois said.
The cost for each was $86,000, DuBois said. The Capital City Development Corp. will ultimately spend about $650,000 to $700,000 on the three blocks of alley linking the Assay Office to City Hall from Third to Sixth streets, said Matt Edmond, CCDC’s project manager for public improvements.
The alley north of Idaho Street between Fifth and Sixth street received permeable pavers in July 2015 at a cost of $88,000, DuBois said.
The 5th & Idaho Apartments that started construction in June will extend the alley improvements started by ACHD between Third and Fourth streets.
The project will have a pedestrian passage way through the property between Idaho and Main streets that crosses the alley, said Clay Carley, who is majority owner along with Tom Gibson. Dean Papé and Peter Oliver are the 5th & Idaho developers.
“The idea is to get any waste receptacles out of the alley. We’re tucking it into the building,” Carley said. “There is potential retail use in the alley for a great little shop.”
Other small public place improvement are in the works
The city of Boise’s Parks and Public Places master plan is all about getting to the “low-lying fruit” first, associate planner Leon Letson said.
Along with the Freak Alley and Union Block Alley improvements, these include improvements to Eighth Street in the Cultural District south of Front Street.
“We need some more round-the-clock active use,” Letson said.
Another thought is to improve the grounds around the historic 1907 Hayman House at Ash and River Street. A three-story, 31-unit workforce apartment structure is proposed next door on the same Nevada-shaped parcel.
Letson also looks at the plaza in front of the Wells Fargo building next to The Grove Plaza. People don’t typically linger there.
“It hangs out in no-man’s land,” he said. “How could we partner with the property owner to bring something together?”
There could also be improvements to the Boise River Greenbelt and new lighting off the Ninth Street Bridge, he said.
These are all projects that seek to increase connectivity across downtown. Letson said several could be addressed in the next six to 12 months.
The role of alleys has changed over centuries, even recent decades
Alleys date back to the middle ages, even the Greek and Roman days. In earlier times, they were used for the disposal of human and animal waste and the delivery of raw materials and finished goods, according to TranSystems, a Kansas City, Mo., architecture, engineering, and planning services provider to the transportation industry.
More recently, alleys hid things like garages, garbage cans, transformers, electric meters, and telephone equipment, according to Canin Associates, an Orlando, Fla., urban planning, landscape architecture and architecture firm.
“Over time, and well into the last quarter of the last century, (alleys) came to either have the reputation of a wallflower at a junior high sock hop, more or less overlooked, or the tough kid in the neighborhood, a place where more bad things happened than good,” TranSystems wrote in “Transportation and the History of Alleys.”
Canin wrote in “A Short History of Alleys: “In the 21st century, Americans are once again embracing the benefits of urban life, including walkability and compact mixed-use development. Along with this ‘new urbanism,’ we find ourselves once again embracing the alley as playing a critical role in the function of our cities and community development. Alleys are now a common feature in the design and redesign of our communities.”