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Urban Design Alliance: Presenting the Pilot Alley

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Piped, paved and delivered. Well, almost. Underground work for what proponents call "Alley Activation" is complete.

The Urban Design Alliance's Fourth Wednesday dialogue topic was “Delivery of the Midtown Pilot Alley.” 

Guest speakers were Julie Young, co-chair of the Alley Activation Committee and Disctrict 3 City Council Member Steve Cohn. Greg Taylor of UDA and Dustin Litrell hosted the free event at the downtown office of the American Institute of Architects.

The Alley Activation private/public works project has excavated the alley between 17th, 18th and L streets and Capitol Avenue. City water pipes and sewer lines have been replaced. The next step is application of permeable pavers to the alley surface.

The Alley Activation Committee plans for the pilot alley to be "delivered" Oct. 20. A celebration will be held Nov. 13.

A handout on the pilot alley project states, "This alley is an open-source template for future activation of the city's many neglected alleys and small urban spaces."

A crowd of about 30 design and planning enthusiasts heard Julie Young describe the process and Mr. Cohn promote "imagining" and naming alleys. A lively discussion moderated by Brian Fischer of Midtown Grid followed their presentation.

Both speakers made it clear that "all this project did is lay out the infrastructure." This first step was "pipes and pavers," as Cohn put it.

Young, who owns a lot next to The Press (formerly Dragonfly) at 1813 Capitol Avenue, plans to build a luxury lofts project, which is currently on hold. 

She described how real estate values decrease from the frontage to the rear of the lot. Properties that face Midtown's lettered streets (Capitol once was "M") measure 160 feet by 40 feet and are called "deep lots."

Three years ago, when "parking became an issue" for her luxury lofts project, Young said she wondered why more people weren't using the East End parking garage. This garage is currently owned by the state of California and leased to the city of Sacramento at night and on weekends.

Her idea was to pave and beautify the alley, where she said "the presumption was that alleys are a place for garbage to reside." 

This would potentially direct more people to the East End parking garage entrance at the end of the alley.

Cohn pointed out that the city's revised general plan has new incentives for adding more residential units on the back of lots, rather than the traditional single unit.

One of the possible themes that Cohn proposed for naming the alleys is based on Sacramento's sister cities and other international city names. Each alley name will start with the letter of the street it is directly north of.

Cohn said that said that naming alleys is important because the current system makes it difficult to describe locations for police and fire departments, code enforcement and solid waste haulers.

The presenters were asked what makes an alley viable for activation. 

Young responded that the age of the infrastructure, parking and existing uses, make some locations more viable than others. She and Jeremy Drucker, owner of the Stitch condo under construction facing the "pilot alley," paid for a private study identifying 41 potential alleys within the Midtown Property and Business Improvement District (PBID). Drucker was also co-chair of the Alley Activation Committee.

Alley Activation proponents dismiss the historic utilitarian nature of alleys and consider them "wasted space" or as Cohn said "just a place to dump garbage."

The stripped down "pipes and pavers" version of Alley Activation being delivered in October does not include solutions for
garbage and recycling dumpsters or chronic issues with traffic and parking congestion in the pilot alley.

"What we have now is a free-for-all" with multiple garbage hauling companies; a situation that is "not efficient, not aesthetic and not neighborly," Cohn said. 

An idea for the city to contract with one franchise would have to be approved by the Sacramento County Solid Waste Authority (SWA). There also could be future requirements for what garbage receptacles look like.

Another audience question addressed this sort of continuity. A person who asked whether any corporate sponsors had come forward to fund Alley Activation amenities, also asked about design standards that would provide some variation and maintain character.

Young clarified that the former joint city/private Alley Activation Committee became the Alley Activation Alliance non-profit group, so that they may accept private and business funding.

When asked about funding for other potentially "activated" alleys, Cohn stated that funding from sponsorships only goes so far. He said the "half a million" price tag for the target alley was impacted by the replacement of the water and sewer lines, which was not anticipated. The estimated cost for surface improvements is $150,000.

The decision to replace functioning 80 year old water and sewer lines now, was so that potential need for future replacement would not require removal of the permeable pavers.

The pilot alley also received a $100,000 windfall of Federal Community Development Block Grant funds. 

The Alley Activation Alliance is accepting donations for "street furniture and amenities." It cites a need for 12 tree planters costing $1,750 each and 15 solar lights costing $750 each. Donations will be recognized with a name plaque on the item.

Young also announced working on an Alley Activation book titled "How We Got it Done." It will be a record of "problem solving in a public environment."

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