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Can the Lowly Alleyway Transform Downtown Austin?

When you think about downtown Austin, do you ever think about the spaces between the buildings?

Probably not, and you're not alone. That’s may be because alleyways – in movies, and sometimes in real life – are usually shady, dirty and even dangerous places. But some local leaders want to bring the city’s alleys back into the light.

In an alley downtown, I met with Meredith Powell and Dan Cheetham. Powell is with the Art Alliance Austin. The alley, she says “was laid out in the original 1839 map by Edwin Waller and it is on Ninth Street between Brazos and Congress.”

The alley is between two old, well-maintained buildings. It’s not an eyesore but definitely not attractive. I saw a service area, with garbage bins, back door entrances for deliveries and emergency fire ladders. But Cheetham, who is an architect and an artist, saw something completely different. He called it “potential.”

Cheetham says during the month of April, the alley space will be transformed into a temporary art installation. And he’ll be the artist in charge. Looking up into the sky, Cheetham draws imaginary lines in the air, “so, what you are going to see is an installation that’s really overhead.”

Credit Wikimedia Commons,
This details of a map from 1873 demonstrates the grid layout of downtown Austin, including alleyways.

The idea is not to conflict with the alley’s current life. Not to mess with access for the service trucks and through traffic. “And so,” he says, “the installation is really going to be about creating a new sculptural enclosure that will really re-frame the viewer’s perception of what this space feels like.”

Cheetham’s installation will be up for a few weeks. Colorful strings will tie one building to the next in a whimsical net. Origami birds will hang from the connections.  

The art installation is just one possibility for how Council member Kathie Tovo would like to see the city use its alleys differently. On Thursday, the city council will vote on her proposal to look into the possible creation of a downtown alley master plan.

“Traditionally [alleys] are associated with garbage collection and can be associated with crime,” Tovo says “so, there’s the notion of kind of taking another look at them and really thinking about what kind of potential they might bring to our downtown area.”

A city that’s re-purposing its alleys is Chicago. Tovo says alleys there are being re-purposed to help ease the city’s storm management problems.

But Tovo’s approach aims to be different. Her plan, for the moment, is more geared toward evaluation. It asks how can some alleys be re-purposed? Or, even taking that thought a little further, how can alleys become springboards for economic development?

Chris Bradford is a local attorney who blogs about urban design issues. He says if alleys are seriously considered as catalysts for change, Austin should be looking into a “do-good” approach because “one of Austin’s more pressing needs is more cheap housing in the central city” and, Bradford says, “alleys are a great place to do [affordable housing]. And, if we are worried about alleys being to crime prone, too quiet, too drab – then, the easy thing we can do is to legalize more housing along these alleys – it’s a very easy thing to do and it’s very cheap.”

If the city council decides to move forward with Tovo’s proposal this coming Thursday, it will take a couple of months before a group is assigned to create a master plan for the city’s downtown alleys.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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