Is the future in an alley?

The alleyway behind my building is not especially clean, nor especially safe. It is, however, well used. Garbage trucks, stray cats, cars, delivery vans, utility workers, and fellow pedestrian denizens of the Cass Corridor all make their way through it on a daily basis. This alleyway busy-ness is not typical of many alleys in greater downtown Detroit.

alley adjacent to DFD engine company no. 5

We no longer search for the silver bullet that will save our city. Over the years, we have heard pronouncements regarding our supposed transition “from an automobile economy to a casino economy” and fantasies of transforming our city into a vast urban farm. The issues we face are so severe in their nature that they must be confronted individually. Fortunately, there are those who are doing just that. Entrepreneurs, artists, and some who are not so easily categorized are changing the landscape of this town.

the Green Alley

The Green Garage, as stated on its website  has three components: “a building located in the Midtown area of Detroit, a business enterprise, and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future.” I have followed the progress of this unique space for several years now. The Friday lunch meetings are truly instructive fodder for the imagination. One of the most inspiring efforts they have put forth is the Green Alley: a model and example of what is possible. That which is useful should also be beautiful, and vice versa. The Green Alley adds another component to the mix of utility and beauty: sustainability.

future home of Seva in Midtown, Detroit

The logical conclusion to the walkable alley is mixed-use commercial development. The Ann Arbor-based vegetarian restaurant Seva will soon open its doors from inside an art gallery to an alley in the Sugar Hill Art District. Rather than street frontage along Woodward Avenue, outdoor seating will be located in a pedestrian-friendly alleyway amidst a sculpture garden.

Foodies will no doubt be delighted, but there is much urban planning nerdery to digest here. The master plan for Sugar Hill links up walkable alleys with the Midtown Loop, a pedestrian greenway. The culture of a walking city is part of our history, and our urban bones still support it. The intricate network of alleyways and narrow sidestreets are waiting to happen.

future home of Alley Wine

The latest development in the works is Alley Wine. The wine bar and restaurant will be situated in an alleyway in the Cass Corridor, where the alleys give the impression that something is missing. Much of these spaces are blighted and have fallen into disuse by motor vehicles, creating perfect candidates for repurposing. The entrepreneurs at Alley Wine have a creative vision for an alley off of Second Avenue, and have indicated that they will open next year.

Questions regarding gentrification vs. repurposing and zoning arise from these developments. The certain thing is that taking alleys back from the pigeons is soon to become a not-so-unique event. I would love to hear your opinions on this, as well as any technical expertise that may be out there regarding zoning ordinances regarding commercial developments in alleys.

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