Alley Activation program to get one-year trial

Alley Activation in downtown began as a trial-and-error project with the parking spaces and open alleyways, within the intersection of Central Avenue and Fillmore Street, almost a year ago until the Hines real estate developer withdrew from the activation process. (Jade Carter/DD)

The Downtown, Aviation, Economy and Innovation Subcommittee approved an alley activation pilot program to spruce up downtown alleys by a 4-0 vote Wednesday.

The city of Phoenix Planning and Development Department, which presented its further developed Alley Activation Pilot Program proposal to the subcommittee Wednesday, said a downtown alley study group was put in place to look at how to ensure there is a process to look at alleys, not just from a utility standpoint, but in terms of what can happen with alley activation and other development.

The projected boundaries for alley activation would be between McDowell Road and the crossover from Sherman Street to Buckeye Road and between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, according to the Planning and Development Department.

District 7 Councilman Michael Nowakowksi said homelessness, drug dealing and safety concerns have made alleys in downtown un-walkable for many.

“This (alley activation) is something that we asked for,” Nowakowski said. “We asked for some type of study to go out there and look at best practices throughout the country.”

Upon visiting Sacramento, California to see how the city has activated its alleys, Nowakowski said he saw restaurants, boutiques and other businesses brought life into the alleys, making them more walkable and less menacing.

“This is really a study for downtown where you see the growth in the 5,000 units of housing that are coming down,” Nowakowski said. “I think this is something that is really needed to create a nice space that people can enjoy and make downtown a funky, cool place to live.”

Councilwoman Thelda Williams said that, along with extensive changes to downtown roads and other projects, the alley activation does not appear to be timely, representative or developed enough.

“I am not confident in how many businesses we have in this dialogue,” Williams said.

As the proposed Alley Activation Pilot Program was a large part of the conversation, the current alley abandonment process was juxtaposed to assess the best interest for downtown alleys.

Steve Dreiseszun, vice chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition, said the proposal for abandonment of the Central Avenue and Fillmore Street alley, on behalf of real estate developer Hines, taught them a lot. He said he is in support of alley activation in due time.

“We learned that we are putting the cart before the horse,” Dreiseszun said. “We learned that we have to further define what we mean when we are going to abandon an alley.”

He said the Downtown Voices Coalition actually appealed the abandonment process requested and applied for by Hines real estate with the Central Avenue and Fillmore Street project because under the circumstances presented, Hines real estate could not support abandonment of the alley.

“The idea to have a quote-on-quote ‘plaza’ around the perimeter of the particular project was really not feasible,” he said. “It did not argue adequately to take care of the fact that we are giving up the function of the alley.”

Dreiseszun said he would urge the city to go a little slower on the approval part of the alley abandonment process in order to make sustainable changes for downtown Phoenix.

Tim Eigo, chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition, said the first attempt at potential alley activation, within the open alleyway of Central Avenue and Fillmore Street, began last year on behalf of an apartment project by Hines real estate.

Eigo said Hines voiced that they couldn’t design anything unless they got rid of the alley – which would result in a fee-enforced alley abandonment process. He said the first step in the process for Hines to attempt the alley abandonment process was to fill out an application.

“Their application was approved by the hearing officer,” Eigo said. “Before it could get to the next step they had withdrawn.”

Prior to withdrawing, multiple community meetings had been held on behalf of Hines regarding the potential alley activation process, in conjunction with the building of their proposed apartments, according to Eigo.

Eigo said alleys tend to force developers to provide a diverse streetscape, in turn doing a lot of things for developed cities.

“The next developer would have to either work around the alley or make a new abandonment application,” Eigo said. “It is currently still public property owned by the city of Phoenix.”

Nowakowski motioned for a one-year approval of the Alley Activation Pilot Program along with a requirement of two community meetings to inform property and business owners.

The motion passed with a 4-0 vote.

Correction: November 3, 2016

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Steve Dreiseszun would urge the city to move more slowly with alley activation. His statement was regarding alley abandonment, not activation. The story has been updated to reflect this. 

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