Alley revolution: How Detroit rethought and repurposed its alleys

Dave Roberts remembers when the alley behind his Midtown workplace, Motor City Brewing Works, was what he describes as "horrifying." But that changed seven years ago.

In 2010, the alley between Canfield and Prentis streets was renovated as a green alley, thanks to a collaboration between the brewery and its adjacent businesses, the Green Garage. Existing cement was excavated and replaced with a central brick walkway, bordered by permeable pavers and Michigan native plants.

"Now it's pleasant," Roberts says. "It adds ambience to the neighborhood."

Beyond the alley's cosmetic appearance, Green Garage cofounder Peggy Brennan says there was also a dramatic change in the usage of a space that previously "most people would avoid because it was so bad."

"It really was significant to see the difference in the number of people who were using the alley—people walking babies down the alley, a lot of people walking their dogs," she says. "That regular use was really gratifying to see."

That green alley is just one of many projects in Detroit that have repurposed the traditionally unwelcoming environment of an alley in innovative and positive ways. The Belt has redesigned a downtown alley as a commercial strip and public art destination. The Alley Project in Southwest Detroit has re-envisioned an alley as a safe space for young people to create graffiti and engage in other positive, community-building endeavors. And, of course, one of the city's most popular summer festivals is Dally in the Alley.
Bob Gregory, DDP chief public spaces officer
These projects' approaches vary dramatically, but the basic outcome is the same. "They just generate more life and energy and create more pedestrian pathways," says Downtown Detroit Partnership chief public spaces officer Bob Gregory. "Getting people out walking really creates the life and safety that we all want. It's just a positive movement."

The people behind Detroit's repurposed alleys also share a creative approach to finding function in spaces that are generally written off. When the Z parking garage opened at Gratiot Avenue and Library Street downtown in 2013, Anthony Curis says he was "a little cautious" about how the project might affect the area and his own nearby gallery, Library Street Collective. Curis worked with the Z's owners, Bedrock, to install 27 murals in the garage, making it a public art project in its own right.

But Curis was also concerned about rethinking the alley on the northeast side of the garage, which he says was "pretty much a potholed dirt road" at the time.

So Bedrock and Library Street Collective collaborated to repave and redesign the alley, adding lighting and benches and commissioning public art. The alley officially reopened to the public as the Belt in late 2014. In 2015, cocktail bar Standby opened on the southern end and outdoor bar the Skip made its debut right in the middle of the alley. Both establishments are co-owned by Curis and business partners Joe Robinson and David Goldman. The Belt is now a bustling destination, especially in the summer months, fulfilling Curis' vision of creating a fully public "24-hour neighborhood."

"Instead of just having the alley capped and calling it a day and it becomes the back of house for the neighborhood, we were interested in trying to figure out ways we could re-envision what was going on there and create a pedestrian-friendly public space," he says.

The Belt

Bench and mural in The Belt

Activation through pedestrian and shopping activity isn't the only benefit to repurposing alleys. Sue Mosey is executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc. (MDI), which has funded numerous alley projects including the Green Garage-Motor City Brewing Works green alley, the Selden green alley, and a green alley between Willis and Canfield. She says there are "lots of different reasons" to invest in alley renovations—including improving stormwater management through eco-friendly design.

That was a major focus for the Green Garage-Motor City Brewing Works alley, where permeable pavers allow rainfall to filter directly into the ground, rather than into storm sewers where it may contribute to sewer overflows during heavy rains. Pooling and flooding after storms has also been greatly reduced in the alley since it was converted.

As one of the first such projects in the city, Brennan has answered countless questions and led countless tour groups for those considering redoing their own alleys—as well as those learning about green infrastructure.

"If we get more and more 100-year and 500-year rainfalls, and communities get more and more dedicated to trying to prevent flooding, then all of the things we're learning with the alley will obviously be helpful in that respect," she says.

But Brennan says that overall, much of the benefit of the green alley—or any other repurposed alley—is "not measurable."

"You're talking about something people are going to respond to without even being able to articulate why they enjoy walking through here," she says.

The Green Alley connecting 2nd and Cass Avenues

So what's next for the trend of repurposing Detroit's alleys? Those who've been involved in converting alleys so far say they're anticipating more of the same on the horizon. MDI is currently fundraising to redesign the alley behind Hopcat between Willis and Canfield.

"We continue to try to find sources to be able to add [alley renovations] as new developments are coming into the area," Mosey says. "Because all of the alleys are in really poor condition."

Gregory suggests that businesses like the Skip and Standby may begin to set a new standard for retail operations in downtown. "It provides the opportunity to double-load some of these storefronts, and have a storefront that opens on an alley and then one that opens on a sidewalk," he says.

As Detroit's alleys continue to transform, Curis thinks the biggest shift will be in the public's overall perception of the stereotypical dark, dingy, and dilapidated alley.

"People will start to understand that there's a positive space behind most of the buildings where people otherwise wouldn't be interested in spending time," he says. "Some of them become a nice walking path or a trail. Some of them become a nice public space you can hang out in. Some have food and beverage. Some have none. It's interesting to see where things are going."

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.