Community groups, developers, bring alleys out of the shadows

Rendering of Beech-Failing Alley Project Photo courtesy of Beech-Failing Alley Project Rendering of Beech-Failing Alley Project

The revamped spaces serve as community gathering spots in densifying neighborhoods.


Melinda Matson, a community organizer in North Portland, wants to transform a dirty and neglected right of way into a vibrant public space.

“Many [alleys] are public dead spaces and nuisance areas,” says Matson, who is championing the Beech-Failing Alley project, a neighborhood effort to reinvigorate a North Portland block.

Matson and her group want to transition the alley into a mixed-use corridor featuring public space, landscaping and artwork.

They aren’t alone.

As density increases and public space shrinks, community leaders and city officials are turning to alleys as a solution. The city of Portland has included alley reinvigoration in its new Comprehensive Plan. The plan stipulates that the city will encourage repurposing of street segments (alleys) that aren’t needed for transportation.

There are more than 100 miles of alleys in the city. That's a lot of opportunity for development.

Volunteer organizations like the Portland Alley Project are building on city efforts to include streets as public spaces. Developers are also getting in on the game. The North Williams alley between Mason and Skidmore, for example, was incorporated by Security Properties into the developer's Peloton Apartment complex.

“The project was a unique super block site that happened to have frontage on [North] Vancouver, which is a historically residential and single family neighborhood," says Gus Baum, development director with Security Properties. The apartments also faced North Williams.  

“As we were developing our program and coming up with design concepts, we kept coming back to the alleyway that meanders in this particular part of Portland between Vancouver and Williams," Baum says.

Baum says they selected a mixed-used design concept, known as a "woonerf" in Europe. The concept prioritizes the alley for pedestrians while accomodating slow moving cars.

18766135 1873015573024221 2391598672413816945 nThe Woonerf at Peloton Apartments.

“At our project, this solved a lot of problems with the site massing,” he says. “By extending the alley we could easily accommodate move in trucks, delivery vehicles for our live/work town home units and create an almost park-like setting with benches, large planters, artwork and water features.”

Matson cites the One North Courtyard alley (just one block south of her project) as the most innovative commercial example. The alley was converted into a public space between surrounding buildings, and is available for events.

One North HolstArchitecture 3One North Courtyard

Not all all projects are as elaborate.

Matson says their sister project, the SE Cooper St. pedestrian roadway in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, is working to improve the 10-block stretch with landscaping and make it ADA compliant. She says the alley frequently floods and is unsafe for kids who need a path to school.

Others are thinking outside of the box when it comes to rethinking alleyways.

Garlynn Woodsong, Woodsong Property Renovation Partners manager, says alleys could be used as a frontage for accessory dwelling units or small commercial spaces.

“Sometimes called laneway housing, or little commercial nooks, the potential for this charming development type is very real where alleys are present — but only if the alleys are improved to the point where somebody would want to step out their front door into the alley,” Woodsong says.

Matson’s project is progressing slowly but most community members are onboard. Only one homeowner has expressed concern about the project.

beech alleyThe Beech-Failing Alley as it stands now.

“We encourage that person and all adjacent neighbors to continue bringing their input to the process,” Matson says.

The goal of the Beech-Failing alley — and alley redevelopment citywide — is to utilize these “hidden assets” to create community amenities and offset density impacts, Matson adds.

“Both the process and the resulting public space foster connections between people,” she says.

Katy Sword

Katy Sword is the digital news editor of Oregon Business.

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