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Students, neighbors overcome 'block' on forgotten spaces

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Christian Smith enjoys a backyard campfire with friends Sarah Malony, Becca Pollard and Erica Bjerning. Smith is working to improve the Foster-Powell neighborhood, but also erected a large fence to shield his lot from the alley. You never know what you’ll find strolling down the unpaved alleys of outer Southeast Portland.

Abandoned car tires. Construction debris. Fences riddled with graffiti. Feral cats. Syringes.

“Some of them you just don’t feel safe in,” says Shavon Caldwell, who lives in the Foster-Powell neighborhood.

Led by cities like Vancouver, B.C., Melbourne, San Francisco and Chicago, communities are rethinking ways to use decrepit and underutilized alleys. Caldwell and five other Portland State University urban studies graduate students are bringing the movement here, via a project they call Alley Allies.

A main goal is to help residents overcome “mental blocks” about alleys, Caldwell says, and envision new ways to put the spaces to better use. Imagine, for example, a community garden instead of a trash-lined gravel road.

Alleys originally were created to move things away from the street, says Derek Dauphin, one of the six grad students. Think garbage cans, utility lines and garages. Many fell into disuse, becoming sort of a no-man’s land.

“People don’t feel any control over them because they’re public property, but the city doesn’t take care of them,” Dauphin says.

As a result, significant acreage in many Portland neighborhoods is barely used, serving as a magnet for crime and unsavory behavior. As people erect formidable fences to separate their yards from the alleys, that’s fewer “eyes on the street” to guard against crime in the alleys, Caldwell says.

During a walking tour last week led by Caldwell and Dauphin, one end of a Lents alley was pockmarked by a daunting pothole filled with water from recent rains. With no fence here, from the alley one can spot a blue Volvo parked at a run-down apartment. Signs on the car windows warn would-be vandals that “Neighbors are Watching!” and “The Police are Waiting for You!”

This alley might benefit from added lighting to improve public safety, the urban studies students suggest. Or, they say, in an impromptu brainstorm, it could become a more inviting pedestrian pathway, as the street in front of the homes lacks a paved sidewalk.

On another alley in the Foster-Powell neighborhood, several tires and bricks have been dumped, and graffiti is common place. Some people figure “it’s no one’s yard, it’s no one’s space, so it’s perfectly acceptable,” Dauphin says.

But there’s also evidence of some neighbors creatively using the otherwise wasted space.

One resident planted raspberry vines in the alley behind their house.

Nearby, three families on both sides of the alley knocked down their back fences to create a shared open space in between that incorporates the alley.

Other neighbors replaced their back fence with a long sliding gate. They stow a portable fire pit just inside the fence, seemingly ready to be moved into the alley when the gate is opened, for a communal campfire.

During the alley tour, resident Christian Smith peeks over his rear gate to see what’s going on. Coincidentally, he’s chairman of the Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association.

The neighborhood is changing, Smith says, attracting many younger residents who are into community-building.

He is one of them. Smith bought the foreclosed home next door and tore down the fence between the lots, creating communal garden space and a greenhouse for himself and his tenants to share. “We all have barbeques together, and spend holidays together,” he says.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with, as far as the alley projects,” Smith says.

However, in a sign of the obstacles facing the Alley Allies, not long ago Smith erected a tall back fence to shield his yard from view of the alley. “It’s not being able to control things that go on in the alley,” he explains. “There’s the dumping, and there’s been tagging back there. I don’t want that in my yard.”

Linking town and gown

The idea for the alley project came from the Foster Green EcoDistrict, a city-supported effort to reshape the Foster Road corridor in an environmentally sustainable fashion. The six PSU grad students chose the alley project among a list of 40 possibilities for their capstone project, a requirement for their master’s degrees. In lieu of a thesis, the urban planning program requires community-based projects.

To succeed, the Alley Allies team knew their project had to be rooted in the neighborhoods, with ideas and enthusiasm supplied by residents of the target neighborhoods straddling Foster: Foster-Powell, Mt. Scott-Arleta and Lents. After all, the grad students get their degrees in June and then will go off to seek jobs.

Alley Allies started by creating an inventory and map of alleys in the three neighborhoods. They’ve been showing up at neighborhood events with information tables to tap residents’ ideas. More than 80 residents have provided input.

One alley in each of the three neighborhoods will be chosen for a pilot project. The six students, guided by neighbors’ input, will draw up site plans for each one, though they won’t actually do the actual improvements. Lastly, they’ll prepare a guidebook with how-to ideas for those who want to reclaim alleys, including city codes and other technical stuff, financing ideas, tips to bring neighbors together and design ideas.

Portland plays catch-up

Alleys are common in the three target neighborhoods as well as Ladd’s Addition in inner Southeast Portland and areas near Mississippi Avenue, Alberta Street and Concordia University in North and Northeast Portland. Many other Portland neighborhoods lack alleys.

In all, Portland has an estimated 100 miles of alleys, says Eden Dabbs, Planning and Sustainability Bureau spokeswoman.

But little has been done to improve those alleys, which are mostly city rights of way under the jurisdiction of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. That bureau doesn’t have enough money to maintain city streets, let alone build sidewalks and pave streets that lack them, so alleys don’t figure to become a priority for funding.

In Vancouver, B.C., where alleys are more plentiful, more than 800 permits have been issued to build small homes on alleys, which the Canadians call “laneways.”

In Chicago’s Green Alleys project, alleys are being used to install storm drainage systems and other greenery to reduce the urban heat island effect.

San Francisco’s Chinatown added new paving, furniture, stormwater features and public art on several alleys. Seattle converted Nord Alley, near Pioneer Square, into a hip space for artsy events.

Portland’s Alley Allies project is more focused on residential spaces in low-income areas.

Plenty of ideas

There’s no shortage of creative ideas here. Alley Allies has heard suggestions of farmers’ markets or other “pop-up” businesses in alleys. Planting fruit trees or community gardens are popular. Some suggest linking a series of alleys into “linear parks,” to provide alternate pedestrian walkways.

Expectations are different for each alley, depending on neighbors, who, after all, must agree to the changes being made. Some alleys might simply get cleaned up to improve public safety.

Some people have garages in the rear of their lots that aren’t accessible any more for cars. Some of those garages could be converted into accessory dwelling units, providing homeowners with rental income and putting more eyes and ears on the alley as the new access route to the apartments.

Denver Igarta, transportation planner for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, is eager to see what creative ideas are generated by the project. The bureau welcomes the idea of residents taking more responsibility for maintaining the public rights of way behind their homes, Igarta says.

“These alleys don’t really serve a high transportation function,” he says. “They could be providing broader uses for the community and providing an amenity that brings people together.”

In the next few weeks, Alley Allies will offer coffee talks in the three neighborhoods to solicit design ideas and priorities. Then there’ll be a workshop in late April or early May, when site plans will be unveiled for public review.

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