It was a mess. Borderline disgusting. Garbage spilling from rows of Dumpsters, grease spilling out of barrels and scores of cigarette butts circling in the rainwater-filled potholes. Welcome to the alley between Eighth Street and Capitol Boulevard. Dozens of people cut through the alley every evening on their way to downtown bars and restaurants; but, for the most part, it is a place for things people want out of sight and, probably, out of mind.
If a team of planners and nearby businesses have their way, that's about to change.
A line item on the Capital City Development Corporation's current budget, dubbed "alley placemaking," has $400,000 attached to it to help fuel what could be a mini renaissance for downtown Boise alleys.
"It's about improving the public realm," said CCDC Project Manager Matt Edmond, who spends his days working on improving public spaces. "A lot of people look at streets as a way to get from Point A to Point B, a transportation asset. But streets are also where you bump into a friend, or even when people are upset about a recent election, they go there to assemble. It's a communal, civic, social asset."
Edmond said CCDC; the Ada County Highway District, where he used to work; and the city of Boise have spent a good deal of time and money to re-envision streets and public spaces as social assets.
"Building vitality in the downtown area? Certainly that includes Grove Plaza, but Freak Alley also seems pretty vital to me," said Edmond.
Freak Alley, a showcase for murals and graffiti stretching west between Eighth and Ninth streets, is a popular pedestrian walkway but, for most purposes, still functions as a traditional alley for garbage service and deliveries.
"And I really don't think we envision the alley between Eighth and Capitol as being vehicle-free," said Edmond.
In a presentation to CCDC commissioners Nov. 14, planners imagined the alley as an "inviting urban open space" that could facilitate "safe bike/pedestrian access" and, possibly, showcase a wide variety of public art. Key to the proposal, however, would be the removal of Dumpsters and grease receptacles that are filled daily by surrounding businesses, restaurants and watering holes.
"I can't even tell you how many grease barrels are in that alley. That's a pretty big deal," said Edmond. "Yes, there are conversations with local restaurants about possibly putting them inside the buildings."
Conversations are already underway with businesses about the possibility of moving and/or consolidating the many Dumpsters that currently line the alley, "but I hope we're not moving the trash out to the streets," said CCDC Vice Chair Dana Zuckerman at the Nov. 14 presentation. "You don't want to be sitting at an outside cafe on a trash day if that trash has made its way to the street."
Edmond assured Zuckerman and fellow commissioners that wasn't an option.
"We've literally spent millions of dollars on improving downtown sidewalks and streets," he said. "I don't think we'll be putting more trash out there."
The clock is ticking. The alley sits smack dab in the middle of the Central District, the soon-to-sunset downtown Boise urban renewal district. When the designation for the downtown district goes away, so does CCDC money.
"So, yes, it would be our intention to have this done before it sunsets," said Edmond, referring to the 2018 deadline for district dissolution.
Meanwhile, the concept for the "green alley" between Eighth and Capitol is moving along as the Boise Public Works Department has been reaching out to nearby property owners regarding the project.
"Up next, the city would hire an urban design firm to work with the neighbors and ACHD on a proposal. Ultimately, ACHD has the final say because they oversee practically every street and alley," said Edmond. "If the plans look right, they'll come back to us at CCDC and we'll get going with the construction."
Eighth and Capitol is not the only alley in the city CCDC has in its sites for an upgrade. CCDC is also coordinating with partner agencies to look at improvements for an alley near Boise City Hall from Sixth to Third streets, another alley behind Woodland Empire from 11th to 12th streets and yet another alley running from Boise Contemporary Theatre to the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy from Fulton to Myrtle streets.