Following the reprehensible conduct of police in the treatment and death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, peaceful protests became agitated by subsequent aggression and retaliation by police in riot gear. Some strayed from the initial focus of the peaceful protestors upon the Minneapolis Police Department Third Precinct building, setting fire to neighborhood buildings owned or operated by vulnerable businesses. While mourning loss of buildings should never come before questioning loss of human life, the Longfellow community undeniably lost vital neighborhood resources. Many fear that rebuilding will include new buildings that are unaffordable for most Minneapolitan residents and entrepreneurs. There has been no better time to rethink how buildings at the center of the community, including public alleys, can better serve the needs of people.
As a resident of the Longfellow neighborhood, I witnessed the plumes of smoke and explosions of fire on East Lake Street, wondering whether the destruction would ripple farther eastward toward my apartment. Much of the full-scale destruction centered upon the intersections at 27th Avenue South and Minnehaha Avenue at East Lake Street. While all structures on the east side of 27th Avenue South were reduced to smoking rubble, a north-south alley to the east reflected a very striking physical border. Efforts to set East Lake Library ablaze were unsuccessful. That adjacent alley provided a small buffer to prevent fire from spreading from the I.O.O.F. Building (owned by Latinx entrepreneur Maya Santamaria and recently known as 27 Event Center), former home to El Nuevo Rodeo restaurant, a Spanish-language television and radio station, Town Talk Diner, and medical offices. Soon after the smoke settled, many onlookers used the alley to mourn or observe the destruction of establishments like Migizi, Gandhi Mahal Restaurant and the United States Post Office Minnehaha Station. One side of the alley is completely burned and in ruins. The other side is the library branch, in process of rebuilding. The opportunity is immense to rebuild in a way that engages the alley and, in turn, the library. That “Library Alley” could truly embody a walkable space for people.
Historically, Minneapolis has not embraced alleys as spaces for people. General sentiment from city staff has been that alleys are public easements that are meant to serve rear access by motor vehicles. But it wasn’t always that way. Rear buildings once housed light industries, modest living units, and back-of-house operations for higher-profile commercial frontages. A few downtown alleys even took on names, including but not limited to the alleys that writer Andy Sturdevant identified in a 2013 edition of his MinnPost column. Named alleys corresponded to their use by operating businesses and a need to be found. Zoning changes have erased most signs that those functions existed along alleys at all, save for a handful of historic accessory dwelling units found in South Minneapolis. Bars could also be found in downtown alleys, over one hundred years ago, but successful efforts by political figures eliminated them entirely. (Led by the sentiments of former strong Mayor Charles A. Pillsbury, liquor patrol limits were instituted in 1884 to bar areas outside of downtown and scattered blocks on the fringe from selling alcohol. The temperance movement in the early 20th Century brought further restrictions to the number of licenses allowed to operate saloons. By the end of 1911, City Council passed an ordinance that banned alley saloons outright. While liquor control limits were somewhat eased by 1959, alley bars would not return until just a few years ago.)
Accessory dwelling units were permitted by Minneapolis City Council in 2014, paving the way for more diverse housing options along residential alleys – but only residential alleys. Many restrictions stand in the way of alley development on city blocks with denser development (City of Minneapolis Zoning Code Title 20, 537.110). Today, we can only build accessory dwelling units behind one- or two-family residential structures. Accessory units are limited to exactly one per lot. There is no allowance for subdividing a taxable parcel to make it either landlocked or face an alley. At present, the only option to spur new uses along alleys is to rely upon planned developments, or PDs, which have often taken the form of larger structures that eliminate organic evolution of our city blocks. PDs may very well take ownership opportunities out of the hands of people who will live and work on a newly developed 27th Avenue, a crucial consideration for a long-term vision. At the very least, the “packaged” nature of PDs make them perpetual targets of acquisition by large, profit-driven real estate companies, as was the case recently for a North Loop development. Clearly, we have work to do, if we want to see more enterprise and housing diversity along alleys where more people are likely to roam.
Neighborhood blocks will soon have a new canvas, upon which we can imagine and envision new and equitable living and commercial spaces for people of color. The alley east of 27th Avenue South, from East Lake to 31st Streets, should be an integral part of those discussions. Notable work in peer cities demonstrates that alleys can, and should, be safer and more vibrant places for people. Some alley projects focus upon the improvement of the physical environment, including the addition of decorative or pedestrian-scaled lighting, art installations, and visible gateway features from the bounding streets. Those additions can certainly make alleys more vibrant spaces that are worthy of celebration. But functional improvements must engage the abutting buildings in order to generate a self-sustaining future for the alley. Small business spaces, entries to living quarters, and alternative rear access to street-facing businesses all give reason for alley spaces to continue to see upkeep, advocacy, and investment at a neighborhood scale.
Some considerations from peer cities can help us to dissect what we want from our city blocks and alleys along East Lake Street–and throughout Minneapolis:
In 2014, the City of Fargo initiated a parking study for the downtown area, which identified sites as eligible for the development of mixed-used parking ramps. The following year, Kilbourne Group won a bid to construct Robert Commons (RoCo), a 454-stall parking structure along Broadway wrapped with street-facing businesses, apartments, and small commercial spaces along an alley. The result is an activated Roberts Alley, lined with alley businesses, prominent secondary entrances to street-facing establishments, and secured entryways to residential floors. Over time, additional businesses along Roberts Street have created more visible alley entrances, including a market, a salon, and restaurants.
Granted, the development does include a bounty of storage for automobiles. Nonetheless, the RoCo development filled in massive swaths of vacant land, spurred additional rehabilitation of abutting historic structures to the north, and regenerated an alley formerly used for dumpster storage into a space for people on foot. The City of Fargo recently launched a project to bring underground the massive structures holding power lines overhead.
First, a primer. Our Nation’s Capital has a long and turbulent history with alleys and black communities, a turbulence undoubtedly fueled by racism and capitalistic exploitation of the underserved. After the Civil War, Washington DC reeled from an influx of freed black slaves. Property owners capitalized on this frenzy for desired housing near places of work, renting or selling units along the alleys. Many of the alley units lacked running water, sewage, heat, or electricity, but the alleys they faced became strong enclaves and robust walking spaces. Unfortunately, stigmatization of their living conditions often fell upon the same black families who inhabited alley buildings. Less than ten years after the end of the war, Washington was already trying to rid itself of alley dwellings, barring new development on streets less than 30 feet wide in 1892. By 1934, a federal measure known as the Alley Dwelling Act sought to eliminate these black communities, by either forcing them out of their homes for redevelopment motives or demolishing the structures altogether. According to the DC Historic Alley Buildings Survey, over a thousand of these historic structures remain, down from 3337 in 1912, yet only about a hundred are used as homes. They would only be considered “affordable” living for the privileged and wealthy. Since their heyday, alley lots have become difficult to redevelop, due to stringent zoning requirements.
Alley development has remained an important piece of Washington’s housing outlook. And yet, building alley units has been cost and time prohibitive, thanks to archaic regulations established by the 1958 zoning code. The city overhauled its zoning in 2016, which permits new dwellings in alleys 24 feet wide or within 300 feet of a public street in alleys 15 feet wide. The caveat to getting any building permit approved is having an address associated with it. For decades, hundreds of alley lots remained undeveloped So, owners of those previously undeveloped alley lots are charged with getting the alley named. That requires the property owner to seek out a member of city council to introduce legislation to name the alley. After a formal process of public hearings and subsequent approval, the owner can request an official street name change to the alley lot. Additional allowances were added to the zoning update for residential and commercial zones, contingent upon height, setback, and square footage requirements. It allows for subdivision of existing alley lots and creation of new alley dwellings.
Back to the case of naming alleys. Until recently, D.C. did not issue permits to developments along streets without an address. That means building projects were reduced to a red, rubber stamp rejection. A convoluted process for creating office space and two alley dwellings in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood coincided with relaxed regulations on residential units in alleys. A council member helped the developer rename the alley to honor a black stalwart named Theodore Williams, who prevailed against racist barriers to upward mobility, eventually gaining employment in the health sector. In 2017, Williams Alley became the first official name change to an alley since the zoning code update. Development of a more cohesive system for naming alleys is ongoing but gaining momentum. At least now, new developments along these walkable public corridors require an alley name, in turn facilitating the process for giving them new identities.
It may be hard to believe, but our revered neighbor on the North Shore has been planning some progressive changes to how alleys are used. Duluth passed its comprehensive plan update, Imagine Duluth 2035, back in 2016. Included in the plan is the recognition that the alley running between Canal Park Drive and South Lake Avenue already functions as a “woonerf”, a Dutch term for shared alley. Recommendations include eliminating one-way access and creating “naming identifiers” for alleys throughout downtown. Duluth already has a staggered numbering system for its alley, which can only be found in mundane development review packets, but you would not know it from street level. Visual identifiers could mean seeing them in a new light. Just as St. Croix Avenue was renamed as Canal Park Drive to remove its associations as a former red light district, Duluth envisions a new commercial outlook through naming the unnamed alleys and improving them.
Then there are the irregular or pesky small lots that sit vacant in Duluth – 25-foot-wide lots that remain undeveloped. The city recently passed an ordinance permitting tiny houses with some restrictions on size relative to principal structures, square footage and taxable status. While a tiny home could be built behind an existing residence along an alley, Duluth does not currently allow for accessory dwelling units as separate taxable entities. But the new ordinance will open up opportunity to modest living and more diverse housing options. (In May, Duluth City Council took up a proposal for a development of tiny homes across from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.)
Many factors will need to come into play in order for public alleys near commercial districts to serve the needs of the people equitably:
(1) Funding will need to be procured for affordable housing.
(2) The zoning code will need to be amended to allow for alley lots.
(3) Naming devices will need to be permissible for alley identification.
(4) Corridors will need to remain public and serve people on foot first.
Affordable housing components in Minneapolis’ disaster areas will depend on the provision of tax credits by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Any allocation of relief funds and development subsidies should meet carefully crafted criteria. Infill development throughout disaster areas should serve the needs of the underserved and augment opportunities for upward economic mobility. This means that it is not enough to only rent to people of color; people of color must have an ownership stake in the future of our neighborhoods. A planned development that envelopes half the block will not serve diverse community needs, but will only leave tenants indebted to the interests of a management company. As the need for affordable housing continues to outpace its supply in Hennepin County, it would seem that epicenters of radical social change are ripe for serving a broad range of needs. An upgrade to BRT for Metro Transit’s second-busiest bus route will help to connect more affordable units to a slew of assets along Lake Street. Better that those assets are fully within reach. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul Housing Finance Board accepts proposals for the Housing Tax Credit program, which faces a deadline of July 31, 2020 for consideration of 2021 funding.
The adoption of Minneapolis 2040 into law has markedly increased the potential for more flexible and affordable development in alleys. Policy 35: Innovative Housing Types, calls for more innovative housing types, including the allowance of “Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on both owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied property.” It goes on to mention the need to develop “a set of ADU templates that meet City codes to ease ADU construction and allow the use of tiny homes and other alternative housing as ADUs.” Alley housing should not be exclusive to the means of existing homeowners, who often justify building ADUs for market-rate or vacation rental units. These innovative housing types should be enjoyed by everyone, especially those living well below the area median income. Imagine a family living on “Library Alley”, where children can meet a tutor or a parent can easily make it the many programs offered by the library branch. Picture a single adult living in the same situation, having easy access to a broadband connection, a meeting place with a case manager, and an immediate connection to the future Metro Transit B Line and current Route 21 buses.
Today, there are but a handful of alley lots throughout Minneapolis, yet they either remain undeveloped or they exist only as combined ownership with a front lot. Legacy uses absolutely deserve a deeper assessment. Not only did bars once find their identities in alleys, but also worker or accessory housing and back-of-house industries like woodworking, commercial kitchens, machine shops, and warehousing. The alley adjacent to East Lake Library in Longfellow is 16 feet wide and could follow a similar approach to that of Washington, fulfilling an always-dire need for affordable housing near transit and public services. Many other alleys off Lake Street have similar widths, and could take on additional density and encourage homeownership. In the case of Fargo, the provision of small commercial spaces serve as a missing link between food trucks or consignment businesses and retail square footage that increasingly prices out the little guys. Smaller commercial units would also provide opportunities for the reintegration of modest and basic services, such as laundromats, shoe repair, record shops and second-hand sales. Our city blocks need not have only one face.
Perhaps you read my 2018 article, “Where the Alleys Have No Name,” in which I highlighted a small number of named alleys in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Both locally and abroad, where alleys have their own names, they tend to possess a great sense of ownership from abutting stakeholders and the community at large. Where some cities like Seattle have given alleys new identities never before realized, older cities than our own have enjoyed alley identification for decades, if not centuries. Alleys may not always be noticed by motorists, but people on foot become aware of them with each block walked. They are scaled to the walking (and biking) experience, and they deserve the attention we already seek for a safer, more robust journey. The alley running north-south along East Lake Library seems deserving of a formal naming designation. Cities larger (Washington) and smaller (Duluth) are beginning to recognize that doing so give places purpose. Alleys should be named in such a way that they reflect the values of the communities they serve, honoring the right side of history and the struggle for justice – not after historical figures who promoted racism, segregation, or oppression.
Serve people on foot first
Walking (and rolling) is a right. If this “Library Alley” – and other commercial alleys like it – are to be held to the same standards as we hold our streets and trails, we can start here. Spaces like this can more easily accommodate programming and impromptu joy. We just need to apply the same wish list to alleys as we do to streets: pedestrian-scaled lighting, seating, shrubs and trees, public art, and vital resources. As the library branch rebuilds, library services and programming could spill toward – and into – the alley corridor. As a vital public resource, library functions should not only exist within the confines of its building walls. Several buildings on the east side of the alley survived fires, which could serve as the first steps toward giving the unnamed alley its identity.
Without a doubt, the City of Minneapolis will need to be a partner in the redesign of these future linear parks. The key to all of this is to restrict motorist access and to make people on foot the primary users, by design. It may be a necessary compromise to allow for access to loading doors or docks. But shared streets factor the needs of the block, instead of applying a one-size-fits all approach. Shared alleys (or living alleys, as the Bay Area’s Market Octavia Plan sees them) can restrict loading hours and hand the rest of the day to people. Keeping the alley public is imperative, to ensure that it continues to remain accessible on foot without restriction. In 2012, the Cincinnati-based nonprofit I lead, Spring in Our Steps, successfully had the following included as a mid-range action step, in the city’s first comprehensive plan in 30 years: “Maintain and enhance the alleys as part of the pedestrian network, freight delivery points, and access for building maintenance.” Action steps included in the plan defended our partnership, cooperation, and support from city staff.
The alley running from Lake to 31st, alongside East Lake Library, has a new future ahead of it. Not only can we seek more equitable results that make East Lake Street near Minnehaha Avenue more inclusive and livable, but the commercial alleys nearby can play an important role along the way. Turning the block inside out can provide us insight about what is missing from our community. We should foster alleys as the safe, vibrant, and eclectic public spaces they can and should be. We must explore the feasibility of establishing more accessory dwellings and creator space, generating true sense of ownership with the creation of alley lots, giving alleys such as this its own name and identity, and providing more of this alley space to walking, biking and rolling safely.
The alley’s adjacency to the library branch and, arguably, to the hardest-hit block in Minneapolis makes it a vital component in rebuilding. Rapid development trends have pulled Minneapolis closer toward a perilous state where little space is provided for small-scale commercial services affordably within walking distance from transit. People of color should be not expelled from critical conversations about the needs of the community, nor should they be left without the opportunity to be fully integrated stakeholders within new development. It is time that we reimagine how we configure our city blocks to serve a greater number of people, including groups largely left out of homeownership or entrepreneurial opportunities. By considering affordable housing, small commercial spaces, the right to walk and spatial identity, “Library Alley” and others along Lake Street can serve as missing links.
Christian Huelsman leads the Minneapolis Alley Initiative for Neighborhood Stimulation, a personal creative hub promoting public alleys as venues for art and culture. He also leads Spring in Our Steps, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit committed to bringing a brighter future to the city’s public alleys and stairways, through cleanup, programming, and advocacy initiatives.