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Alley Retail Can Work…In The Right Conditions

September 24, 2018 Downtown, Featured, Planning & Design, Retail No Comments

Alleys are one thing that attracted me to St. Louis in 1990, we didn’t have them in the 1960s suburban subdivision where I grew up in Oklahoma City. Interestingly, my grandparents each had alleys behind their homes in the small Western Oklahoma towns of Weatherford & Clinton. I spent a lot of time in the alleys behind their houses. Everywhere I’ve lived in St. Louis has had an alley, though for the last decade the alley has technically been St. Charles Street.

In April 2012 I posted about the streets that are really alleys parallel to Washington Ave.; St. Charles Street to the South & Lucas Ave to the North.  A year later New Brewery Improves Alley-Like Lucas Ave.

A recent “Where am I?” photo on Facebook raised interesting issues about alleys, and led me to ban someone from commenting on the page. Let me explain.

I posted the photo to the right on Facebook (blog’s cover image) with the caption “Where am I?” There were right & wrong guesses as to the location — it’s off of Locust St. between 10th-11th. One of the comments was “A sketchy alley about to get mugged by a homeless guy with a shank.  Also next to the Urban Shark.” Yes, Urban Shark is attached to the Bike Station on the left. No, not at any risk of getting mugged, but many think that way about alleys.

One person commented we need to turn alleys into pedestrian-focused retail like other cities have done, citing San Francisco & New Orleans. I recall experiencing one in Vancouver years ago — great space. However, I replied that retailing has struggled downtown even on well-populated streets like Washington Ave. Later I asked him to name just one alley downtown that would make a good candidate for retail. He, we’ll call him GB, said I was bashing St. Louis and he’s seen it work well in other cities. I’ll post more on our interaction in the future, right now I want to stick to GB’s assertion we should enliven our alleys.

Our alleys, like in many cities, were planned as ways to keep unsightly business like trash disposal out of view from primary streets. Also, most of downtown’s alleys have been privatized. Certainly those who own to the rights to formerly public alleys could try to market an alley as a pedestrian-friendly retail & restaurant hub, though ownership is often split down the middle between property owners on each side.

Yes, this has worked well in other cities. So why not downtown St. Louis? First, this has been used in areas lacking vacant street-facing retail spaces.  When retail vacancy is near zero rents go up. By expanding into alleys building owners can make retail spaces in unused/unleased portions of buildings. The rents received isn’t what they get out front but it helps the bottom line. Retailers get spaces that are more affordable in their business model.

If we look at the immediate area around the alley I posted we can see lots of available storefront space. Lots.

The corner space on the building to the East is vacant. Same for the corner space on the building to the West.
Diagonally across 10th & Locust from the above, the corner of The Syndicate remains vacant.
Stefano’s former space at 504 N 10th has been vacant for 3+ years.

The South side of Washington Ave between 10th & 11th recent became fully occupied, but the North side has lots of vacancies.

The Dorsa building was renovated more than a decade ago but ground floor retail remains vacant.
The other storefront in the Dorsa is also vacant. Years ago the St. Louis convention people made the windows look nice at least.
Two months from now will mark 3 years since The Dubliner closed, the space remains vacant.
One bright spot is someone will soon be reopening Bella’s Frozen Yogurt at 1021 Washington Ave. Yay! Click the image to open their Facebook page in a new tab.

I’ve tried to think of an alley in Downtown or Downtown West that might be a good candidate. Laclede’s Landing — can’t think of one, North of the Arch/Ead’s Bridge, has done ok with an alley or two to gain access to buildings. The best local example I can think of is the Maryland Plaza alley in the Central West End.

The property owner(s) did a great job welcoming you to the back of the buildings.
A restaurant patio occupies the West end of the “alley” behind the buildings. This photo was taken on a hot Thursday afternoon, I’d imagine it’s hard to get a table here at certain times.
Looking East toward York Ave., we see a living wall to disguise the parking garage on the right.
Approaching York Ave.

This example was never a public service alley, but it does show how a small sliver of property behind a building can become an asset rather than a liability. Former service alleys can be given this same treatment, the results are often amazing.

Still doesn’t make it a good idea for downtown St. Louis. It might, if you can think of the right location.

— Steve Patterson

 

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