Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rebranding the Alley: From Service Way to Narrow Street

[Updated 6/14.]

I've devoted several posts to critiquing the way many contemporary developments have reintroduced the alley as a design feature in new developments.  Although the so-called alley generally handles all utilitarian functions in these developments, including automobile circulation, trash pick-up and even emergency access, it is almost invariably accompanied by wide fronting streets which serve little obvious purpose.  Due to the conception of these alleys as mere service paths, designers generally pay little attention to their aesthetics.

One California reader, however, has alerted me to his New Urbanist community in the town of Hercules which has taken a somewhat different approach.  Rather than including a freestanding rear garage, this development runs the houses straight back to the alley, storing cars in a first-floor, two-car garage.  The alley side is not an afterthought, but instead is given a dignified architectural treatment appropriate to its role as the primary functional entrance to the home:    


Objections are often raised that new narrow streets are impossible under today's regulatory regime of fire codes and inflexible functional classification schemes, but examples such as these seem to disprove that notion.  The paved area plus flanking concrete drainage channels is 20 feet wide, conforming with the right-of-way requirements of the International Fire Code and the National Fire Protection Association. Here's another example from nearby Richmond, California, again showing an "alley" behind fronting streets, but with attached dwellings:


There is adequate room for a car to pass a stopped vehicle, should the need arise.  This should happen rarely, though, since as the street sign and painted red line show, parking is not permitted along these alleys.  Why should the city hand over a large portion of the public right of way for private car storage, after all?  And if the street is not to be used for car storage, why make it any wider than necessary?  Without on-street parking, fears of parking spillover due to new development, a frequent objection to infill densification, might dissolve.

Removing the fronting streets is not the obstacle it might seem, either.  As I wrote about last year, some new suburban developments have already adopted this design in its essentials, but with lingering confusion about how to designate the "front" and "back" of properties, and how to accommodate private outdoor space.  The resulting streetscapes are much less urban and appearance-wise far inferior to the Hercules development, which, regardless of any other failings, is helping to put the pieces in place for the conceptual transition between alley and narrow street.  The challenge of the wall of garage doors can be overcome by changing the parking configuration, lessening or eliminating parking requirements, through clever design or even by building a common underground garage.

These design changes alone, of course, are only one step among many others than are needed, including a focus on transit, a more realistic attitude toward accommodating non-residential uses, and  a city committed to properly integrating the street network with the city at large.  Even taken by themselves, however, the changes would presumably be welcome to both developers and municipalities, and have the potential to yield urban densities even using the single-family detached housing format.

Finally, one other Richmond-area development has in fact employed alley-style streets as the sole access routes for certain houses (shown below).  As a result, these paved ways rebranded as "courts," rather than alleys have individualized names, giving them the status of proper city streets:  


The street view along one of these courts, again showing something more than a purely utilitarian architectural treatment (note the balcony at left):


There is still a reluctance to consider these narrow streets as the territory of pedestrians as well as cars, even though there is undoubtedly very little traffic.  Instead, a pedestrian pathway runs along the opposite side of the houses on the right.  Still, the design breakthrough of separating these alleys from total dependance on corresponding fronting streets, and the conceptual breakthrough of giving the alleys official names, are noteworthy achievements here.

Related posts:
Suburban Follies: The Rear Alleyway
Suburban Follies Quick Update

39 comments:

  1. Those are interesting images. They both evoke the "really narrow streets" idea, but with different treatments. The first one is a bit over-landscaped, but whatever. The real advantage there is that the architecture addresses the alley whereas in the second image it doesn't. On the other hand, while the second image is rather stark, the buildings have a better height to width ratio which makes it feel a bit more engaging and personable.

    It sort of reminds me of a few situations around here in Cincinnati where a street is effectively an alley for the houses on one side, but not on the other. This is most likely an accidental result of the disjointed history of development of the particular neighborhood, but it's an interesting hybrid that might have some lessons to teach us.

    The first example is Potomac Avenue in Hyde Park, which on the east side hosts the garages and back yards of houses on Vista, one block to the east, while the houses on the west side face Potomac and don't have another alley. http://goo.gl/maps/eU6a

    McGregor Place in Mt. Auburn shows how this happens when dealing with steep terrain. http://goo.gl/maps/0Lro

    5th Avenue in Dayton, Kentucky has the same setup as Potomac. http://goo.gl/maps/UE8o

    Unfortunately my favorite example is one that Google hasn't driven down. It's Perry Street in Covington, Kentucky. It's very narrow, with the houses to the west on Philadelphia Street backing up to Perry (though some on that side do face Perry) with the houses on the east facing Perry with their own tiny tiny alley behind. http://goo.gl/maps/zQHs

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for all these examples, Jeffrey. I wonder why the street side of some of those properties (where a property abuts two streets) was not subdivided for additional homes? Covington does seem to have some great really narrow streets, also -- Liberty St. (which Google has driven down) definitely looks like a built-up alley.

      In the examples I've shown, I agree that the first one tries a little too hard to work "nature" into the design, rather than using a more urban solution. It gives the sense that the designer is apologetic for the urban feel of the street.

      Delete
  2. Neither of these looks like an alley, despite what the sign says. They look like narrow urban streets - Providence has a handful, though most of its older residential streets are closer to 40'. The problem with them, especially with the second one, is that they present blank walls to the street, and only have garage openings instead of doors.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, the blank walls are partially a consequence of the designer viewing these narrow streets as service alleys, even though the rest of the architectural treatment suggests otherwise. They certainly do not have to be so hostile to the street. The Japanese houses that Nathan Lewis shows so often have solved this problem in a number of creative ways, so it can be done if the will to do so is there.

      Delete
  3. Speaking of alleys, I was pondering the old alleys in the Back Bay recently.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/71187350@N08/7291085832/in/photostream

    They're just the right size, but people barely even know about them. Mostly used for parking and trash pickup. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if development had been permitted to front along them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Looking at the Back Bay alleys, I'm curious why the builders didn't initially bring the buildings directly back to the property line, as they do in the examples above? It looks like about 30 feet is left between most buildings and the alley, which really isn't enough for a separate apartment (assuming at least 10 feet of separation between buildings). Possibly buildings running to the property line would have too little natural light in their interior rooms, but that suggests that the lot dimensions were impractical to begin with, being too long relative to their width.

      Delete
    2. Oh, they did in some cases. There's a couple examples in the pictures. My camera sucks and those are a bit washed out.

      The block sizes are definitely overly long though. It's 19th century central planning.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, I walked down one of those alleys the last time I was in Boston, and remember a lot of one-story garages but relatively few full additions – Google maps seems to confirm that. The spatial problem could have been dealt with, though, by pulling back additions from one of the side property lines on every property, alternating the left and right sides, such that you'd allow windows on at least one side of each rear addition. This is very common in rowhouse neighborhoods, for instance in Philadelphia:

      http://goo.gl/maps/cJjM

      Delete
  4. YEah, the first pic above is lovely—I'm surprised that it's an "alley", because it looks like a great design for the front of the houses (indeed, I'm a little afraid to find out what the front looks like, because I imagine it's far more, er, suburban....). I can imagine kids playing there, etc.

    The second is pretty uninviting, looking barren and uninteresting.

    It's interesting because both places sort of use the same "American Suburb" building style... the little bit of extra attention paid to detail and variation in the first pic really paid off.

    ReplyDelete
  5. BTW, yeah, it'd be cooler if they could drop the garages, but I suppose in the U.S., that's Just Not Going to Happen... oh well, one step at a time...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I really enjoyed these pics in this post as well as those linked to in the comments. Although the first is certainly leafier, I'd like to see more variation in height of buildings (and/or maybe some second story setbacks).

    In any event, many complain that alleys increase street coverage, but this doesn't take into account the fact that the front street can be narrower. And even it it remains true for overall public street coverage, when considering the ability to do away with private driveways, the overall paved coverage is greatly reduced. Also, alleys allow for narrower lots (even row houses) and therefore greater density.

    One side note, although I am a big proponent of undergrounding or otherwise removing utility lines, these fresh new alleys just look like they are missing something compared to the alley linked to by Matthew. Strange how expectation colors ones views of aesthetics.

    ReplyDelete
  7. To me the omnipresent garage doors in both examples eliminate any desire to mingle and explore those alleys. They're a far cry from the alluring passages in Boston's North End! The overblown pattern of development (everything built by a single developer in a single swoop, leading to a sterile "cookie cutter" appearance) also makes the alleys look monotonous and sanitized. But I suppose this will mellow with time.

    The commentary on the legality of narrow alleys was interesting. It may be surprising, but the official legalese of the engineering and life safety professions does indeed allow narrower streets and other features (like street trees - "fixed hazardous objects" - and narrow two-way yield streets) that we commonly assume are banned.

    But RL practice does not always follow the technocratic manuals. In Suburban Nation DPZ described the numerous battles they had to fight with fire marshals, traffic engineers, and code officials when they sought to build narrow(er) streets than most municipalities were accustomed to building. I think in one case they actually took a fire marshal out to an obstacle-coursed parking lot with a fire truck to show him that it could easily handle narrower street geometries.

    Even if such narrow streets may be legal, local obstructions (the ever-determinant doubt of municipal coders, engineers, and other bureaucrats) often trump reality, especially if the guys setting the local standards rely on inflated projections, unrealistic models (make the road wider to handle future traffic, thereby inducing it!), and overspecialized skepticism.

    Despite the deficiencies in these two alley examples, I still think they're valuable examples in proving that a fairly dense and even auto-centric development can manage perfectly fine with narrow, bare-bones alleys. Hopefully there is the legal flexibility to allow the residual street in front of these houses to be scaled down and rebuilt for pedestrian/bike-centric purposes.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I forgot to mention that Suburban Nation described several loopholes that designers could use to build (narrow) alleys to get around codes that prohibited them. I think in one case DPZ said they got to build alleys by classifying them as either bike paths or jogging paths, even though afterward they were used by cars! The overwide, redundant frontage streets were still built, though.

    Let's not forget that there is considerable opposition to alleys and narrow streets from the general public too! The common mental image of an alley as being a trash-filled, dimly-lit place full of shady muggers is still in force, and nothing irritates a car-centric nation more than the prospect of navigating narrow streets filled with pedestrian and bicyclist obstacles.

    I'm sure these obstacles can be overcome (and are already gradually being overcome), but I suspect the collective cultural memory of the Nasty Big East Coast City Alleyway may have played the dominant role in the falling-out-of-favor of narrow streets and alleys. The regulations and codes merely followed the cultural attitude - people banned what they thought they didn't like or want.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comments, Marc. That anecdote from Suburban Nation seems to have been adapted from Duany's 1992 article "The Second Coming of the American Small Town," at page 38 here: http://www.ite.org/traffic/documents/Tcir0058e.pdf

      I think you are right, though, that the "alley" has had an image problem for a long time, but this is partly related to the fact that, in most American cities -- Philadelphia being a major exception -- the alley had always been a utilitarian or service street. Since alleys were generally narrow, narrow streets became definitionally conflated with alleys/service ways, such that a narrow street could only be conceived of as an "alley," a sort of second-class way that was always understood to be an accessory to a proper "street".

      New Urbanism has tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, this mindset, even though, if you read the Duany/Plater-Zyberk essay closely, it seems to me that leaving the alley and removing the fronting street is entirely consistent with their logic and intended purposes (to create a pedestrian-friendly realm in the front of homes). In fact, Seaside sort of does this, with relatively narrow "front" streets and a pedestrian path in the "back."

      The interesting thing is that it seems that more really narrow urban streets are being built these days than in any other time in American urban history -- they are simply going by other names, flying under the radar as "courts" or driveways or similar things. Houston has dozens or hundreds of them, running between new townhouse developments. I will update the post with another California example of this approach, where the narrow street does in fact provide the only car access to homes.

      Delete
  9. Looking around in Google Maps around the first picture, one thing I was really missing was anything resembling walkability. It's all very well to build something akin to urbanism, but if there's nowhere to walk to, everyone will drive anyway, so what's the point?

    Maybe they'll add more in the future. Sounds like they were working on it, but it hasn't gone well.

    Here's some more info:

    http://hercules.patch.com/articles/sycamore-north-deal-to-go-before-hercules-city-council
    http://hercules.patch.com/articles/things-look-up-for-sycamore-north

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks alai. I did come across the "Sycamore North" project and controversy while looking up this development, but decided not to get into that, since it was a bit tangential to the design issues I focused on. My comment about a "more realistic" approach to retail was motivated by reading about it, though.

      To elaborate, if you build densely enough, retail will eventually be attracted to your development if you allow it, but if you try to stitch things together all at once (e.g. trying to put in 40k square feet of retail at the outset), it's almost guaranteed to fail. The demand is simply not there. It is almost as though the New Urbanism and other "neo-traditional" designers are awkwardly trying to replicate the outward forms of the dense, unzoned city without understanding the underlying economics at work.

      As for walkability, I agree -- where are the basic necessities here? Still, better to create the level of density that may permit genuine walkability in the future than giving up on it altogether.

      Delete
  10. How much energy does it take to keep a dwelling comfortable in the summer when you park a 220 degree automobile in the same envelope?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Although I like the small courts, I'm not much of a fan of the Richmond development. The houses are huge, and of course huge houses get two car garages. Id much prefer more varied building forms, smaller houses, smaller garages/less parking. Even better row houses with small private rear yards and garages/small out buildings backing up to an alley.

    What use are the windows on the side of these houses? A resident gets a view of the neighbor's house five feet away. On the otherhand, there does not appear to be fences in between the houses, do hopefully each house gets one whole sideyard rather than two sideyards that are so thin as to be useless.

    Finally, how far away are retail and office uses. Cant really tell from how cropped the photo is, but for dome reason I get the feeling of suburban-style separation of uses.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John -- here's the link to this area on Google maps: http://goo.gl/maps/h4l0

      That's a good point about the detached format. I would say that these spaces are essentially light shafts, with the idea that the benefit of the natural light outweighs the loss of privacy. Rowhouses do run into the issue that they can only be so deep without losing daylight in the interior rooms (absent a skylight or similar feature).

      It's very much a use-separated development, which is not surprising. There do not appear to be any businesses within reasonable walking distance. However, this particular urban form, at larger scales, does have the density to support urban retail if that were desired.

      Delete
    2. Walk score of 14 - ouch - and right across the railroad and highway from a prison. I guess you can't really blame the developer for the neighborhood. On the plus side, it's only a couple thousand feet from the bay. In any event, I do like the narrow courts.

      I didn't realize before you posted the google map link that it was in CA. In fact only about five miles from the Hercules Waterfront/Bayfront, which could have been a really cool development if not for the recent real estate/financial meltdown. Maybe it still will be someday.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, the walkability is dismal, but the design choices do show some promise for other contexts. Los Angeles developers appear to be experimenting with similar designs, although in this case, the fronting streets have been retained in full:

      http://bit.ly/KD9HA7

      Delete
    4. The useless side-yards and windows onto the neighbor's wall are actually a side-effect of planning for wide streets. In order to get an economically useful proportion of the land for houses, the streets are spaced further apart, which means that for a given lot size (and house size, given that you want houses to fill a certain percentage of the lot), you end up with a longer, narrower lot. And unless you want a long, narrow house, you end up building right next to the neighboring house, but with the light shaft necessary, because you're building on a lot of 30x75 feet.

      Delete
  12. I thought you might like a picture of another example of this type of street, in Mountain View, CA.

    In this case the development has two "streets" and one "alley," with each "street" having one side with driveways and the other side with only pedestrian access, and the "alley" providing vehicular access to the inner buildings. The "alley" actually feels very wide to walk along.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Eric -- that's a great shot. Perhaps because the architect doesn't intend this side for public presentation, he doesn't try to do too much with the facades, and the result is a series of restrained and traditional compositions of simple design and good proportion.

      The right of wide is wide for the purposes of walking alone, as you mention, but were it narrower it looks like cars might have a difficult time turning out of the garages.

      Delete
  13. One strange thing about this alley/street is that it has a slight crown in the middle with gutters on either side -- normal enough so far. But it has the storm drains in the middle at the highest part of the road. Hopefully the drains are at least lower than the entrances to the garages, otherwise there will be some seriously upset homeowners come the next big flood.

    I really don't see the need for separate side gutters on narrow, slow speed streets like this one. They'd be better off with a slight pitch to the middle to meet a gutter and drains, and the highest part of the street on the edges next to the houses. I think the side gutters are a hold over from high speed roads with sidewalks. Low speed streets shared between auto and pedesdrian traffic deserve a re-think for drainage.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. BTW, I was referring to the street Eric linked too, not the ones above in the post. They also have side gutters, but at least they put the drains there as well.

      Delete
    2. Interesting point, and I think your suggested configuration seems to make much more sense. The logic of having a raised center roadbed with drains on either side doesn't seem to apply to a narrow, low-traffic street such as this one.

      Delete
  14. Gosh I have to say that I am really against alleys all together. What alleys do (especially when the primary streets is removed) is segregate public realm activities from one another. Often the result is that people drive in the back of their houses, enter through their garage, and you never see them. Also, alleys can make for very poorly supervised public spaces, which can lead to crime. I am a big fan of concentrating all activity on the real streets and have parallel parking, or if necessary parking beside the houses....I know, not very popular for a new urbanist! I know

    Erin Chantry
    www.helmofthepublicrealm.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think most people here would agree with you that trying to segregate public realm activities is a bad idea. Instead of having separate alleys, I'd rather see the real streets become smaller and more friendly to shared use like an alley, but not denigrated and hidden away like American cities typically do to alleys.

      Delete
    2. Hi Erin -- thanks for commenting. I agree with you about alleys, but believe that these same alleys have some design lessons to teach for the configuration of the streets themselves. As Matthew says, this would involve a narrowing and an emphasis on shared space, and with parking preferably located off-street. The best examples of these are probably in Japan (see one of Matthew's recent posts for an example), but these California alleys are getting at the same idea.

      Delete
  15. Looks pretty good, I think. The idea of having both front and back streets for houses is problematic when the street width is very wide, but not so much of a problem when the automobile roadway is about 16 feet wide like this, and the "front street" (mislabeled really) becomes more like a pedestrian-only path. Probably, we could just do without the "front street" altogether, and you can see things are going in that direction, and pay a little more attention to the automobile roadway facing side ("narrow street") so that it looks a little more dignified. However, there may be something to be said about a pedestrian-only public environment, to make up for the "wall of garage doors" that tends to appear on the automobile street. If the "front street" continued, becoming basically a backyard path, that is not such a big deal. There is still an urge to have a "suburban farmhouse" format here, instead of more like a proper urban townhouse, which results in the open areas degenerating into something much like "green space" instead of a proper backyard, garden, patio etc. The outdoor areas seem wasted to me, quite a shame given the small plot size. Nevertheless, a promising direction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, well, Rosemary Beach does employ a similar design approach, with a pedestrian path at the "front" of houses and cars garage-parked along shared-space streets:

      http://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2011/08/successor-rosemary-beach.html

      In that case, there are actually two dwelling units on each lot, with one (the main house) on the pedestrian path, and the other, a so-called "accessory" dwelling, sitting above a two-car garage which serves both properties.

      Delete
  16. Another thing that deserves congratulation, I think, is how they have added quite a lot of trees and other verdure without chewing up a lot of land area in "green space." The trees are still immature, but when they grow out, these streets should be quite lush. All you need is a little 4x4 plot to plant a tree.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Those narrow alleys slow the cars down, making them excellent for shared car/cycle access.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think that using a shared space approach with a narrow ROW will naturally calm traffic, and yet there is still plenty of room for bikes. The suburban streets of Tokyo appear to be filled with bicyclists happily riding down the center of the lane.

      Delete
  18. And for a little somewhat-related humor -- here's how your packages get delivered if you live on a really narrow street (at least in France): http://burritojustice.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/20120619-231030.jpg BTW, note how the drainage works.

    From "Burrito Justice". Here's the blog's main page: http://burritojustice.com/

    ReplyDelete
  19. Would be really nice to see that someday in the future, all of those back garages could function as storefronts.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Although the Japanese examples, of a wide variety of off-street parking types, not just two-car-width garage doors, produce a much more pleasing effect, I should mention that there are just fewer cars to deal with. I'd say that roughly 40% of houses have no offstreet parking at all, 35% have one space, and 25% have two spaces.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Excellent Architecture, Good planning and nice photography.
    Congratulation having pretty beautiful city.

    ReplyDelete