Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Urban Design: Alleys

I've always found the alleys in Macon's downtown to be interesting. There are two basic widths,10 feet where perpendicular to main streets, and from 16 to 20 feet where parallel to those streets.
As in most cities' downtowns, building depths vary, but tend to have used the full depth of the lot. This produces sharp definition of the alley space, with the exceptions, buildings that are set back from the alley line, offering spatial rhythm and variation.

Several years ago Newtown Macon asked me to investigate potential uses for a large former department store. In the course of measuring and assessing the building's condition, I was struck by what had evolved into large amounts of underused, functionally obsolete space. "Evolved," because until the 1960's very brisk retail trade occurred downtown, and the space was fully utilized. With suburban mall construction, downtown's big-box retail structures were left much deeper than needed. Macon's downtown block is typically about 400 to 440 feet square. This leaves roughly 200 feet of building depth from streetfront to alley.

In architecture school, I'd had a design project that examined the conversion of alleys to storefront. It occurred to me that the situation presented by Macon offered significant potential in a similar conversion. Also, Macon already had three restaurants with alley entrances in another downtown block.

If walkable, landscaped alleyways were converted to storefront, with fresh espresso wafting on the breeze from a sidewalk trattoria, limited but colorful signage, shopwindows introduced into existing blank brick walls ...

400 Block Cherry Street, Macon. (North is up on the plan.)

Original study was of yellow area, two former department stores. Orange area at lower left is a 19th-century warehouse, a massive 4-story brick building proposed for use as condos by a local developer. The blue area at upper right is an existing 200-space parking deck. A 300-space multi-level parking garage, if built on the gray area to its left (at the time of the study a 90-space parking lot) would provide the required 500 off-street parking spaces for all proposed development of the alleys and the block, and secure access to the proposed condos.
An open loggia cut into the building indicated as the plan's yellow space, along the alley. View is facing south.

Facing west. This sketch indicates no change to the existing 90-space parking lot other than reducing its size by 24 feet to allow a tree-shaded hardscape area at the center of the block. 19th-century four-story building at left is the proposed condo development. Shaded hardscape is shown adjacent to the existing parking lot, with retail and food service at the existing rear of the buildings.

Same general viewpoint as previous sketch, elevated to illustrate 300-space parking building placed over existing 90-space parking lot. Food services and store entrances surround the hardscape area and continue up all alleys.

So, I set about convincing Newtown that this could work. Today, the results are still indeterminate, but the purpose of this narrative lies in the design intent.

Please note that drawings shown in this post are my own. They are copyrighted and may not be used or reproduced without documented permission.

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