Boise’s outdoor attractions are legendary. But you’ll also find a decidedly different, grittier kind of outdoor attraction: atmospheric alleys in the city’s historic core.
The city plans to spend half a million dollars next year to upgrade two of Downtown’s most well-known alleys: Freak Alley Gallery, the indoor/outdoor mural space, and the alley behind the Union Block building, just east of 8th Street.
Freak Alley Gallery — Founder/Director Colby Akers wants people to respect the art there by using the full name, rather than just “Freak Alley” — will keep its dumpsters and its urban, ahem, aroma. Union Block property owners and tenant businesses say they’ve found a solution for that problem.
Both alleys will get new pavers and lights near business entrances to light the alleys at night. In addition, property owners along the Union Block alley plan to invest in seating areas and public art.
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Freak Alley Gallery runs from 8th Street west to 9th. The Union Block alley runs from 8th east to Capitol Boulevard. The alleys are midway between Bannock Street to the north and Idaho Street to the south.
Since 2002, artists have decorated the walls of Freak Alley Gallery with paintings in a range of styles, from graffiti-esque imagery to tribal-abstract art and portraiture. The Union Block alley offers passage through to Bannock Street, past the St. Lawrence Gridiron patio and the back entrance to the Idaho Building.
Both alleys are busy thoroughfares. On a typical day, you’ll see students having their senior photos taken, employees from nearby businesses taking a smoke break, and tourists snapping selfies with the paintings as a backdrop— all while cars and delivery trucks squeeze their way through.
Several well-known businesses back onto each alley. The North Face, a West Elm furniture store and the Juniper restaurant back onto Freak Alley Gallery. Restaurants Saint Lawrence Gridiron, Mai Thai and Old Chicago Pizza back onto the alley behind the Union Block.
The alleys are due for an upgrade, says Mike Journee, the spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter and the City Council.
The alley project is meant to extend the popular atmosphere of 8th Street and create “places people can gather, have lunch, have a performance or a demonstration,” Journee said.
“We want more places where people want to be,” he said.
The project is “part of a bigger thing,” he said, in response to the Boise City Council’s approval last year of the Downtown Parks and Public Spaces Master Plan. That study polled the public about upgrades people want to see Downtown. Improved alleys are among them.
Union Block owners will move dumpsters
Anne Wescott and her husband, Ken Howell, own the Idaho Building and the Union Block, two of the largest properties involved in the project, both on the Union Block side.
Wescott said property owners have been working together on two of the biggest challenges in transforming the alleys into public spaces: the stinky dumpsters and grease barrels from restaurants. One possibility for the Union Block is to consolidate dumpsters in the parking garage at Capitol and Bannock and remove them from the public space.
Wescott said she wants delivery trucks eventually rerouted away from the Union Block alley and into delivery zones along 8th Street. One challenge will be respecting the bike lanes along 8th Street. Local bicyclists on Aug. 30 formed a “human-protected bike lane” to protest drivers who already impinge on the lanes.
“Hopefully the alley can be a safer place for pedestrians and bikes as well,” Wescott said.
When the work is done, drivers will still be able to enter the parking garage at Capitol and Bannock through the Union Block alley.
Wescott plans to work with the city and local historians to install interpretive panels telling the alley’s story.
“Everyone, the community, will have a little gem back there,” she said.
Freak Alley’s feel won’t change
After the upgrades, Freak Alley Gallery will remain open to cars and walkers. Akers said the dumpsters will likely remain as well. So will the delivery trucks and the battered steel posts that are repurposed track from Boise’s long-gone streetcar system, embedded in the asphalt to protect the sides and corners of alley buildings from passing trucks. So will the grit.
“You want to sit on a grease trap, go for it,” he said.
“We’re not adding seating or string lights,” Akers said. “I don’t want to lose the nature of an alley, although I would like the public urination to be dealt with a lot more strictly.”
Journee said that the alley improvements, including better lighting, will create more foot traffic and hopefully cut down on people using the alley as a bathroom. There’s no plan at the moment to increase police patrols.
Akers is OK with the idea of new pavers. He’s seen pedestrians twist their ankles in alley pot holes. He wants the alley to continue to attract art fans of all ages, as well as artists.
“There’s no demographic here. We get newborns to 80- and 90-year-old ladies,” Akers said. “Retirement homes bring their little vans with people. Schools are down here all the time in the mornings, whether it’s photo or writing classes. The Cabin brings its writing classes here all the time.”
Union Block building
Back across 8th Street, Howell and Wescott plan to improve the rear of the Union Block building itself at the same time CCDC works on the alley improvements.
Their 1902 sandstone building will get a daylight basement, increasing the building’s square footage while allowing for a disposal system to replace the restaurants’ grease barrels.
“Union Block will be trying to restore what it might have felt like back in the day when windows didn’t have bars on them,” Wescott said.
She and Howell have met with the city’s Department of Arts and History to talk about aesthetic upgrades. A faded, painted sign for Boise Rubber Stamp and Pig (referring to pig iron), a long ago tenant, is still visible. That “ghost sign” will be preserved, Wescott said.
The couple also own the building that houses St. Lawrence Gridiron. Plans are in the works to transform the space behind the restaurant into a tiny “pocket park,” or small gathering space with benches and water-wise landscaping.
The space allows access to the back of the Idaho Building and a pass through to Bannock Street. It is a key gateway to the alley, Wescott said. She and Howell have hired an architect to work with CCDC’s architect to create a cohesive design.
Underused spaces transformed
Wescott said Downtown alleys may be some of the last pieces of available land in the growing city to create unique community gathering spaces.
The Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban-renewal agency, has approved spending $500,000 on design and construction, which will include pavers, a trench drain down the length of the alleys and lighting.
Most of the money will pay for the brick pavers, resurfacing and adjusting the grade of the two alleys to account for drainage and utilities, said Matt Edmond, project manager at CCDC.
Asked whether $500,000 is a lot to spend on alley improvements, Edmond said, “Everything is expensive.”
The cost of replacing a sidewalk on one side of a city block usually ranges between $150,000 and $300,000. The high end of the range accounts for sidewalks designed to accommodate trees and other landscaping. CCDC is not paying for landscaping in either alley.
The work is scheduled for the spring of 2018, after the city replaces sewer lines in both alleys.
With the improvements, Boise will join the ranks of other cities, including Los Angeles and Longmont, Colo., that have transformed previously underused spaces into beloved urban attractions, said Edmond.
Both alleys are rights-of-way controlled by the Ada County Highway District. The district must approve any upgrades.
The city holds a historic easement for the front and back of the Union Block building, meaning the city’s Historic Preservation Commission will have to approve changes there.