Back alleys move forward

A major Sacramento smart-growth development project nears completion—but it may be the city’s last

Workers get an early start on the 18th and L streets alley activation during a recent weekday morning.

Workers get an early start on the 18th and L streets alley activation during a recent weekday morning.


At a time of renewed national interest in urban-infill development and smart growth, Sacramento’s efforts to revitalize its central city alleyways may be a case of “one and done” due to lack of funding.

“There has been a lot of energy and commitment,” said Tim Jordan, whose coffeehouse is located in the lone Sacramento alley being revitalized, “but it comes down to a question of basic economics.” The total cost of developing the alley, which is between 17th and 18th streets and Capitol Avenue and L Street, is estimated to be about $500,000.

Like many Sacramento alleys, the 17th and 18th site was a home for Dumpsters and trash, and in the past was used as a traffic shortcut. Now, the alley is being converted into a mixed-use development, which will include commercial and residential properties. Expected to be completed in November, the alley will be home to three condominiums and the entrance to Jordan’s coffee business, the Old Soul Co. headquarters, and will feature permeable pavers and solar lighting and planters.

Alleyways make up nearly 20 percent of Sacramento’s central city.

The goal of the project is to usher in an open-source template for neglected urban pockets and make better use of existing city infrastructure. As part of this process, the city of Sacramento has fast-tracked replacing the alley’s 80-year-old sewer and water lines and provided community-development grants.

Ron Vrilakas, a project architect, said questions remain about how to handle addresses, trash pickup and access for the disabled.

“But overall it’s good land use, doesn’t waste space and takes advantage of what is already in place and on the grid,” he said, stressing that it is important the project balance the competing interests of businesses, residents, pedestrians and drivers.

Sacramento is not alone in finding allure in the multifold alley possibilities.

Several American cities, including Pasadena and San Francisco, have already transformed alleys—relics of 19th-century urban design when they were used for deliveries, stables and secondary housing—into go-to destinations with shops and restaurants.

Alley revitalization also makes economic sense, according to Rob Kerth, executive director of the Midtown Business Association, which has contributed $20,000 toward the 17th Street alley.

“Traditionally, alleys have lower prices [than the street front], making them more affordable for new homeowners and new business owners,” Kerth told SN&R. “And most retailers want their business activity close to the front entrance, so this leaves a lot of business space unused.”

Sacramento has much potential in this regard.

The local nonprofit group Alley Activation Alliance has identified 41 alleys in Sacramento’s urban core that could be revitalized. Of those, “We would like to tackle the alley that runs between J and I streets, and 16th and 17th,” explained Julie Young, co-chairwoman of the Alley Activation Alliance, in an e-mail. “We like that it runs to Memorial Auditorium and it seems like it has good potential for a vibrant area such as Belden Lane in San Francisco.”

But in a common theme in these tough economic times, she added: “However, there is no funding in place for this at the moment.”