Sunday, March 4, 2018

Alleys in Houston and Elsewhere

I haven't written in a while. A la Celine Dion, it's all coming back to me now. When I blog post like this, and blog post like that, it's all coming back to me now. Okay, enough of that...

Here's a likely unpopular perspective: There aren't enough alleys in Houston. No, not bowling alleys. (Although, I'd agree with that argument too. Bowling is a ton of fun, and coming from Michigan, which has the highest per capita amount of bowling alleys in the country, it seems like Houston is a bowling alley desert. A few years ago Palace Lanes in Bellaire fell in the gutter, so to speak. But, that's another story for another time.) I'm talking about the oft-forgotten neighborhood design element of alleys between two streets. They're a greatly underutilized neighborhood design element today, but something that was once a staple in neighborhood design, especially when neighborhoods were designed in the classic grid pattern. Our country's love for suburban cul-de-sacs and the blocking of any sort of through traffic has eroded the utility of the grid in urban design.

An alley in the Houston Heights

For a bit more about alleys, let's look to Chicago. Chicago is arguably America's alley capital, with over 1,900 miles of alleys throughout the city. WBEZ took a look at what made Chicago America's alley capital. Alleys are noted as being more than utilitarian for garage access or garbage pickup; they're a social amenity too. Alley-facing garages can allow for different social interactions than those on the street, with people working on cars or doing chores in their garages. Alley expert and Iowa State University landscape architecture professor Michael Martin also notes the dark and grimy reputation of alleys, serving as areas to disposed of waste or deliver coal, long before we had more efficient sanitation and energy delivery technologies.

Houston's original plat surprisingly didn't include alleys, even though this was the norm for cities in the middle to late 1800s, including Chicago. Houston's relatively short 250' block lengths were the similar to other cities, but those early Houstonians (much like some of today's) weren't ones to simply emulate what other cities did, even at the inclusion of alleys. (If anyone can point me to why Downtown Houston didn't have alleys, I'd love to know. The Bordens and Moses Lapham must not have been moved to waste any precious real estate space on alleys.)

Other cities around the country are seeing renewed interest in keeping up neighborhood alleys, including Phoenix. (Typical Phoenix alley.) Detroit has seen a growth in revitalized alleys, including many in the last decade. Revitalization efforts have ranged from neighborhood driven, like the case of  The Alley Project, or in partnership with developers, like the case of The Belt, a partnership with Bedrock. (One part of Southwest Detroit includes alleys in an orientation where alleys come to a T at the end of the block, with lots on the short blockface of either end also benefitting from alley access.) Finally, here is a site containing a number of alley photos and diagrams from cities around the country, and the world for that matter, describing what is called "Tight Urbanism". Daniel Toole, provided an interview with CityLab, expanding on his "Tight Urbanism" thoughts, giving his experience with alleys.

In Toronto, The Laneway Project (laneway sounds so much classier than alley, doesn't it?!) is aimed at turning the city's laneways into areas that have the potential to thrive and facilitate community interaction. The project aims to 1) initiate and implement community-driven demonstration projects to improve and activate laneways throughout Toronto, 2) work with the City of Toronto and other stakeholders to create laneway friendly policies and procedures, and 3) develop resources to inspire and support residents, community groups, businesses and other stakeholders in improving and making better use of laneways. The group's "Laneway No-Brainers" document lays out eight benefits of activating laneways, including for infill development access, and for improved sanitation efficiency.

An improved alley in Houston

You don't see them in new subdivisions because of our segregation of land uses and design of front-loading, attached, single family home garages. Canin Associates out of Orlando, Florida lays out some of reasons that led to the demise of alleys as a neighborhood amenity. The segregation of land uses through zoning, and the increased status of the automobile are chief among them. This last point is most compelling though. As the prestige of owning an automobile grew, home design changed to accommodate front-loading garages. This shift in design is evident in so many of our country's suburban areas, with great deals of space being wasted in concrete driveways a large front yards.

Now to Houston. If you head over to the Houston Architecture and Information Forum, you can join the short discussion about whether people think homes with alley access are more likely to be burglarized than others. Interestingly enough, no one seems to think so, and residents with alley access actually boast about the space it saves on their lot (not having a large driveway), and the overall benefit of the amenity. (It's interesting that we now think of alleys as amenities, when they were once commonplace in neighborhood design.)

Here in Houston, there are many areas that would be well-served by alleys, but there isn't much desire to create new alleys, as the city does not maintain most long-existing alleys. Based on documents from Public Works and Engineering, the City of Houston only maintains about six and a half miles of alleys throughout the city. Now, there are far more alleys, just not maintained by the city. To learn a bit more about how the City of Houston considers alleys, check out "The Ins and Outs of Alleys", a presentation from PWE. Other nearby cities have alleys, including La Porte (original plat) and Bellaire (original plat).

Some neighborhoods have embraced alleys, such as Houston's Southampton neighborhood. "Southampton's system of alleys permits more expansive front yards, green space for trees, and more on-street parking for guests." Those are points difficult to disagree with. (Although, there have been some legal challenges to the enforcement of alleyway restrictions within the neighborhood.) Other neighborhoods like Denver Harbor have alleys, but haven't used them for access, although, someone readily could use them if they were to be improved.

An unkept alley in the Denver Harbor subdivision

Riverside Terrace has some alleys, and this Swamplot comment helps communicate the lack of knowledge about who alleys belong to in Houston (the city), and who is responsible for maintaining them (property owners). The robust conversation that follows again points to the benefits of alleys, but some of the difficulties of improving alleys in order to give them into City of Houston maintenance. There are strict construction and drainage requirements for alleys, which makes them more expensive than property owners would like, but something that many agree makes a neighborhood more desirable and effective.

The Houston Heights neighborhood includes alleys (original plat), but not without past dispute. The Heights has a large number of alleys (which were present on the original Houston Heights subdivision plat), but those disputes about alleys began almost immediately. Some people (including those within the City of Houston) once believed that the alleys were private property and could be adversely possessed.

In 1907 Oscar Martin Carter, the founder of the Houston Heights subdivision, sued N.H Jones, an enterprising prospective utility provider. (Read the brief of the case here.) Carter sought to block Jones, and anyone else for that matter, from providing utilities in the easements of the newly created City of Houston Heights. Carter and the Omaha and South Texas Land Company had reserved to themselves all of the streets and alleys as their own private property. In 1905, Jones was awarded a franchise to construct and operate a light plant to supply electric lighting to the new Houston Heights.  Immediately, Carter sued, claiming that Jones couldn’t build the electrical lines because it was on his private property. The Court of Civil Appeals of Texas said "not so fast." The Court essentially said that if Carter were allowed to own all the alleys and streets as private property absolutely (or, without easements), it would effectively create a monopoly for the residents where they could only buy utilities from Carter. And because monopolies are illegal, the Court said that Carter couldn’t do that. So, Jones was allowed to go on with the contract and install electrical infrastructure. It didn’t mean that Carter couldn’t do the same if he wanted to, but that Carter wasn't the only entity that would be able to provide those services to residents of the Houston Heights.

Now, so what? Why care about alleys? As cities grow and densify, or if you're trying to create efficiently designed neighborhoods, alleys can play a role. One of the qualms I have about Houston's development code is the prevalence of garages facing streets. It makes for a fairly hostile street, void of porches and front yards, (although some homes have second story porches), not to mention, taking all street parking away. As a city, we should also consider the overall health and social impacts of our planning and design. (Some of this seems a bit unavoidable though, due to Houston's lack of comprehensive planning, and leaving design and preference to developers.) But, as development occurs at the ends of streets, some developers have been savvy enough to create shared driveways that act like alleys, freeing up space for small front or rear yards, as well as garages.

I'd argue that my preference for infill development in Houston is centered around the 2,500 to 3,000 square foot lot, which is what you see a lot of in the Houston Heights and Sunset Heights (original plat) neighborhoods. Some areas of these subdivisions were originally platted with smaller 3,000sf lots, so building three homes on a formerly 9,000sf building site does not require replatting, making for easy, quick redevelopment. Essentially, these neighborhoods are being built up into their previously envisioned density, albeit likely a bit higher than previously imagined. When paired with alleys (aerial example in the Sunset Heights neighborhood), these lots provide for a little bit of everything, including garage apartments in the rear, and porches in the front.

As Houston continues its growth and densification, utilizing alleys may be a small, and overlooked, way to accommodate more access to properties, without requiring private driveways, especially when we require alleys to be improved at such a high standard. Houston's general lack of density proximate to its alleys, when compared to a city like Chicago, or even Detroit, makes it hard to recommend activating alleys the same way that other cities have. But, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't consider the public amenity that they are, and attempt to bring back this urban design element we've pretty much forgotten about.