Downtown alley

Karli McElroy, senior director of placemaking for the Rochester Downtown Alliance, stands in an alley behind the RDA office that will be getting more lighting, artwork and maybe murals.

Karli McElroy knows what most people think about alleys — they’re dark, full of stinky trash cans, utilitarian at best, uninviting.

Not her. “I keep as open a mind as I can,” said the senior director of placemaking for the Rochester Downtown Alliance.

That open mind is already working at devising a plan to improve the alley behind the group’s 311 S. Broadway office. She went into that alley earlier this month and, yes, there were vehicles, cans, dull back doors. Yet she was optimistic. “As we look at this space, there is a lot of potential,” she said.

The potential will begin to be realized later this year when lighting is added and artwork for the back doors will be selected from paintings, murals, photos or other works of local artists, she said. That will be the beginning of making alleys “clean, green and safe,” she said.

Improving alleys is a relatively new idea but so is her job as a “placemaker,” she said. That job is to “look at spaces differently.”

“The alley is a perfect thing for that,” she said. “This is essentially art-based placemaking.” It will draw people into the little-used space, she said.

Better uses

One of the new strategic priorities for the RDA is going beyond social events such as Thursdays on First & 3rd and SocialICE to improve the downtown itself, she said.

“Since September 2018, we have been researching the impacts of alley development in downtowns around the world, and also collecting feedback from our downtown stakeholders about the current condition of the Third Street alley,” she said in a news release. “This valuable information, along with public art activations, and eventual infrastructure improvements, will help our community rethink the use of our downtown alleys.”

Groundbreaking for that potential is expected later this year. It’s one of four alleys, all between South Broadway and First Avenue Southwest from Center Street south to Fourth Street. Other groups are expected to work on the other three alleys.

The push for better use of alleys came in part from Destination Medical Center’s Heart of the City that is working to improve the area from the Peace Plaza west to the Gonda Building, along First and Second avenues on both sides, as well as the alley midway between Broadway and First Avenue Southwest. That’s the alley that starts at the former Michaels parking lot, runs south past the Chateau Theatre and through Peace Plaza, and crosses Historic Third Street.

McElroy knows spiffing up an alley will be a challenge, in part because of most people’s views on alleys as being ugly. She likes that challenge. “I like puzzles, I’m a puzzle person,” she said. “I like to see progress in things.”

Lights, art, action

The first part of the project will be to string lights up and down the alley, she said.

The second part will be turning bland back doors into works of art, printed on special vinyl sheets that will be affixed to the doors and will last for a few decades, she said.

The final part will be looking at even larger artwork with murals on some walls.

When alleys are improved, the hope is more people will use them. Some already use back doors to Kathy’s Pub and Cafe Steam that are close to RDA, she said.

Once the three parts are done, McElroy believes it “will really change the way we see our downtown.” It’s possible that in the future, small kiosks to sell merchandise could be added to the alleys.

One more thing needs a better image, spiffing up — the name. Right now, it’s called the Third Street Alley Project. “It would be fun to have a snappy name,” McElroy said.

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