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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Soulard Alleys

Having visited Pittsburgh and now having spent a couple days in my new home city, Baltimore, I am reminded of the importance of density to urban, walkable environments.

In some cities, this means high- and mid-rises, but most urban neighborhoods cast nary a shadow. Plenty of these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Baltimore are relatively low-rise (5-stories maximum--more typically 2-3). Yet there are fewer holes punched in their tightly-packed streetscapes. Some of them even have whole rows of alley housing. See below for a Pittsburgh example in its Lawrenceville neighborhood:

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St. Louis's Soulard is one of the only neighborhoods left in St. Louis with a fair number of alley houses. Often the builders of the street-facing home (if it remains) constructed a simpler alley dwelling to live in during the main home's construction. Upon completion, the alley house could become a convenient rental unit.

Sadly, even historic Soulard has seen the demolition of most of its former alley housing.

Check out this view of a piece of Soulard from the 1875 Compton and Dry Atlas:

Almost all of the "square" in the square blocks is consumed by housing--both main and rear structures.

A similar view today shows considerable demolition. Still, in this particular portion of Soulard, a critical mass of alley housing remains.

Why not build on this critical mass? Restoring Soulard's alley housing to its full potential would allow for a denser neighborhood where urban amenities such as mass transit and retail/service clusters would make more sense. Soulard could become one of St. Louis's truly "car-optional"--possibly even car-inconvenient--neighborhoods. People seeking an attractive, active, walkable urban environment (more than just nights and weekends) would undoubtedly seek out Soulard as an option. Renters of newly restored and constructed alley houses could even make some money by renting out their units to Mardi Gras revelers.

How do we go about repopulating Soulard's alleys with houses?

First, give the alleys names. That's the easy part. Pittsburgh's number streets make for alleyways with "42 1/2 Street" as an example of a name. In St. Louis, Laclede's Landing has some named alleys (Clamorgan Alley). Regardless of whether they'd be named "9 1/2 Street" or "Menard Alley" or something different entirely, giving them a name would elevate their significance beyond mere service functions.

Now for the hard part. I'd say get the Soulard Restoration Group to raise some funding and get some homeowners on board with the program for at least one block (the northern portion of Soulard, pictured above, contains the most intact alley blocks). For at least this one demonstration block, try to renovate all existing alley structures (if needed) and then attempt to construct new, historicist alley buildings consulting the Compton and Dry Atlas for reference. Obviously, this would be a tricky venture given private ownership of these rear lots. But I'd bet if any residents would be willing to subject their lots to the alley restoration plan, it would be the residents of historically-minded Soulard. If one solid block's benefits  became clear, the city could jump to the next adjacent alley.

The reintroduced density could transform Soulard in, I think, the most positive of ways.


Chris said...

Baltimore is famous for naming its alleys; you can find some in Bolton Hill, Hampden, Fells Point or Canton.

Peter said...

I don't know about this, I feel like a neighborhood can be dense enough and still retain that "cool" factor even w/o alley houses. Most people (at least me) want a backyard to their house.

ebo said...

I really like this idea but if density is the goal then shouldn't the focus be more on filling in some of the glaring gaps in Soulard's streetscape (the corner of 9th and Soulard across the street from Llyweln's for example) before we worry about the alleys.
There are still a handful of prime corner lots that remain vacant even in the denser (south of Russell) portion of Soulard.

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