Activate the Alley! Projects rejuvenate La Jolla’s forgotten right-of-ways

For 11 years, resident Cal Mann has walked and cycled the alleys and lanes of La Jolla. “In part because cycling is not that safe, I’ve used the alleys as a way to get around,” he said, “and doing so (I have discovered) a lot of interesting old buildings. Seeing the back side of restaurants and things, you see a different aspect of your community than if you’re just going by storefronts.”

Before his imminent transfer to the Bay Area, Mann is trying to create momentum for a community effort to revitalize the alleys in La Jolla. “There are all these associations and groups that are trying to make La Jolla more attractive, and developing some of these alleys is an opportunity. (You can) have events, businesses there … So much of the challenge for businesses in La Jolla is that the land is so expensive, and someone who owns some property can give a business some space in the alley for a reasonable rent that might make it possible for them to get started, develop their ideas.”

San Diego-based urban planner Howard Blackson agreed, “We focus on the quality and the function of a main street, forgetting that the alleys are important service streets. The character of the alley is completely different than a main street, but both need each other.” He added that these thoroughfares are often ignored and can be perceived as “dangerous,” which suppresses their function. “We don’t need to beautify them like a main street, but they need landscaping, signs and lighting. (We should) try to make them a part of a community because they do have value.”

Alleys in history

Alleys were originally created to host services and utilities for properties facing roadways. Those services, refuse collection, fuel (from the days of coal and oil heating) and electricity were delivered from alleyways to keep house-fronts clear of messy service vehicles.

In an e-mail, City of San Diego communications officer Bill Harris told La Jolla Light, “Over time, as service needs changed, the daily function of alleyways diminished, although utility services and access to off-street parking and garages continued. It is possible that negative connotations regarding alleyways are the result of their continued association with unsightly services.”

Carol Olten of the La Jolla Historical Society offered some historical background. “Legend has it that benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps, when she was living here in the earlier part of the 20th century, didn’t approve of having alleys in La Jolla, and she most probably suggested that we call our alleys ‘lanes.’ Consequently, we have a lot of lanes named things like Roslyn Lane, Bishops Lane … and then we have Mabel Bell Lane, which is named after a lady who lived on Draper Street a long time,” she said.

Mabel Bell was an African American woman who moved to La Jolla in the 1940s. Bell and her husband purchased a house on Draper Street in 1950, becoming the first African American family to buy property south of Pearl Street. The book “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants 1880-1974,” (Black Pioneers Group, 2010) states that Bell was one of the first advocates for alleys in La Jolla. “When she had leisure time, she would often take long walks in the alley behind her home (between Draper and Eads Avenue) where she enjoyed talking and sharing thoughts with her neighbors,” it reads.

The lane behind Bell’s house was dedicated to her honor in 2008, during a ceremony attended by then-councilmember Scott Peters, Rev. Janet Swift, Bell’s nephew Charles Buchanan and her lifelong friend and employer Danah Fayman, who reportedly said at the ceremony, “She had a big and warm heart. She was a courageous woman and an entrepreneur. Mabel Bell was very good at changing alleys into lanes.”

The Mabel Bell lane runs from Silver Street to Rushville Street, passing through Pearl Street, where Grater Grilled Cheese, a small sandwich business started in La Jolla at the rear of its partner, Shakeaway (723 Pearl St.), and facing the alley.

Business in the alleys

Grater Grilled Cheese has since proven to be a success and moved to a storefront on Pearl Street. But it is not the only alley-facing business in La Jolla. On an unnamed alley that runs from Silverado Street to Torrey Pines Road between Hershel and Girard avenues, Jade Schulz has been fixing violins, violas and basses for eight years.

“I was really happy when I rented here because it came with two parking spots. A year after that I decided to re-do my storage, and I was able to put a storage unit on one of my parking spots and it doesn’t matter, because I’m back in the alley,” Schulz said.

He listed his advantages on the alley: He has his own parking, he pays lower rent than a storefront, it has the quietness required for the delicate business of fixing violins and has a certain funkiness that suits his character. “You can see outside I have a cactus garden; I can’t quantify that … When you’re in the alley, there’s always something kind of cool about here,” he pointed out.

Schultz recommends to other business that don’t depend on walk-ins, the tranquility of an alley. He would also like to see some beautification done in his alley, including traffic calming measures. “This is actually used as a thoroughfare because motorists don’t want to go through the stop signs, and people are doing 35-40 miles an hour down the alley,” he said.

Revitalizing an alley

Alley revitalization can have economic, cultural and safety benefits. Cities all over the United Sates (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, to name a few) are pushing to transform these forgotten spaces into community assets. In San Diego, too, such efforts are underway, with painting, landscaping and celebrations as some of the approaches being taken.

The San Diego Media Arts Center moved five years ago to an empty building on El Cajon Boulevard (North Park.) Founder and executive director Ethan Van Thillo said when they moved in, the area — and the alleys around it — were in a decadent state. “As soon as we put art in the alley, just by painting the murals, we already felt the difference in people feeling safer walking through the alleys,” Van Thillo said. He added that they partnered with the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association to carry out the process.

Since, the 2900 block on El Cajon Boulevard has transitioned into a vibrant cultural and economic hub. Surf shops, breweries, restaurants, retail spaces and other businesses have taken over empty storefronts and rear alley spaces. Van Thillo pointed out that today, their main challenge is maintenance, “You can get a bunch of volunteers to paint and plant, but then someone’s got to watch and water it.”

Elsewhere in San Diego other alleys are attracting community attention. In Logan Heights, an initiative fixed the alleys for children who use them to go to school, turning them into educational centers with public bookshelves and art.

In LA, this process has been going on for years. Attorney Daniel Freedman has been involved in the effort, and insists that communities can achieve sustainability revitalizing alleys. “We’re doing a lot of work on green alleys, to not only have them be amenities, but be able to use them for environmental benefits, such as water infiltration, having more green places and to reduce runoff,” he said.

“(Revitalizing alleys) is generally a win-win, because it’s an investment in the community, it addresses a problem and it doesn’t affect traffic flow.” He said the chief challenge is the bureaucracy that often times confronts community efforts.

Is this legal?

“It’s very complex,” Freedman said, “You can have one alley regulated by three different agencies, and a lot of those agencies are owned by government. If you want to improve, you are going to need it OK’d by several agencies, who aren’t always the easiest to work with.”

The City of San Diego offers established community organizations the opportunity to take advantage of Entrance, Maintenance and Removal Agreements (EMRAs) when interested in temporary improvements on city right-of-way, said public information officer Harris. “EMRAs vary, although all require appropriate insurance and maintenance stipulations. Those are typically readily met by Business Improvement and Community Development organizations.

“Most communities can achieve revitalization through strictly aesthetic improvements like the artworks included in the Murals of La Jolla project that brings many new visitors into the alleyways of that community,” he added.