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Seattle Sketcher

An illustrated journal of life in the Puget Sound region by Times artist Gabriel Campanario.

February 25, 2010 at 11:03 AM

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Downtown alley leaves dark days behind, welcomes pedestrians

Posted by Gabriel Campanario


Feb. 24, 11:35 a.m. [Click sketch to view larger]

Alleys look interesting in comic books but rarely in real life. Except for Nord Alley, which connects S. Jackson St. and S. Main Street in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.

When Todd Vogel opened the offices of the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) here two years ago, alley windows were boarded up and garbage dumpsters filled the corridor. "People would use it as a bathroom," he said.

Now Vogel parks his bike next to patio furniture he bought online for $26. Windows feature planters and light filters through an art installation of 1,600 water bottles above. "It was that simple," he said. "We started respecting the space and people started to respect it."

In order to make downtown more pedestrian friendly, the City of Seattle is looking at the the Nord Alley experience as a potential model for other locations. That's one of the recommendations made by ISI and Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects in a survey to be released next month.

The report collected data about how many people walk downtown, how far they go and how they use public spaces. More than 40 University of Washington students walked every block, mapping street furniture and trees, counting pedestrian traffic and interviewing more than 1,300 people about the purpose of their visit to downtown, explained Helle Soholt, managing partner of Gehl Architects.

Soholt said the only places where there are significant numbers of pedestrians are Pike Place and Pine Street leading to Weslake. But she thinks Seattleites have the right attitude about making downtown a livelier place. "We found that 75 percent of the people we asked are willing to walk nine blocks or more," she said.

Besides sprucing up alleys, the report also recommends temporary closures of Pike Place, completing a network of bike lanes and widening sidewalks along 1st Avenue. "First Avenue ties everything from the sculpture park to Pioneer Square. By upgrading 1st Avenue you can really make a difference in the area," Soholt said.

Chris Overdorf walked through Nord Alley as I was finishing up my sketch. He said he's used it as a shortcut ever since they removed the garbage containers and would like to see more alleys like this one.

Me too.

Alley party
The City of Seattle, the International Sustainability Institute, People for Puget Sound, and the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects have sponsored a contest on how to green our alleys. The contest winners will be announced at an event in Nord Alley next Thursday, March 4. More information at

More on the art installation
Currently Hanging: By Christopher Ezzell, Matt Hutchins, Shahreyar Ataie, by Jen Graves.

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