Too often, the alley-side and rear entrances of buildings are an overlooked business opportunity. Originally designed as service and delivery areas, these facades were most often not visible to the general public. In many communities today, the demolition of nearby buildings, or creation of new parking lots have made these rear facades much more visible, yet they still lack any aesthetic appeal for customers. In fact, many side or back facades offer no means of customer access at all, beyond loading docks. Instead, they are cluttered with dumpsters, meters, condensing units, exhaust fans, etc.

Unlike the front façade, visual improvements here can often be done for less cost. Cleaning and/or painting the walls, adding lighting, concealing utilities behind decorative fencing or landscaping, replacing the entry door(s), and adding a simple awning can greatly enhance the appearance at this first critical juncture.

Utilities can be concealed behind decorative fencing, and rear facade improvements can be simple and still dramatic. Photos courtesy Texas Historical Commission

Alley-side customer access often becomes a necessity during road construction projects, or when the main entrance cannot be made accessible to those with disabilities. The alley-side entrance often provides more room for things such as accessible ramps, which cannot typically be constructed at the main entrance when the building abuts the sidewalk. Note that per building code, a side or rear entrance must lead to the main commercial area without having to go through storage, kitchen or utility areas, so some interior re-configuring might be required. Additionally, when installing an accessible ramp in the alley, there must be a clear path to and from a sidewalk and/or parking area that is free of gravel, grass, etc. Clear signage must also exist at the main entrance directing people to accessible entries.

Alleys provide ample space for accessible ramps and entrances.

In some communities, coordination between property and business owners has made an alley more accessible and attractive throughout an entire block. For instance, a continuous raised deck can serve multiple buildings, all served by one accessible ramp. Or utilizing a shared dumpster enclosure in a single location can remove clutter and free up areas for cars and customers.  Many alley-wide improvements can also be undertaken as a community effort. Volunteers can devote a Saturday afternoon to cleaning up entire blocks of the alley-side facades. Typically, the building owners pay for the materials, perhaps at a reduced cost from a local hardware store, and the volunteers provide the free labor. In the end, the area is cleaner and safer, and is a source of pride for all those involved.

Coordinated alley improvements

Coordination between property owners or businesses can transform a new face of an entire block, creating useful and appealing space for customers. Photo at right courtesy Michigan Main Street.

In order to encourage alley-side improvements and accessibility, some communities have increased and expanded their local incentives (grants/loans) and targeted them toward these activities, especially in anticipation of major road construction projects. Some even waive permit fees for these types of projects during this time. But communities don’t have to wait for road construction to act. These types of improvements can greatly enhance an entire downtown at any time, especially when public parking or other amenities are adjacent to these alley-side facades. Having clean, safe, inviting and accessible spaces throughout downtown creates more spaces for people to interact. Alleys no longer need to be something to hide, nor provide somewhere to hide, but can represent a useful asset for businesses seeking new ways to serve customers.