Should alleys get historical protection?

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January 29, 2007 // UPDATED 10:58 am - April 26, 2007
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Should an historic alley or street stand in the way of a $200 million development project?

City officials and developers debated that question in a recent hearing on the Pacific condo/hotel project proposed for the 200 block of Washington Avenue.

Project consultants said they did not realize construction of a 734-space parking ramp over an alley would even be a point of contention.

“The alley is not a core feature of the Warehouse District,” Historian Charlene Roise told the Heritage Preservation Commission at a recent hearing, referring to the alley next to the Monte Carlo building. Roise is serving as consultant to the Pacific’s development team. “Today, it just goes into a parking lot.”

Heritage Preservation and Zoning & Planning commissioners disagreed, voting that elimination of the 150-year-old alley would negatively impact building bulk and scale, and ultimately hurt the historic character of the neighborhood.

According to a study by Hess Roise & Co., an historical consultant for projects such as the Pacific and Foshay Tower, alleys platted in 1855 ran mid-block parallel to Washington Avenue, except for T-shaped alleys on the blocks between Hennepin and 1st avenues. Most of the original alleys still exist today, according to the study.

Rolf Anderson, who prepared the Warehouse District’s application to the National Register of Historic Places and gives summer tours of the Warehouse District, said alleys clearly show how the industrial area worked in relationship to the rail line.

“Features other than buildings help us understand and recognize meaningful history,” Rolf said. “My concern is the impact that cumulative changes can have over time. ... These days, threats are more subtle, with slow subtractions of things we used to see.”

Frank Martin, a landscape historian, said Downtown’s large blocks up to 300 feet long need alleys to retain a pedestrian scale. He said alleys have gradually disappeared in the Downtown core during construction of massive buildings that take up full or half blocks, such as the City Center, Block E and IDS Center.

“Historically that’s what’s happened throughout Downtown; in fact, the only reason there are alleys left in the Warehouse District is that that area was economically ignored for 50 years,” Martin said.

A few back alleys today have been adapted for commercial use. The Monte Carlo has a sidewalk caf/ in its brick-paved alley, Gardner’s Hardware drops anvils each year on cars parked in its alley and Champps opened its outdoor alley caf/ about 11 years ago.

“We’re the second-largest seating area Downtown outside,” said Champps General Manager Dan Lee. “It’s my money-maker; it’s a hot spot to be on weekends.”

The issue of historic street grid preservation has also surfaced in relation to DeLaSalle High School’s bid to construct a football stadium over Grove Street on Nicollet Island.

In that case, Zoning and Planning Committee members said the preservation of the historic street alignment via Grove Street was too much of an abstract concept. Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward) described his vote to allow construction over Grove Street in terms of the road’s place in history.

“For Grove Street, nothing ever happened,” he said. “None of the original buildings are there, and the road was rebuilt. Other streets are far more important on Nicollet Island that helped circulate traffic.”

Dennis Gimmestad, who handles review and compliance for the State Historic Preservation Office, said federal standards mention circulation patterns but do not specifically address alleys. That leaves flexibility for city officials to decide whether to save alleys or historic streets on a case-by-case basis. How an alley impacts an historic district remains a matter of interpretation.

“There is an emphasis on street faades with commercial buildings,” Gimmestad said, “but the back of a building is often more interesting than the front. It’s how commerce worked. ... Preservation of historic properties is more than just windows and doors and walls. It’s looking at the overall feeling of a district.”