A vacated alley at Market Station, a mixed-use residential, office, and retail center in the heart of downtown Denver, provided access to a central paseo from all four surrounding blocks. (David Lauer)

In Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, an interesting addition to the urban fabric has emerged over the past five years in the form of activated streets and alleyways that serve as a connective tissue for art, entertainment, culture, and gathering.

Beginning with Dairy Block, and more recently with the openings of Market Station and McGregor Square, LoDo now boasts a near-continuous connective thread of activated alleys. And by closing Larimer Square to vehicles (at least for the foreseeable future), people can now traverse a long stretch of unique pedestrian-friendly environments – from Denver’s most historic block to its newest entertainment district.

The Alley at the award-winning Dairy Block micro-district was designed to be a celebration of the maker, offering artful and unexpected experiences with access to an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars, and retail outlets, along with the independent Maven hotel.

In early October, ULI Colorado’s Building Healthy Places committee hosted a panel to discuss our new age of activated alleyways.  Jon Buerge of Urban Villages served as moderator; and our panelists included Sharon Alton of the Downtown Denver Partnership; Don Cloutier, general manager of the Dairy Block; Daniel Aizenmann, Stantec’s design principal for McGregor Square; and Roger Pecsok with Continuum, developer of Market Station. The panel shared the driving vision behind their respective projects, how the original design themes emerged, and lessons learned in the process that could be applied to other projects in urban environments.

Vision

Each of the activated alleyways has a unique underlying theme based on context and target demographic. The design and programming responded to bring to life the experience the project leaders envisioned.

Branding and Activation

By far, the most important decision in developing a project around an activated alley is theming, branding, and activation. Without trying to be all things to all people, mixed-use alley activated projects must appeal to broad and diverse audiences, while also establishing their own unique identity within the mix of other entertainment options in the area. Establishing a ‘wow’ factor is key – we’re talking about enticing people into a space typically avoided in most urban environments – but design alone won’t activate a project. Year-round, day-to-night programming that aligns with the brand is key, while also creating broad appeal among diverse user groups.

Curated Retail

Selecting the ‘right’ retail for a particular location is as much about creating the right chemistry as it is about following a particular formula. Cloutier of Dairy Block avoided national tenants and looked for companies with a ‘B-Corporation mentality’ – locally operated, digitally native, socially and environmentally conscious– as well as concepts that made sense for the project goals and appealed to the entertainment and shopping aspirations of LoDo’s live-work-play consumers.

Market Station’s retail was curated to appeal to Denver’s outdoor recreation crowd, with a design that responded with a “base camp” theme in a central paseo (path or promendade). By attracting the only brick and mortar Thule’ store and the nation’s second Danner Boots location, this mixed-use destination balances an aggregation of large and small retailers and food concepts with supporting programming in the paseo.

Experiential Opportunities

The Downtown Denver Partnership’s art alleys project was driven by a desire bring art to public spaces, increase safety, and contribute to the branding of downtown Denver by placing works of art in alleys.  Working with building owners and managers, the Partnership installed art in eight alleys along the 16th Street Mall. Alton indicated these works did increase foot traffic, while also serving to increase safety and elevate branding through social media and ‘Instagrammable moments’.

Programming

There were diverse approaches to design based on the need to plan for any event that may occur in the space as well as support organic growth. At McGregor Square, Aizenmann explained how the content of the space is the experience. The design team employed ‘experience mapping’ to consider any and all uses of the space, and responded with the infrastructure and design to support the deployment of those activities – from game day viewing and to outdoor movie might to fitness, arts, and private events.

The panelists also agreed that there is a fine balance between curating versus reacting to what the market is telling you over time. Real places are organic, providing opportunities for life to happen in spontaneous and unexpected ways – and the design should support that.

Connections

Our panelists agreed that taking advantage of nearby entertainment destinations, and providing logical and visually intuitive circulation from adjacent venues into the alley spaces was a key part of early decision-making processes. At McGregor Square, Stantec set the alley on a diagonal, so that the terminus on either end led to the home base and third base entrances at Coors Field – a visual and physical connection to the theme of the activated alleyway. Market Station oriented dining along 17th Street to draw people from nearby Union Station, and four uniquely branded entries from the surrounding blocks draw people into the central passageway.

Adjacent to Denver’s Coors Field for Major-League Baseball, McGregor Square was an outdoor destination during baseball’s All-Star Game in the summer of 2021. (Teri Fotheringham)

(Stantec)

Lessons Learned

Get Creative with Existing Spaces

Often in existing alleyways, the challenge is dealing with existing entrance/egress points. By design, these were not light-filled, pedestrian-friendly spaces. Even in historic areas, however, the panel highlighted ways of working within the existing built environment. Buerge shared his experience with the Railspur project in Seattle, where they were able to work with historic preservation to add new penetrations for doors and windows to buildings in the alleys, because it didn’t change the outer walls of the buildings. This allowed them to turn the alleys through an entire city block of 150-year-old buildings into a mixed-use development, with the entrances to a hotel, multifamily community and office building opening to the alley.

Consider Parking and Service

Pecsok shared how the parking at their Market Station development was, surprisingly, a more challenging fit for institutional investors than the retail mix. Their decision to install an underground stacked parking system with valet operation was based on the fact that user groups for Market Station are divided between residential, office and retail, so surges for parking demand between user groups would be minimized.

Back-of-house services are also handled in different ways in an activated alley. McGregor Square has underground service. Dairy Block has trash in a storage area off the alley. Market Station vacated the alley, and service functions were moved into an adjacent an area off the central Paseo. Carefully considering these elements in light of the changing function of the alley space is a vital part of ensuring a seamless experience from the patron experience to the behind-the-scenes functionality.

Roll with Evolution of Retail

Finding the right mix of retailers is never a done deal – businesses are changing all the time and developers and property management teams must roll with the changes and anticipate shifts in trends. The urban core of Denver, for example, hasn’t quite evolved to a point to support a high volume of retailers in supplies, soft goods, apparel and leather. There are other sub-markets where these concepts do quite well. In the downtown sub-market, the consensus was that it’s more important right now to focus retail on businesses that are also able to increase their foot traffic through savvy digital marketing and sales – like service providers, floral, jewelry, and destination entertainment.

Connection Is the Future

The biggest takeaway from the panel was the massive opportunity that exists in this ‘third place’ in our current urban environments. Activating alleyways offers the potential for stronger connections, safer, more exciting pedestrian experiences, new opportunities for economic development and ultimately a more vibrant urban core.

LaDONNA BAERTLEIN is director of business development at DigStudio, a studio of experienced team of planners, landscape architects and designers capable of delivering everything from complex regional plans to public plazas and pocket parks.