Escondido’s Alleyways of Opportunity

Published Monday, September 9th, 2013 by Dave Woods

Late last year, I saw something really cool while on a trip to Seattle:

A well-designed Seattle alleyway featuring landscaping, durable concrete surfacing, overhead lights, and windows overlooking the alley from adjoining buildings.

Ok, I’ll admit it… I’m either a little strange or a bit nerdy (maybe both) to classify an alleyway as something "really cool" that deserves to be photographed while on vacation. But as someone who loves design, architecture, and urban planning, I couldn’t help but notice some really fascinating and innovative design elements:

  • A durable concrete road surface
  • Landscaping lining the alleyway
  • Windows and balconies overlooking the alley
  • Overhead lighting

Stop for a minute and think about the alleyways we have here in Escondido. There are more of them than you may realize — not only is Grand Avenue flanked by alleyways, but they are prevalent throughout Old Escondido and adjoining neighborhoods. Do they look like this? Not exactly. Most Escondido alleyways have:

  • Very old asphalt surfaces, most of which are crumbling (some were never even paved to begin with)
  • Little or no landscaping
  • No windows or other views onto the alleyways
  • Virtually no overhead or street lights of any kind

We tend to forget and disregard alleyways in predominantly suburban areas like North San Diego County. But the fact is, we ought to start paying more attention to them, especially here in Escondido. Imagine for a moment if our alleyways instead rivaled the one I saw in Seattle. Rehabilitating our alleys in this fashion could yield tremendous benefits for Downtown Escondido, including:

Increased safety

Regardless of actual crime statistics, our Escondido alleyways feel like undesirable places where you’re more likely to be attacked or robbed at night. In Seattle, the addition of overhead lamps and windows overlooking the alley turn it into a focal point. With more light and eyes on the corridor, suddenly an alleyway doesn’t feel so threatening anymore.

Making life easier for pedestrians and bike riders

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about making Escondido’s roadways a better place for walkers and bikers. In the city’s urban core, improved concrete alleyways free of potholes could serve as ideal avenues for pedestrians and bicyclists. Not only are the alleys relatively free of automobiles, but there simply isn’t much room left on Grand and many other nearby streets to add bike lanes and wider sidewalks. That makes the alleyway a much more attractive option for turning Escondido into a community that values people just as much as cars.

Solving downtown’s parking "problem"

Everyone loves the charm of Grand Avenue. All the store entrances are located there so, naturally, people want to park right "in front" of their desired destination.

Yet where are most of the parking spaces located? Not on Grand. Instead, they are on the numerous city parking lots that surround Grand with access from Second Avenue and Valley Parkway.

The problem today is two-fold — when you park in one of those surrounding lots, you first have to cross the "dark scary alleyway," then you have to try and go in the rear entrance of your desired business, which is usually locked and uninviting. This forces people to want to park in the limited-availability parallel spots on Grand, thus reinforcing the perception that our downtown has a parking problem.

We need to face facts: Most of us in Escondido love the suburban convenience of parking right in front of a store in a strip mall, and that behavior is unlikely to change. Our downtown should consider embracing this fact rather than fighting it.

I believe we all need to collectively rethink what constitutes the "front" of a downtown business. If the city could upgrade the alleyways to make them more safe and inviting, and if the adjoining business owners could do the same for their rear entrances (open doors and lush rear patios would be awesome), the results could be amazing. No doubt, customers would be more encouraged to shop downtown because they’d have the same front-row convenience of parking at a strip mall no matter where they choose to park.

Now, it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on the Seattle alleyway pictured above? Would you support it if the City of Escondido spent resources to give our alleyways similar upgrades? Chime in with your comments below:


Join the discussion! 7 comments so far...

  1. What a wonderful idea. Making allies friends instead of foes. I owned a business on EVP years ago. Parking out front was not that good, but we had a back door. We were the only business to utilize the back door. Our patrons loved it. The walk was actually shorter and safer for them.
    We do need to do something with our allies so all citizens would feel safer when in that area.

    Comment by Jennie McFarling on September 9, 2013 at 6:25 PM

  2. I think it's a "Grand" idea, but I don't like the look of this Seattle alley. It just looks like a more sterile place to be mugged. The lighting is a good idea, but I think Escondido can come up with a warmer feel for our alleys. Maybe brick instead of concrete? How about some rooftop restaurants? Plants in planter boxes? Metal cylinders at the ends so that only bicycles and foot traffic can pass through? Continue the look of Maple Street?

    Comment by Giselle Embry on September 9, 2013 at 6:32 PM

  3. Love, love, love this idea! I remember several times while I was in college my friends and I would want to go to a downtown event, but were often quickly discouraged by the lack of safe parking options. Having well lit alleys with windows is such a simple and relatively inexpensive way to open up downtown to more people.

    Comment by Jessica Fritz on September 10, 2013 at 4:10 AM

  4. Great idea, as are they all on Think Grand.

    I just wanted to observe that the Escondido Creek Trail is kind of like an alley, with the way you describe it here. It just happens to also be a regional waterway and Class A bike and pedestrian path too.

    There is a growing group of volunteers that is working together to "reveal the creek," that is, rediscover all that it has to offer...in light of today's world. Similar to the ways that cities have featured dynamic, engaging pedestrian-only streetscapes since ancient times, the Escondido Bike Trail offers all of that plus panoramic views, wildlife, connectivity with regional trail networks and much more.

    Both with alleys and the Escondido Creek Trail, we are limited or unlimited by our imaginations (which lead to energy, teamwork and successful community progress,) so I applaud this creative look at Escondido's "hidden" streetscapes.

    Comment by Katie Ragazzi on September 11, 2013 at 7:30 AM

  5. Hi Dave,

    Very nice article on the alleyways. They certainly can be nicely done. Like anything, all it takes is money and or focused attention.

    As a Grand Avenue merchant, we're lucky enough to have a small parking lot in the rear of our business on the alley. In the four years since we've moved in, we've built some ad hoc planters from recycled materials, we've planted water wise plants and trees that now offer shade, and we've made a point of doing a general trash pick-up several times a week.

    I have noticed that the city hasn't been cleaning the alleyways in the last couple of years. Since I've noticed over the last couple years that the city hasn't been maintaining the alleyways, I would like the city to at consider running a street sweeper in the alleyway twice per month. Barring that, (and speaking as a board member of the Escondido Downtown Business Association) maybe there is something we can do together. I am open to suggestion feel free to contact me at 760-740-0658 or danf@designmoe.com. .

    Comment by Dan Forster on September 11, 2013 at 2:46 PM

  6. Love love love this idea. A friend was in Spain earlier this year and commenting on how beautiful alleys they have! I don't see any downside to improving our alleyways (I also agree with improving the Creek Walk), I only see improved safety, better access for businesses, and a wonderful canvas for beauty!!

    Comment by Susi Hansen on September 24, 2013 at 5:42 PM

  7. I have been wishing for YEARS for attention to our alleys that have so much potential! I drive a few of the Old Escondido Neighborhood alleys periodically just for the interest of it. There you catch architectural glimpses of days gone by that cannot really be reproduced or replaced once defaced or eliminated. Think old barn doors on barn door hardware, gated doors that hint of an old stable, tin rooftops, board and batten siding, old glass in windows, funky crowded juxtaposition of a mix of historical hints. Not that we can/want to make the neighborhood alleys a destination point, but maybe some of that flavor can be installed into an alley or two downtown. We could have alleys that each have a different theme of some of our existing or developing faces of Escondido's personality. An old Mexico, An old agricultural Escondido, and a modern style (fitting the personality of the recently built downtown condos). In Rochester, MN there is a plaza that can be reserved and rented for family/group events. Maybe maintenance for these areas could be subsidized by occasional allowance of alley rental made available on a staggered basis, always leaving general public access available to at least some of the areas. Also, it would be awesome if some of the alley idea could come to play in extending the idea to some rooftop/upper story balcony access that allows you to look down on Grand from a few points. A series of rooftop to rooftop patios could be great fun. Perhaps the structure could be independent of the building underneath, in order to avoid load issues, and patios probably wouldn't have the height restriction issues.

    Comment by Carolyn Bonk on September 25, 2013 at 10:30 AM


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