Ben Walker likes to watch the parades on Main Avenue from the balcony of his business, STIR Research, but occasionally, spectacles can be found in the alley behind his office, too.
In the rush of the holiday excitement, love-struck teens will sneak away from their parents on the sidewalk for more privacy in the alley, said Walker, who has caught more than a few in passionate embrace.
“There will be two of them leaning against our car, making out until I beep the horn. They jump up, ‘Oh, is this your car?’” recalled Walker, chuckling.
Perhaps the teens should not feel so embarrassed because, after all, alleys are meant to be hideaways.
In Durango, many secrets and hidden functions can be found in the alleys, whether it be lovers necking, marijuana for sale or the buried sewer lines.
Hiding the unsightly
Because of the recession, the city has lacked funding to pave its dirt alleys, but the backstreets are coming back in fashion nationally as an outlet for narrow and urban lots, a hallmark of the New Urbanism movement.
In Durango, the alley is getting some new appreciation, too.
Despite its small size, Durango hardly fits a “suburban demographic,” said Todd Messenger, a planning consultant for the city of Durango. Fifty-two percent of the households are renters, and just a quarter of households have children 18 or younger.
Alleys are becoming more important with the push from City Council to ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units, such as garage apartments at the back of a residential lot. The intent is to open more opportunities for people to live downtown.
As part of the proposed revision to the city’s Land Use Development Code, the width of an alley for a new subdivision or development would be expanded to 24 feet, which compares with the current standard of 20 feet.
The larger width is meant to accommodate a grassy or permeable surface to one side of the concrete alley where the utilities would be buried, making them more accessible for maintenance. Trash containers would be kept on the opposite side of the alley. Snow would be plowed to the utilities side.
“The homeowner on the utility side is going to complain, but you have to do something with the snow,” Messenger said at a recent study session.
City officials also think the 20-foot width of alleys is too snug.
“It’s hard for vehicles just to maneuver,” senior consultant Greg Hoch said.
“You’re weaving (to get through them),” Mayor Doug Lyon said.
The mayor likes the idea of a grassy alley strip to access the utilities.
“If you have to get to a gas or sewer line in my alley, you go straight through the pavement,” Lyon said.
The mayor would prefer it if more utilities could be buried and out of view.
“If you look out my backyard, it’s just a forest of wires going from the alleys to the houses,” he said.
Joking about the city’s push to minimize synthetic pesticides, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said that the grassy alley strips will be “organic, and we’ll be able to spray it.”
There are other ways that alleys reflect the character of Durango.
Living in the alley
Andy Taylor, 21, rents a cottage in the alley on the east side of the 900 block of East Fourth Avenue, about half a block north of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The cottage has few windows. Drunks occasionally have stumbled in, wanting to sleep on his floor.
“Right before school started, there were a lot of parties. I had two incidents,” he said.
At night, he occasionally can hear bears nibbling from fruit trees outside.
Taylor likes the location for the proximity to Fort Lewis College, the downtown and the Skate Park by the Animas River.
The homeless people he sees at the Skate Park often will pass through his alley en route to the woods downhill from the college, where they will camp for the night.
“If you’re here once the sun goes down, all the people come up from the skate park. They essentially use this as their route to the hills,” Taylor said.
At $850 a month for an 800-square-foot home, Taylor is looking for a cheaper place to stay. One perk he will miss is listening to the rehearsals of St. Mark’s choir.
Making money in the alley
In a marketing move that is equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons, Doug Boykin has made a pun on his hair salon’s obscure location in the alley on the east side of Main Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets, calling it Incognito. The name seems to appeal to the salon’s many male customers.
“It’s cool, it’s not feminine,” not so “girly” for a hair salon, Boykin said.
Sometimes it is difficult for customers to find the place.
“It’s a little tricky giving directions. I usually use Steamworks (Brewing Co.) as my reference. Most people know that business,” he said. “It’s in the alley below Steamworks, with some emphasis on ‘below.’”
The rent is “cheaper than Main, but it’s not cheap. We’re too close to Main to be cheap, (but) it’s totally reasonable,” Boykin said.
On the downside, the alley rarely is plowed in winter. Because alleys are not considered thoroughfares, they’re a lower priority for the snowplow crews, LeBlanc said.
Because Incognito is in the alley, it does not seem to get the same respect as a business on Main Avenue.
The Local Licensing Board blocked a medical-marijuana dispensary from relocating to Main Avenue on the basis that it would affect its neighbors adversely but voted to allow a dispensary to move into the alley next to Incognito.
City Attorney David Smith, who happens to be a customer of Incognito, offered his regrets but said there were insufficient legal grounds to deny the application. Boykin had objected about possible crime and marijuana odors.
Smith did not respond to email questions about the seeming discrepancy between the two decisions. LeBlanc, who is chairman of the licensing board, did not think the two situations were comparable, particularly because the Main Avenue dispensary would have been next to candy stores frequented by children.
Sante Alternative Wellness, which will relocate across the alley, currently is next to a pottery-painting business called the Clay Room that also serves kids.
Boykin smells a double standard.
“They don’t want (medical marijuana) on Main Street, but they’re all right with it in the alley. It is kind of silly,” he said.