WILMINGTON – Many passageways between the buildings of downtown Wilmington could shorten pedestrians’ walks through the city. Often due to the uncleanliness, darkness and overall uninviting environment, people opt for the long way around.
The City of Wilmington is resetting its sights on an effort to change that. Alongside Wilmington Downtown, Inc., the organization providing services to the downtown district, the city is seeking public input to identify what changes are needed to encourage increased utilization of the city-owned alleys.
The goal is to “activate” the passages, according to Erris Dunston, the assistant to the city manager for economic development. Possibilities include extra seating for restaurants, space for musical performances, small gathering areas, lighting, planters and public art, such as murals.
“We want to also make sure that they’re safe, welcoming places,” said WDI president Holly Childs, “so that you don’t think that an alley is a dark, uninviting place whenever you’re going from your office to your car.”
The city and WDI are hosting a public engagement session at the Wilmington Convention Center on April 15 at 3 p.m. The meeting will be held simultaneously over Zoom for folks who would like to attend virtually. Originally scheduled for last week, the meeting was postponed due to severe weather warnings.
The feedback is expected to reveal how people use the alleys, which are popular and what features the public would prefer to see in them. Dunston explained the improvements could contribute to economic development for the city.
“It helps to increase attractiveness, especially when you activate them with pieces of art, and that type of thing,” Dunston said. “It makes it a destination.”
People also commonly use alleys as backdrops for photoshoots, she noted.
Design consulting firm McAdams is working with the city on the project. Initially, the partners are analyzing the heavily traveled Vance Alley, at 228 N. Front St., to see what is possible within the space and assess the cost.
Vance Alley is already one of the cleaner passageways in the city and is in the center of revitalization downtown. The neighboring Gaylord building was recently renovated into Common Desk, a trendy coworking space.
Vance Alley is now frequently used by people walking to and from the New Hanover County parking deck and businesses along Front Street, including the new shared workspace next door.
“We thought we should start with this one and see what else we can do to make this alley be a showpiece – a model alley – of what we want to create in other places in the city,” Childs said.
Across the street, the city is also renovating Bijou Park, another shortcut between Front and Water streets between two buildings. The revitalization of the pocket park is expected to achieve some of the same goals as the Vance Alley revamp: emphasized safety, improved connectivity and reactivation of the park, with features such as overhead lighting, dining space and decorative screen panels.
The City of Wilmington started looking at improving alleyways in 2018, beginning with drainage and other issues in Bettencourt Alley, located south of Market Street, between Front and 2nd. The city went through a process of identifying the practical uses for each alley. It found that while some were largely purposed for vehicular traffic, others served downtown restaurants and businesses with space for dumpsters.
The city identified about seven to eight “pedestrian alleys” that were ideal for “activating” based on their safeness, lighting and drainage.
After Hurricane Florence, the project to improve the alleys fell on the city’s priority list. It attempted to restart the efforts in 2020 until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Who: City of Wilmington and McAdams
What: Vance Alley public engagement meeting
Where: The Wilmington Convention Center or Zoom
When: Thursday, April 15, 3 p.m.
Why: A brief presentation and discussion on transforming Vance Alley “into a welcoming and comfortable pedestrian environment”
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