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Downtown alley art project coming soon

Monday, April 1, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

Inspired by places like Paris, Rome, and Seattle, Austin is getting creative with its alleys this month. World-traveled artist and architect Dan Cheetham will curate “20 FT Wide,” a pilot project that will transform the alley on 9th Street between Congress Avenue and Brazos into a creative space that aims to whet Austinites’ appetite for innovative repurposing of these existing resources.

“The art itself is very simple,” Cheetham says, “There’s really no budget for the project—everybody’s donating lots of time for this . . . We are going to string colored construction twine across the upper levels of the alley and connect it to metal rods that are attached to some of the alley’s existing features—fire escapes, etc.—in an effort to underline and bring visibility to the functional beauty of these elements.”

Cheetham came into the project through Art Alliance Austin, and his art installation will be the backdrop for a slate of events within this pop-up space. Cheetham is a University of Texas School of Architecture grad and has worked extensively on similar projects in San Francisco, Europe, and China. He hopes that “other people will get inspired to look at spaces in the environment that are sometimes taken for granted.”

“20 Ft. Wide” is the culmination of the tactical alley examination whose major proponent at the city is Council Member Kathie Tovo.

“Apparently in denser cities it’s pretty common to use the space you have,” said Shannon Halley, policy aide for Tovo, of their recent studies’ findings.

Halley added that renovating alley spaces downtown to serve “complex cultural purposes” has universally “created a rich atmosphere of discovery downtown” that is now rampant in older cities.

Halley said that Austin can follow this lead, “When you’re planning in a new urbanist sort of way sometimes you forget the rich, textured little niches.”

Downtown Commission Vice Chair Heather Way likewise sees other cities’ efforts as logical blueprints for opening up downtown space for more pedestrian and family oriented use. “Most of the growth in our suburbs is done by families with children,” Way said, “(20 FT Wide) will highlight what we see as opportunities (downtown).”

Way cites Seattle as a specific inspiration. A recent study in the Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook entitled “Activating Alleys for a Lively City,” found that alleys “can contribute around 50 percent of additional public space” to Seattle’s downtown. Per the study, there are 217,500 square feet of alleys in Seattle and 85 percent of this space is unused.

Potential uses cited include creating a more walkable city, green infrastructure, additional store frontages, places for children and the eldery, off-street spaces for cultural activity.

For his part, Cheetham says that logistical road blocks for “20 Ft. Wide” have been minimal, like the Austin Fire Department mandating fire-retardant material for the art, and things like access for garbage collection.  

“This is a pilot project,” Cheetham said, “The conversation started small and it’s growing every day. In the future we can identify all of the various city departments and constituencies and stakeholders and involve them early on.”

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