COLUMBIA — Columbia’s alleys might have never before received so much attention.
In the past few months, the image of the passageways has changed from an utilitarian afterthought to an untapped opportunity for downtown businesses.
Although property owner John Ott is ready to move forward with his plans to develop an alley-front business a half-block south of Broadway, the City Council has decided to slow the process.
The council on Oct. 15 tabled an ordinance that would have named five downtown alleys and cleared the way for businesses to get formal addresses and construction permits. The decision to table the idea came in response to City Manager Bill Watkins’ concerns about the demands of maintaining the alleys. In addition, several council members took issue with trying to name the alleys before determining whether they are suitable for development.
“We had the cart ahead of the horse,” Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said.
Watkins has serious doubts about the potential of the alley Ott is developing south of Broadway, saying it’s too narrow. But he understands the economic potential of developing it and other alleys, and he generally supports the idea.
“Buildings along Broadway are an unusual size. Splitting them up makes economic sense,” Watkins said, referring to Ott’s desire to establish separate businesses at the rear of his Broadway properties.
Once the council determines whether the alleys are ready for business, the city should create standards for them before development begins, Watkins said. He acknowledged that process could take a long time but said that if development were to begin in multiple alleys there would be “pressure to provide a full set of services.”
Ott said he would expect that if the city allows alley storefronts, it would maintain them like roads or streets. Still, he said, “I am willing to accept my share of responsibilities.”
For the time being, Ott is waiting. He has already invested in his project in the alley behind the 900 block of Broadway by cleaning up graffiti and doing electrical work. But he can do little more until he gets an address, a city inspection and a construction permit. None of which can happen until the alleys are named.
Although Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser believes Ott’s plan would be a good use for the alley space, she does not believe the process should be expedited on behalf of one person.
“I don’t like the idea of policy being driven to accommodate one specific plan,” Nauser said.
Ott agrees but is frustrated by the slow progress.
“I don’t think the policy should be set because of one person’s request,” Ott said. “I am trying to keep the project going in a businesslike manner.”
Public safety is another concern for alley storefront businesses. Andrew Dolan, a manager of the Cherry Street Artisan, 111 S. Ninth St., believes inadequate lighting is a problem in the alleys. Unsafe lighting is also an issue for the Columbia Police Department.
“That’s our main concern,” Police Chief Randy Boehm said. “We really haven’t taken a close look yet. We just want to make sure that issue is considered in the decision.”
Watkins worries that fire trucks, ambulances and snow plows will not fit in the alleys.
Battalion Chief Steven Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department agreed.
“A fire truck will not be able to ‘fit’ into an alley,” Sapp said in an e-mail response to Missourian questions. “We have never planned to use the alleys for fire apparatus passage with or without business entrances.
“... We do need clear and unobstructed access to any businesses that may use the alley as the main entrance/exit,” Sapp continued. “Alleys are often cluttered with trash bins and compactors and sometimes other items such as deliveries and materials.”
Dumpsters and compactors are one of the main obstructions in the alleys, Watkins said.
One of the biggest issues is where Dumpsters would be placed if alleys were used for storefront businesses. Sandra Ferguson, owner of Allen’s Flowers, at 201 S. Ninth St., agreed.
“I think (developed alleys) would definitely enhance downtown, and the only thing we need to figure out is a place to put the Dumpsters,” Ferguson said.
As a pilot project, Ott and the Special Business District on Thursday will relocate six Dumpsters behind his business in the alley between Broadway and Cherry Street. This 60-day test will determine whether business owners will walk a few blocks to throw out their trash.
“I am skeptical that bigger restaurants that have bigger garbage and grease are going to want to carry bags and bags blocks and blocks,” Watkins said.
The council plans to discuss the alley initiative again at its Nov. 5 meeting. Watkins said he plans to meet with Ott beforehand to discuss potential solutions.