Downtowns are the original live/work neighborhood. Traditionally, small business owners lived above their shop, which was a convenient and cost-effective way to sustain a household. Especially profitable business owners might live elsewhere, instead allowing employees to live above the business, which was both a good business practice (increasing employee availability) and an employee perk. Over time, social norms, development patterns and zoning standards in all but the largest cities made it less common, resulting in many upper floors being relegated to storage uses. The combination of shifting demographics, increasing demand for low-maintenance residential options within walking distance of amenities, and preference for unique architecture and authentic experiences has led to a resurgence in demand for downtown living space
In many communities demolition of nearby buildings or creation of new parking lots, have exposed previously hidden facades, yet these spaces lack any aesthetic appeal to welcome customers. Unlike the front façade, visual improvements in ancillary spaces can achieve a dramatic impact at little cost.
Not all alley renovations involve costly makeovers. There are many examples where the programming of the spaces made them destinations, rather than physical improvements. For instance, Buckham Alley in Flint, Michigan. Back in 2011, in an effort to attract pedestrian traffic to the businesses located alongside this downtown alley, local residents organized a one-day music festival called the Buckham Alley Fest. In that first year, they had nine bands, fifty vendors, and nearly 1,500 attendees.
In nearly every historic commercial district, there are two sides: the “public face”, which includes the storefront, the streetscape, and most of the activity; and the “behind-the-scenes area”, which includes the back alleys, utilities, and delivery zones. But more and more, these behind the-scenes spaces are being transformed into vibrant, active, public spaces, often for very little cost. And the great thing is, the “unfinished” or “gritty” appearance of these areas actually creates a perfect backdrop for the types of activities often held within them.