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From dingy to distinct: Iowa City transforming downtown alley

Downtown District envisions draw for merchants and customers

Artwork pictured Feb. 21 covers some walls in the alley that goes from Dubuque to Linn streets in Iowa City. The Iowa Ci
Artwork pictured Feb. 21 covers some walls in the alley that goes from Dubuque to Linn streets in Iowa City. The Iowa City Downtown District is spearheading efforts to transform the alley, turning it from an uninviting space to essentially a second storefront for businesses there. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — When Bob Franklin was considering leasing the former Blue Moose in downtown Iowa City and transforming it into a Nashville-inspired music venue, it wasn’t the space or location that got the deal across the finish line for him.

It was the alley.

More specifically, it was the plan Iowa City’s Downtown District has to transform that space from a dank and uninviting stretch between Dubuque and Linn streets to an attractive destination.

“I love it,” said Franklin. “That was probably the final selling point on that property. ... I stood there and watched people walking through it. You can look down it and you can see what can happen there with activating those back storefronts. I love what the vision is for it.”

Franklin is an Iowa native and University of Iowa graduate who now lives in Nashville and is part owner of Tin Roof — a bar, restaurant and live music venue with 18 locations across the country. Franklin said he has seen examples of cities that have taken alley spaces and activated them into vibrant, usable spaces, such as Printer’s Alley in Nashville, the Crossroads Art District in Kansas City and the Belt in Detroit.

With Franklin’s Iowa City venture — Elray’s Live and Dive — he said he is embracing that concept locally.

“I’ve seen this in other cities, and it’s fantastic,” he said. “I looked at it and said, ‘I’m going to have two great storefronts.’ This area is going to be amazing once it’s all done.”

The transformation effort is spearheaded by the Iowa City Downtown District and its executive director, Nancy Bird. Bird said it’s her organization’s mission to shape downtown and draw people to it. If successful, this endeavor will check both those boxes.

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Bird said there is ample demand for space downtown. An issue sometimes lies with the shape of downtown’s historic buildings.

“They’re long and linear,” Bird said. “And a lot of times, a good retail client will want the front end, but not the back end. ... Which makes them a little bit harder to fill.”

But Bird said merchants also know Iowa City’s customer base is largely “urbanly inclined.” They’re willing to park a block away or use a parking ramp and aren’t concerned with a little “urban exploration,” Bird said.

With that in mind, activating the alley creates new storefronts in those longer buildings and a new potential place for pedestrians to explore and engage, Bird said.

“You’re creating a new place in downtown where there wasn’t one before,” she said.

Bird said she knows the current alley needs some “work and love.”

The district already has worked to get potholes filled in the alley. The district has worked with the city, MidAmerican Energy and property owners to pave the way for installation of a public art lighting project that will span the top of the alley and likely debut this spring or summer. Murals already exist in the alley, with plans to add more.

“And then the next step is really to work on the solid waste and how to be more organized and coordinated around that,” Bird said. “Once we get that kind of figured out, you look to resurfacing and the alley becomes this completely different place.”

Wendy Ford, economic development coordinator for the city, said she thinks the alley transformation has “great potential.”

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“Just improved aesthetics invite more people into the area,” Ford said. “The more people there are walking around downtown or walking in any commercial area, the better it is for the retailers who operate there.”

Like Bird, Ford sees the alley transformation as a means to potentially get more use out of downtown buildings by dividing them up. A smaller, alley-facing space might be a more affordable option for a business just starting out, as well, Ford said.

“I see there are a number of upsides for being able to rethink how our old alley spaces have been used,” she said.

Bird envisions the reimagined alley as a place for cafe seating, micro-retail businesses and other opportunities for existing venues including Studio 13 and the Yacht Club.

Franklin said he already has plans to make use of the alley and second entrance at Elray’s Live and Dive. He wants to put signage for the venue in the back and have stages at both the front and rear entrances.

“We will be active boosters and participating in those plans,” Franklin said. “We love it.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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