March 21, 2006 > Alley Talk
Alley Talk is a series of articles by Paul Welschmeyer, AIA, a local architect, Niles resident and member of Fremont's Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) from 1991 - 98, has researched ownership and maintenance issues of the alleys of Niles. Over the years, this controversy has surfaced time after time and lapsed back into obscurity without resolution. The issues raised have broader implications for other city lands as well. Is it time to resolve this issue? The full text of Mr. Welschmeyer's journal will be reprinted in following issues of the Tri-City Voice.
"Alley" is still whispered
By Paul Welschmeyer
I forgot; why did the conversation stop?
The issue was coming up again - another client wanted to improve their property and use the Alley. I was told by the head of the Community Development Department that..."So much has changed in 10 years - be positive." I was so optimistic in the beginning: In the end, so disappointed that the situation - just got worse.
The City's attitude regarding the ownership issue has changed from a live-and-let-live attitude, to stripping alley access rights away from the property owners unless they legally prove their rights. In more concrete terms: in the past, the City allowed the Niles Congregational Church, which uses the Alley, to build its day-care facility adjacent to the alley without requiring them to legally prove they had the right.1 Now, everyone needs a lawyer. What's up?
It would be best for everyone to put the ownership issue behind us, stop the legal arguments, and move on to complete the revitalization of Niles.
Remembering what happened in 1993 took some time. I eventually recalled enough to ask some very specific questions of the City of Fremont - in writing. Utilizing the "Freedom of Information Act", I requested and received many documents, which answered my questions, and many others. The City never shared this information, because no one had asked. It is really quite astonishing.
How do you begin talking about the Alley subject which started 50 years ago, has never been resolved, and is a major deterrent to a full and healthy revitalization of Niles.
The only way is to jump in.
Just say the "A -word" and see what happens
It all started-up again when someone new moved into Niles and said the word.
As I understand, the term "A-word", was first coined by a City Council Member in the 1990's when dissuading an individual2 from discussing the subject, as in,
"There are many good things about to happen in Niles - just don't say the A-word." Since then, the term has been absorbed into local culture and continues to be whispered.
The following is a reprint of a spontaneous Niles e-group conversation which took place in 2005. It has been edited only to make e-speak corrections and to retain focus on the subject. The full conversations can be read at groups.yahoo.com/group/Niles/ for the months of June and July 2005.
Ron: "I just moved here from out of state and love Niles. It looks like the town is on the cusp of really turning into something even better, but I wanted to know what the deal is with the alleys? Why are they not paved or maintained to a higher level? Can the Fire Department easily access homes along the alley in an emergency?
Apologies if I am bringing up an issue that is already being dealt with, but I would love to see this change as I think it would continue to make Niles a fantastic and special place."
John: "You have raised an interesting point, which to my knowledge has not been identified in the long and disparate discussions on the Niles Alleys. Other than access to Fire Station Number 2 on 2nd Street, is there any intent by the Fremont Fire Department to utilize the Alleys for emergency vehicle access? The Alleys are the sole means of access for several properties in Niles."
Diana: "I just purchased a home on Iron Horse Lane, an alley. I was asking a friend who had lived on the same street for many years, the same question you have posed here. He said that the City has always treated it as the responsibility of the homeowners on the alleyways. But, I think it is time that the City realize that it is in their best interest to pave them. I have commented before that, in a one year time period on my block, two cars were hit, my gate was hit, the Library was hit, and another building was hit. People tend to drive too fast because they like the gravel or are trying to avoid main streets. They often hit rather large dips and probably lose control. I have named one seasonal puddle "Lake Iron Horse." The condition gets worse each year."
Kely: "Oh, the "Alley Issue" is back.
About 10 to 12 years ago a bunch of us in Niles asked the City to help maintain the alleys. There had been problems with emergency services, because those who lived on the alleys had addresses from the opposite streets. So to solve that problem the City named the alleys but insisted that they were private property. Apparently some residents' deeds state that their property ends at the alley, while other deeds include the alley. When Alameda County "gave" all the public roads, through fairs, and streets to the City of Fremont, the word "alleys" wasn't specifically noted, therefore the City refuses to take any responsibility. Since the City is in a perpetual budget crisis, I wouldn't get any hopes up that the City is going to do anything at all - EVER.
My take is that there's free land in Niles since some property owners don't have the land in their deeds, and the City says it's not theirs either. Can people still homestead?
Ron: This is great feedback! I talked to a neighbor and he told me about how Niles used to be its own town. When Niles incorporated into the City did it have some sort of agreement regarding the alleys?
Paul: It is sure is nice to hear conversations about the alleys are starting up again. It would be good to resolve this issue; otherwise our children are going to inherit the problem.
So, the City claims that they do not own the alleys! We did incorporate, didn't we? Well, that is like getting married and then at a later date claiming that " you weren't aware that your spouse's left arm was part of the marriage, and now that it is broken - you do not accept responsibility for it".
When the City says that they do not own the alleys - why do we believe them?
The City should be celebrating and promoting the use of the Alleys, but what happens instead, is denial."
Dirk: "Those are the key words, celebrate and promote. Ashland, Oregon and Port Townsend, Washington both have alleys that live, and add charm and ambiance not available on their major streets. The key is to empower the property owners to be able to beautify and make money off the things.
Asphalt would not be the most powerful choice here. Something on the human scale would have many times the value. Brick, cobbles, even high end rolled crushed rock would be far more appropriate. Shade trees or arbors with vines would go far toward turning these lanes into the attractive havens they could be. Street lights, sure, but low and warm."
Paul: "Those are passionate and powerful images you have, and represent - exactly - what Niles is all about. What prevents these ambitions and ideas from flourishing is the stifling non-support offered by the City.
Some years ago I had a wonderful Alley Cottage designed for a local resident which used the Alley for required parking access.
The project complied with all planning requirements except one, said the City Planner. The City denied the project because they said the Alleys were not recognized as an approved roadway, and therefore they could not allow a car to drive on it, to get to the required parking space. They suggested that the project should be redesigned with a 150 foot long driveway built from Second Street to the back of the property (at the Alley) where the garage was located and yes, the garage would have to be turned around with the back of it facing the Alley. This, the City felt - was good design.
This irrational, insensitive and anti-historic position the City has in regards to the use of the Alleys has to stop, if visions like yours are to flourish.
We need to do something, any suggestions?"
[End of Part 1]
1 My Wife was the project coordinator for the church during design and construction. There was never an issue of proving the legal right to use the alley for the Day Care facility.
2 If I recall correctly, I think it was myself.