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April 4, 2006 > "Alley" is still whispered (Part II)

"Alley" is still whispered (Part II)

by Paul Welschmeyer

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?

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?"

Dirk: "You know, as in anything, a lot of the uncertainty could be resolved by simply initiating positive changes. Owners, or empowered renters, with property abutting the alleys are the natural torch bearers in this. If these people are not motivated to make "meaningful places" out of their part of the alleys, it is highly doubtful that character-filled enrichment, and true comfort and inspiration will ever come to reside here. Master plans are simply incapable of instilling the charm that dozens of unique treatments effortlessly weave together.

"Talk is easy, Good Building is hard", is another way to say it.

The fact that people may want to volunteer or contribute is a wonderful empowerment, if the principals involved are sincerely motivated to make the small changes which can lead to establishing a firm positive identity and create momentum toward further, larger "improvements". Once individual and community energy and money is invested, the vision can start to emerge, the place begins to speak for itself, and become respected as worth preserving - able to attract ongoing attention and investment.

That first part is the leap of faith. After the inertia builds, it's a no-brainer.

People love Niles, and want to help it truly bloom, but it takes leadership, dedication, risky investment, and brazen initiative on the part of people who have valid stakes - or a certainty of vision - to test the waters. Then maybe, finally, we will get some real horsepower going."

Paul: "I do differ with you, that after the community inertia is built, everything else is a no-brainer.

The City is the obstacle. Our plight, as eloquently articulated to me one day by an experienced local, was..."Imagine that we (Nilians) are the historic town of Mendocino but we are governed by Orange County." The City of Fremont does not even have zoning regulations for our 50' wide lots with alley access. They consider our properties substandard to Fremont's "Manifest Destiny" of suburban sprawl, which is now complete.

I think the year was 1997 when my block took charge and graveled our alley. At the time we mentioned the need to the City's Public Works Department and they emphatically replied, "Do not tell us, because if you do, we will require asphalt or concrete paving and civil engineering drawings." To top it off, they could not allow us to do this work because they said we would have to prove we had the right to use the alley - even though we do every day. We had mud holes, drug problems, trash and general blight: Our alley is clean and safe now.

The point is, Fremont was going to prevent us from "Improving the quality of our town, and our lives" - so we did it ourselves. Fremont government must change its attitude toward the alleys.

I propose that we go to the Historic Architectural Review Board and request that the Alleys be identified as Historic Resources. This will require the City to commission an historic evaluation of the Alleys, which will determine their significance in defining the character of Niles. The report will conclude that the Alleys are eligible for the State Register of Historic Resources.

If we accomplish this, the alleys will be protected. We will have declared in a binding, governing manner, that the use of the Alleys should be celebrated and promoted in order to enhance and protect Niles."

Dirk: "I oversimplified the case, a no-brainer is out of the question in any ongoing relationship between citizen groups and a governing bureaucracy.

The "Institutional Memory" is only binding and contained in official status and legal standings such as you propose. What I meant to convey was just how far along independent action can get you in the meantime, such as the progress you all made in 1997 in the both the physical and attitude realms.

Niles citizenry is not at the beginning of the learning and experience curve on the alleys, we are some way along in the understanding of what the obstacles are for their respect and proper care, and what steps might be taken next to secure their protection into the future.

There are at least a few cautions and caveats to all this recognition, of course. Once the alleys are officially "on the radar", they will be subject to a set of guidelines and standards that may or may not be, enforced over time. The folks entrusted to draft the language and make the maps to preserve and protect "the character" of Iron Horse Lane and Victory Lane may find that less micromanaging is more productive in the long run. After all, the creative forces which have shaped the alley environment up until recently have been conspicuously free of "guidelines"! It should be considered that alley front owners may be giving up a measure of creative freedom which stems from the present benign neglect on the part of the City.

However, there can be little doubt that we need a legal way to accomplish the possibility of things like driveways in projects such as your cottage proposed, and other imaginative uses, so things can start to happen in pleasing and lively way.

In any good treatment of the alleys, the trick will be to provide for basics like setbacks, drainage, lighting, paving, etc. without losing the feeling which we enjoy now when sections of the alleys are at their best. This may mean doing things a little differently to support something unique, which we value above the conventional."

Paul: "That's leadership! - Well said.

So when the Alleys become a recognized Historic Resource, their use will be encouraged, preserved and protected - mostly from the illusive policies of the City of Fremont. As Niles picks up the Alley issue again, some history needs to be recalled.

City policies - what policies?

Nothing has ever been publicly debated or voted on by the City Council. It took 40 years for the City to claim that they have no responsibilities for the alleys, and this came after they intended to pave them in 1984. There are complete engineering drawings on this project (PWC-391 - Niles Alleys). The last time alley discussions made it to the City Council was in the mid-1990s. There was no public debate because the City Council had a "closed door" meeting with their attorney. What was the secrecy for? What are they hiding? How did our community let this happen without debate or a vote? Isn't this type of action considered unconstitutional?

Out of this "closed door" meeting the city's position changed from laissez-faire support to removing access rights. This is their current position:

1. The City does not own them and takes no responsibility for their condition.

2. If a property owner wishes to make improvements to their property in Niles, and they intend to use the alley for access to their property, they must legally prove they have the right to use them (even if they have been using them for the past 100 years), and then, they are required to pave them.

The reason I mention this again, is only to counter your description of the City's position as "benign neglect". It appears to be willful - at the expense of historic stewardship, and the quality of Niles.


So, it is easy to see what reactions the word "Alley" evokes. Whether these facts and opinions are accurate is not the point. The reality is this is what the community still thinks and remembers.

(End of Part II)

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