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It happened between announcements about big, flashy projects like the Celestial Beacon, Festival Plaza and the Distillery District.

City council approved establishing minimum standards for alleys.

That might not seem iconic, like the spectacular canopy proposed for Festival Plaza.

But it’s key to transforming Windsor’s historic core neighbourhoods. And it has the potential to create some very cool public places.

Many of our alleys are crumbling, infested with weeds and strewn with garbage. In the summer, the smell wafts out to the streets.

We treat them like dumps, and that’s what they look like.

But this is about seeing these public spaces differently. It’s about hidden assets and untapped resources.

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An alley in downtown Windsor west of Ouellette Avenue near Maiden Lane is shown on Friday, November 12, 2021.
An alley in downtown Windsor west of Ouellette Avenue near Maiden Lane is shown on Friday, November 12, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Unique and intimate, a little mysterious, alleys are very urban. Suburbs don’t have them. They offer a singular way to experience the city, from laneway housing to restaurant patios to pedestrian and cycling routes.

Windsor has 140 kilometres of alleys. That’s a lot of potential, if you look at it the right way.

And the city is starting to look at it the right way.

For councillors Rino Bortolin and Chris Holt, who have advocated for alleys for two terms, it’s been a lonely marathon. And it’s left political scars. Bortolin was reprimanded for a comment about crime in alleys.

But it appears that they — and the city — are finally winning.

Maiden Lane, WIFF Alley, Butterfly Lane, the murals in Ford City’s alleys — they’re all a start.

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The WIFF alley in downtown Windsor is shown on Friday, November 12, 2021.
The WIFF alley in downtown Windsor is shown on Friday, November 12, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

But now, city staff are forming an alley standards and development committee to recommend standards and alternative uses for alleys.

Some cities use alleys as “an integral and crucial part of the urban renewal strategy,” states a staff report on the plan. “The beautification of alley space may enhance the city’s image, revitalize communities and can improve the quality of life for residents who live and work in the community.”

Here’s another pleasantly surprising excerpt from a report on an application to close an alley between George Avenue and Henkel Place, running from Henkel Place south to Wyandotte Street, last month. The report recommended rejecting the application.

The alley isn’t needed, the report acknowledged. But, it concluded, “there is an additional lens to view this application…through: the societal benefit of keeping this alley open…”

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A photo showed the grassy alley, trees hanging over the fences. It looks like a park. City officials who visited the site saw people chatting there. Several residents whose properties abut the alley called the planning department and said they use the alley to visit their neighbours and socialize. Eleven of them signed a petition against closing it.

“This alley contributes to a safe, caring and diverse neighbourhood,” the report concluded.

“It was great to read,” said Bortolin.

And, as Bortolin noted, the plan for the Distillery District in Walkerville, highly touted by Mayor Drew Dilkens, includes a proposal for Hiram Walker Alleyway, between Kildare and Chilver roads, from Assumption to Wyandotte streets. The renderings show attractive paving, trees and planters, public art, strings of lights and small “pocket parks,” courtyards and patios.

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It would be a “great catalyst” for a system of alleys throughout Walkerville and other neighbourhoods, said architect Nathan Flach of Brook McIlroy, the Toronto firm that created the design.

We usually think of alleys as just a route to the garage or a place to put our garbage cans, he said. But we’re starting to realize that they also provide a network of pedestrian paths. If we think of them as being for pedestrians and occasionally vehicles, that “allows us to rethink how they can look, function and feel,” he said. They can have all kinds of interesting uses, “like a mini-street,” he said.

Melbourne, Australia is the leader in converting alleys into “incredible” places, he said.

The most famous is Centre Place, known for its vibrant bars, cafes, restaurants and boutiques.

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“The possibilities and potential are endless!” Flach enthused.

There are a lot of reasons to fix our alleys. If a sidewalk is cracked, we fix it. If the grass in parks grows too long, we cut it. Alleys, said Bortolin, are a city asset, just like sidewalks and parks.

If you don’t maintain them, leave them dark and dingy, bad things happen, like crime. And most people in core neighbourhoods live in houses abutting alleys, so this is a real issue for a lot of people.

But the biggest reason, as Bortolin said, is “they’re an investment. They make neighbourhoods better.”

And neighbourhoods where people want to live are good for the whole city.

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