Downtown Montgomery is in the midst of a genuine rebirth, thanks in large part to the unique public-private partnership fueling an exciting new venture known as "The Alley." What were abandoned storefronts are gradually being transformed into an entertainment and retail hub that promoters are confident will draw visitors downtown like nothing else.
Photography by Robert Fouts.
Attorney Greg Allen, whose law offices are located on Commerce Street just a few doors down from The Alley, is eager to talk about the project that's been occupying his time in recent months. About five years ago, Allen bought the vintage building at 130 Commerce Street formerly occupied by Heaven's Depot, and later bought the adjacent building that was once home of Mercantile Paper Co. The city approached him initially, wanting to buy the property so it could cut a passageway through to Riverwalk Stadium and other riverfront areas. Allen agreed to lease it to the city so the walkway could be made, but the more he thought about it, the more possibilities he saw.
"It just seemed to me to be a good opportunity, instead of just having an empty shaft," says Allen, "We said, 'Why not do something more?'"
Enter MAX Credit Union to help make the dream a reality.
"Thanks to financing through MAX, Allen's part of The Alley project is becoming what Montgomerians have been wishing for – an exciting downtown restaurant and shopping district to complement other great venues such as Riverwalk Stadium, Riverfront Park and posh new hotels."
Having begun with the opening of Dreamland Bar-B-Que, The Alley's featured arched walkway will be complete by year's end with the addition of loft apartments, a gym and a rooftop garden suitable for parties and receptions. Among The Alley's architecturally unique features are the original heart pine beams that stand proudly throughout, decorated at the top by iron molding. SaZa Serious Italian Food, expected to open in August on the main floor facing Commerce Street, will offer authentic cuisine made from original recipes straight from Italy and the family of baseball great Joe DiMaggio!
"SaZa will be the anchor," states Allen. It will feature outdoor seating under a giant awning where diners can look out onto Commerce Street, which will be covered in cobblestone paving up to Tallapoosa Street. City parking meters will be replaced by vintage black meters, and a green park with shooting fountains of water will be built across the street in the Embassy Suites parking lot.
Dreamland and SaZa will be joined by other fun eateries, shops and places to be seen along the passageway, according to Allen. Possible tenants include an upscale women's dress shop, an art gallery and more restaurants, including a sandwich shop at the opposite end. The passageway will take pedestrians to the existing alley that leads to Coosa Street, where Dreamland Bar-B-Que is already packing patrons into its popular new location. The new tenants will join 129 Coosa Street, renovated by developer Jerry Kyser for receptions, parties and corporate gatherings. A Montgomery police substation will also be located in The Alley, giving visitors an extra measure of safety.
The three floors above the archway will house 16 lofts to be called "The Lofts on the Alley." Featuring the original exposed brick walls from the late 1800s, the one- and two-bedroom energy-efficient lofts will also have their own wrought-iron balconies, reminiscent of New Orleans and Charleston, where residents can look out over the city. A gym on the second floor will be available to residents, and personal trainers will be on site. Allen says the lofts would be ideal for students or Air Force personnel.
The Alley's rooftop will soon be transformed into an enchanting outdoor entertainment garden complete with trees and fountains, to be managed by Tracy Williford, Allen's daughter. The view and the delightful atmosphere will lend itself well to receptions, private parties and banquets.
The buzz of activity along Commerce and nearby streets is going hand in hand with the recommendations of "The Downtown Plan" drafted in 2007 by Dover, Kohl and Partners and city planners:
"The success of creating a vibrant downtown is dependent on partnerships between local government and private developers," the plan states. "Local government can only spend a small amount of the total money that has to be spent to build and continually rebuild a thriving downtown. The great majority of money needed to buy properties, fix buildings and build new buildings to create the place that Downtown hopes to be will be the result of private investment."
The unique public-private partnership was designed to create something new and different between the three major investments in the area: Riverwalk Stadium, Riverwalk Amphitheatre and the Renaissance Hotel. "The city invested $1.6 million in the public portion, the alley itself," says Jeff Downes, deputy mayor. "But many times more than that amount has been invested by the private sector.
"We've created something out of nothing," he adds. "What was a forgotten alley where groceries were once delivered back in the day is now something very special. It's a resurrection of sorts."
Allen agrees, and adds that without the city handling the alley portion itself, the rest of the development wouldn't have happened the way it has.
"The amount of traffic is growing every month," he says. The city has already changed the parking along Commerce from parallel to angle, making room for more visitors.
"The idea is to start at this core and spread all the way to the capitol," Allen says. "All that history is right here. Tour buses came through downtown even when there was nothing here. Imagine what it will be like now."
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