OLYMPIA – Taking out the trash historically is one of the only legal activities that take place in downtown alleys, other than the random person walking through or taking a smoke break.
Graffiti-spraying and drug use are some of the more common illegal enterprises. Mostly, they’re out of sight, out of mind.
“If that’s how we think about it, no wonder bad behavior happens,” said Ruthie Snyder, a downtown code-enforcement officer.
Snyder and other Olympia employees want to turn the alleys into destinations – clean, well-lit pedestrian thoroughfares with murals to admire along the way.
Workers already have cleaned up and placed lights in alleys on two blocks and plan to do more, depending on funding. Volunteers are deciding which alleys need work first.
Snyder said the effort began two years ago during a conference about how design affects crime. For example, studies show that a building with windows broken out tends to attract more vandalism.
“Typically, more crime occurs where people can’t see what’s going on and where it looks like no one cares,” said Amy Stull, a community programs specialist with the Olympia Police Department.
So, with a $6,000 grant obtained by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the city focused on lighting and cleaning one block of alleys – between Fourth and State avenues and Jefferson and Cherry streets.
That made a difference, Stull said.
“Anecdotally, the officers have said that they have less problems specifically where the alleys were lighted,” she said.
Since then, alleys in another block were cleaned and had lights added – between Fourth and Fifth avenues and Washington and Franklin streets. The Olympia Downtown Association is getting into the act, too.
Snyder said the first step in the program is cleaning the alleys. Dirty alleys mean rodent infestation, standing water and possible roadblocks to emergency vehicles.
As part of the project, businesses are asked to share a couple of larger trash bins, rather than each business having its own. The city jail probation crew has done much of the work, pulling weeds, steam cleaning and picking up trash.
Next, workers install “dark sky” lights – bright lamps that shine down on the alleys but don’t create “light pollution” at night.
Step three – which the city hasn’t accomplished yet in the alleys – is beautification. Adding murals to walls cuts down on graffiti, Snyder said, because most taggers won’t disturb another’s art.
Before the city can begin a wide-ranging beautification campaign, volunteer Rob Richards is helping to take an inventory of the alleyways. He said he will ask the following questions: What are the walkability issues? What surrounding businesses could partner with the city on cleanup? How wide is the alley? Can a fire truck get down the alley, or could it be closed off as a pedestrian walkway?
Part of the campaign, Richards said, is to fight perceptions that downtown is dangerous.
“Some of those are real things; they don’t just sort of live in the land of perception,” he said. Others, such as fears about the homeless, are overblown, said Richards, who used to lead the Bread and Roses Advocacy Center.
Richards now attends The Evergreen State College, and his alley work is a for-credit project this quarter.
The data from his inventory will be made into a presentation and used to determine which alleys will be cleaned first.
“The purpose, obviously, is to make people safe when they come downtown,” Snyder said.