The Alleys of New York

December 15, 2010

Lower Manhattan has several small – and sometimes forgotten – narrow alley-ways. Often rubble-strewn, dormant and seemingly neglected, these urban paths appear to be worthless byways of a time long ago. They also have names that hearken back to a bygone era: Stable Court; Great Jones Alley; Franklin Place.

Who plows these “streets?” Who owns them? Can they be gated and made exclusive? What lies beneath them? Why were they created? And, how are they taxed?

These are not mundane questions. Alas, they are not easily answered either.

The alleys of New York are typically private – owned by the abutters. They were most often created jointly by all adjoining lots in the mid-19th century to secure deliveries to the rears of properties. The city does not plow them, does not pick up trash and does not pave the sidewalks. While the ubiquitous “no parking” signs may not be present, the public may not park there.

It gets complicated:

Usually, the alley must remain open and available – freely accessed by all abutters for deliveries – not of coal but just about anything else — and trash must be brought to the nearest real street.

Now it gets even more complicated:

It seems clear from some recent DOB decisions that the alleys are not streets under the NYC Zoning Resolution. Now we’re “in the Zone!” They cannot be used for frontage. Streets (real ones, that is) are mapped and dedicated to the city — these aren’t. Avenues (e.g. Lex and Madison) and streets (e.g. West 4th and Attorney Street – yes, it exists in the Lower East Side) do not generate floor area development rights – they aren’t owned by anyone; they’re public. Our alleys, on the other hand, are clearly private – shared perhaps (by the abutters) – but exclusive to the neighbors. It would seem then, that with the consent of the owners they could be gated and made truly exclusive.

Now it gets, well, really complicated:

If they’re private, why can’t owners build on them? Can an abutter to an alley expand an existing building into it? Probably not – since these alleys we meant to be open – fully open, that is. But, what about other rights – which normally flow from owning property, or, in this case owning property in common with others? Zoning rights, for example. Or, rights to use the area for recreation (alley parties anyone?) or open space.

When the alleys of New York were established no one could have anticipated that they might provide opportunities – or that the questions posed here might some day be raised. These are interesting physical spaces in our city – but perhaps there’s more to them?