Animating Urban Voids with Heritage Value in our Cities

Daphne Restaurant Terrace

Blog // Mar. 18, 2024

By: Jeffrey Craft, Principal Urban Designer and Landscape Architect, STUDIO tla

As cities grappled with structural changes to public realm improvements in response to COVID-19, the private sector also sought to reimagine private spaces to support business viability. Restaurant patios became the norm as valuable sidewalk space became marketable assets requiring municipalities and private sector businesses to be creative in maximizing space while minimizing congestion and pedestrian safety and discomfort. 
Alleyways, or the service spaces between existing buildings, are hardly ideal for such uses given the lack of light, visibility, and their general back-of-house quality; however, our client, Dream REIT, has a large real estate portfolio of pre-war office buildings connected by service alleys. Historically, these spaces have been used for deliveries and garbage pickup and were of seemingly little value, and, as the buildings grew dated and out of use, the alleys deteriorated and became subject to crime and homelessness. When repurposing their real estate assets, our client realized that punching windows into the alley and extending the quality of the street opened the space to light and retail traffic, making the alleys a viable alternative to sidewalk congestion.
STUDIO tla was tasked with bringing life to this alley while working in collaboration with Cumulus Architects and interior designer Studio Paolo Ferrari. A singular goal was to create a space that would inspire people to linger and enjoy a meal or a drink; however, the space had an immense number of constraints, including, but not limited to, narrow wall-to-wall dimensions, minimal natural light, poor air circulation, drainage problems, poor soil structure, and below grade utilities and basement intrusions. Municipal challenges included planning and permitting issues, fire code requirements, and a general mistrust in the viability of what is traditionally viewed as negative space.
Design solutions required close collaboration with the design team and technical studies that enabled the addition of trees–an absolute client requirement–which meant the installation of a complex sub-drainage system and structural solution with soil cells and added irrigation. The terrace now features three trees housed in a giant, below-grade concrete vault that sits in an accessible basement room, which contains a large storm water cistern and manholes above the floor as well. The tree vault contains approximately 45 cubic meters of soil. There is an irrigation system throughout the top of the chamber as well as an aeration piping system that provides air to the roots of the trees and an underdrain layer at the bottom of the vault. Species selection (gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) was problematic due to low light levels, but tree health is continuously and closely monitored for excessive water and drainage issues, as well as needed added nutrients. Large specimens greater than four-inch calliper and 24 feet in height required careful placement and significant investment by the client.

Material selection–in paving and other furnishing and lighting–was executed in a mid-century theme and takes cues from the interior design as the alley is a natural extension of the interior finishes. Admittedly, this project is small in nature, yet it is intimate and a genuine representation of the role of the landscape architect in highly urban environments. Changes in social structure due to outside forces, the cost of real estate development, and escalating land values make adaptive reuse of alleyways a logical, yet challenging workspace for landscape architects.
The finished result proves that assets can be found in underutilized and underappreciated places when design professionals collaborate with visionary clients.