The District’s Alley Lot Development Frontier May Be Expanding

There are big changes afoot for alley lot development in the District of Columbia.  Over the past year, several clients approached Cozen O’Connor with challenges in developing alley lots.  This was a peculiar juxtaposition given that the District’s Zoning Regulation rewrite in 2016 was seen as a boon for alley lot development.  It became clear the new regulations did not go far enough to ease restrictions on alley lot development.  Too many hurdles remained to make a dent in the District’s many vacant and underdeveloped alleys.

On behalf of its clients, Cozen O’Connor worked directly with the District’s Office of Planning to address these regulatory hurdles and draft revisions to the alley lot regulations.  On July 8th, the District’s Zoning Commission voted to hold a formal public hearing (a.k.a. “set down”) on a text amendment proposed by the Office of Planning that would simplify the zoning and permitting process for many of the District’s alley lots.  The text amendment is being processed under Zoning Commission case number 19-13.

The amendment would allow for an alley “tax lot” existing on or before May 18, 1958 to be converted to a “record lot” as a matter-of-right, provided the lot is at least 450 square feet in area.  For alley tax lots created after May 18, 1958 but before September 6, 2016, the applicable alley lot can be converted to a record lot by special exception.  For reference, tax lots are lots with numbers ranging from 800 to 1999, while record lots are commonly numbered 1 to 799.

The import of this seemingly minor tweak lies in the building permit process.  In most scenarios, DCRA will not issue a building permit unless a property is an official record lot.  While street-facing lots are easily converted from tax lots into record lots even if they are non-conforming as to size, the conversion of alley lots are not so simple.  Under the current zoning scheme, an alley tax lot may only be converted to a record lot where the lot is at least 1,800 square feet in area and has frontage on an alley that is at least 24 feet in width.  For anyone that has walked in the District’s many narrow alley networks, it is easy to see why most alley tax lots do not meet these standards.  The result is that alley lots that are less than 1,800 square feet or not located on an alley that is 24 feet in width must obtain variance relief to be improved with a structure.

Due to this seemingly arbitrary distinction between record lots and tax lots, many substandard alley tax lots remain vacant or underdeveloped.  As the Office of Planning notes in its report proposing the text amendment, there are 670 alley tax lots that are greater than 450 square feet in the District, 317 of which are completely vacant.  For the other 353 developed alley tax lots, the structures cannot be substantially altered without conversion to a record lot.

The proposed text amendment should greatly expand the number of tax lots that may be developed.  In the RF and RA zones, as well as several R zones, a single-family dwelling remains a by-right use subject to certain conditions.  As part of the text amendment, the Office of Planning also proposed to loosen the alley width restrictions for a residential dwelling use.  Now, an alley lot may be improved with a dwelling when it is located on an alley that is 15 feet wide at any point between the lot and the street.  Other notable changes include reducing the required centerline setback from 12 feet to 7 feet 6 inches so that a structure may be located closer to the lot line.  The text amendment would also allow for artist studios on alley lots to host art shows and performances.

As a whole, the text amendment demonstrates the District’s continued push to expand the city’s housing stock.  Although alleys may have a relatively small portion of the District’s lots, they remain a significant development opportunity, particularly for single-family housing.  Cozen O’Connor looks forward to continuing its work on the proposed alley lot regulations when the Zoning Commission holds its first public hearing in the coming months.

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Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use

Cozen O’Connor has represented residential, commercial, retail, and industrial builders in the development and redevelopment of building lots and millions of square feet of real estate. Our team handles every aspect of the zoning, land use, and development approvals process, from obtaining building permits and variances to negotiating stormwater management and traffic plans.

Head of the DC Zoning Group & Blog Editor