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Alley Dwellings: The Next Frontier or A Zoning Headache?

As the recent census data show, more people are moving to the District each year and sticking around.  While huge cranes dot the skyline in many areas of the city, there may be an unexpected answer to the District’s housing conundrum: alley dwellings.  Throughout the District, the development of alley lots is being embraced as a way to enliven formerly under-utilized spaces and provide a source for more-affordable housing.

Such was not always the case.  When Pierre L’Enfant was commissioned to design the City of Washington, he never planned on there being alley communities.  However, as an unexpected result of wide alleys and open plots of land, builders created lower income housing described as “mini-ghettoes” by James Borchert in his 1980 publication Alley Life in Washington.  Later in 1934, the Alley Dwelling Authority condemned many unsanitary conditions in alleys and, later, the 1958 Zoning Regulations completely restricted habitable structures on alleys.

Now in 2018, new opportunities are being seen in alleys for housing, retail and even place-making.  While the size and make up of alley networks vary from Ward to Ward, on the whole alleys present a novel opportunity for the District.  Here are three “outside the box” reasons to tout the benefits of alley development:

First, safety.  The word “alley” itself may draw up images of long, dark, narrow passages between rows of homes but, in reality, alleys are as varied in size and composition as the rest of our streets.  Nevertheless, alleys are typically less utilized and less monitored than main thoroughfares.  By providing what urban theorist Jane Jacobs calls in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities “eyes on the street,” the mere presence of alley residents would discourage loiterers or those who intend to commit property crimes or theft in the alley.  So, those who live on alley properties could play an important role in improving safety for the entire block.

Second, uniqueness.  Each alley is unique and the structures therein offer a variation on the typical mid-rise apartment complex or existing townhome.  For non-residential uses, the alleys offer distinctive venues for restaurants, health clubs, or retail space.  Buyers and tenants may likely pay a premium for such interesting development opportunities.  Look no further than Blagden Alley, Cady’s Alley and the Wharf as just a few bustling examples!

Finally, economics.  Econ 101 teaches us an increase in supply should lead to a decrease in price.  Currently, home prices continue to soar due to a shortage of housing in the District.  On April 16, 2018, the Wall Street Journal affirmed in an article, Homebuilding Isn’t Keeping Up with Growth, a recent survey states that “some 22 states and the District of Columbia have built too little housing to keep up with economic growth in the 15 years since 2000, resulting in a total shortage of 7.3 million units.”  An increase in housing stock, especially in alley networks with access to transportation and amenities, is one way to address affordability.

Though you may now be convinced that alley dwellings and development along alleys is the District’s next frontier, zoning needs to catch up.  The zoning re-write of 2016 made some progress from the arcane 1958 regulations but, still, most alley developments require substantial zoning relief and cannot be squeezed into the unrealistic confines of the current zoning restrictions.  Not only do alleys require substantial zoning and public space review and prompt push back from utilities, but also they require DC Council approval for the alley to be named.  At the end of the day, the City needs to reduce the headache and support this new frontier.

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