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A Move to Get More Homes and Performance Spaces in DC Alleys Takes a Step Forward

by Nena Perry-Brown

A home in DC's Naylor Court.

On Monday, the Zoning Commission unanimously voted to approve zoning text amendments that could enable more alley dwellings to be constructed in DC and more alley events from arts organizations. However, the commission would also like to see OP file additional amendments to encourage additional alley dwellings. 

The current amendments, approved on Proposed Action, would enable alley-facing tax lots (450 square feet and larger) to be converted into record lots. Alley tax lots, which don't permit development, created before May 1958 would be automatically grandfathered into this change, while alley lots created between 1958 and 2016 could be converted by special exception. OP has identified 274 vacant alley tax lots that could permit residential development under the change.

Diagram from OP Setdown Report. Click to enlarge.

The amendments would also permit alley studios with one artist per 450 square feet and enable the studios to host up to five public shows or performances annually by-right, or more by special exception. 

The zoning commissioners were inspired by testimony on Monday from the public asking for additional changes. Two DC residents offered testimony that highlighted their personal experiences seeking to develop housing on their alley lots. 

Brian Levy,  a DC resident who owns a 5,240 square-foot alley lot in Ward 5 and is one of the main proponents of DC's tiny house movement, spoke to the limitations he faces on the lot he owns. Levy said he is allowed to build on up to 80% of the lot, enabling by-right construction of a two-story, 8,384 square-foot single family house, but that if he wanted to subdivide into three record lots to build three houses, he couldn't due to the 1,800 square-foot minimum lot size and required 24-foot alley width. He also commented that, if the city truly wants to enable more alley dwellings, the zoning code should be amended to allow them by-right in every R- (residential) zone.

Lona Alia, who spent a year trying to convert her family's 4,500 square-foot alley lot into a record lot, also testified against the minimum 1,800 square-foot lot size and the required 24-foot alley width. Alia noted how financially burdensome it is to have water and sewer infrastructure installed to service her lot, pricing it at $150,000-$250,000.

Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth also recommended a reduced minimum lot size and by-right accessory apartments in R- zones, as well as removal of parking minimums and special exceptions to convert lots smaller than 450 square feet into record lots.  Meridith Moldenhauer of Cozen O'Connor spoke in opposition to the different treatment of record lots created before 2016 and those created after 2016, pointing out that this precludes by-right alley development in mixed-use zones when the alley is less than 24 feet wide. 

The Commission incorporated the comments into the vote and encouraged the Office of Planning to look into making changes to such items as the subdivision alley width and minimum lot size. Based on a recommendation from ANC 6C Commissioner Mark Eckenweiler, the Commission also voted to tweak OP's recommendations to continue requiring the Board of Zoning Adjustment to consider traffic, parking, and related criteria in special exception cases to convert tax lots into record lots rather than limiting consideration to reports from government agencies like DDOT.

A final vote is expected in September; in the interim, OP will submit to the record a map of where the affected lots are located and respond to the additional comments. OP's Matthew Jesick noted that most of the lots would be in Capitol Hill, downtown, and in Wards 1 and 2.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/a-move-to-get-more-homes-and-performance-spaces-in-dc-alleys/17062

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