Above: Blagden alley. Source: internet

Previous DC alley posts HERE

Having already cited some of the history and potentials of DC’s alley spaces and structures in previous posts, I wanted to quickly reflect on the current state of alleys, looking at the current regulations and existing programs, as well as possible areas of opportunities.


In the last couple of years, there have been multiple policy and program advances related to alleys. When I began to be interested in DC’s alleys in the summer of 2016, I was fascinated by the public space potentials of alleys to provide much needed recreational spaces that work at a neighborhood scale a. I started  mapping the alleys, identifying them through Google earth, biking to each one to take photos and understand their potential and context, and later categorizing them in charts and color coded maps.

Little did I know, my fascination and early mapping coincided with a very important change in DC regulations: the approval and adoption of the city’s new zoning regulations in September 2016. Prior to this, DC’s zoning code date from …wait for it….1958!  Yes, DC had been working under regulations that were close to 60 year old. With dated regulations, the development in the city tended- for many decades- to glorify a city of the car and for the car (the 1050’s and 1960’s notion of what a ‘modern city’ should be), while forgetting and mummifying specific urban infill spaces and areas in the city. This was accentuated after the the civil rights movement and the ‘white flight’ phenomenon that were triggered, placing much of the emphasis on the suburbs, leaving the city as a poor, somewhat stagnant city (urban development wise), and quite racially segregated.

For over 70 years, since their destruction in the early XX century, and burdened by the stigma of poverty, public health issues, violence and drugs, DC’s alleys were reduced to pass through spaces for vehicles. They were leftover, disregarded spaces solely used for garbage collection; their best and highest use reduced to storage, auto repair shops, garages or parking lots.


Alley in DC. Source: internet

The new regulations in DC take large steps forward, beginning to cater to a city for the people again and beginning to foster smart growth. Though still very conservative, they bring back corner stores, the regulations now legally allow opportunities for accessory dwelling units as an apartment in a primary structure, a new building in the back or side of a lot or a new addition/unit over an existing garage… and they open the possibility to develop alley lots.


DC Corner store. Source: Internet

Prior to the change in the zoning regulations, the office of planning’s preservation department led a very interesting alley survey (LINK) (which I have already referenced in previous posts). This survey has begun to identify and create awareness of the history and existence of the city’s alley network, and has lead to an initial effort to place new signage on some of the larger alleys.


Signage DC. Source: Internet

In addition the city adopted the AlleyPalooza program, seeking to rehabilitate and resurface alleys in disrepair.

The alleyPalooza program targets a specific number of alleys in disrepair each year. Though I am still not clear on the process for the prioritization process, it is clear the city is allotting a specific budget to address alleys repairs. In parallel, in MS3 zones (meaning areas where the sewage is separate for rain water runoff and black water – the traditional L’Enfant city has a combined sewage system), DC has initiated a green alley program.


Q St green alley in DC. Source: Internet

With these wonderful advances on the image and representation of alleys in the city, there is tremendous potential to develop alleys. DC is at an exciting point where the regulations and discourse are aiming for innovating smart growth changes, increasing walkability, alternatives for more accessible/affordable housing, mix-use providing new options for work, commercial and recreation spaces. However, when trying to put these changes in policy and discourse into practice, one realizes that there are very few enablers and many obstacles to still overcome.

These obstacles, or ‘areas of opportunities’ as I like to call them, where both policy and processes can evolve to better support and enable strong, cohesive and integral alley projects in the city, will be the focus of my next post. Stay tuned!

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