Last year, John Holmes of Adams Investment presented his plans for converting the old Colortone warehouse in the alley behind Kalorama Street in Adams Morgan into affordable housing to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and several community members. The group balked at the idea; they worried that building affordable housing in an alley might hark back to a time when D.C.’s poorest residents were shunted into dark, squalid alleys. The proposed housing wasn’t good enough for the poor, so Holmes decided instead to market it to the rich.
In the last century, social reformers from Jacob Riis to Eleanor Roosevelt crusaded to end alley-dwelling in the District, citing concerns over crime and disease caused by lack of light and access to services. Historically, D.C.’s alley-dwellers were poor black workers who flooded into the city after the Civil War. By 1955, most of these residences had been torn down in response to the Alley Dwelling Elimination Act of 1934. And in 1958, the city, then close to its peak population of around 800,000, agreed to a firm law that no new construction of multifamily housing could take place in any alley. There would be no more fetid, cramped alleyway homes.
The 1958 law is still in effect, but it’s no longer needed to protect the poor. Today, alley-dwelling is making a comeback among wealthy, white professionals such as David and Margita Salter. Last November, the Salters paid $1,050,000 for their loft in Naylor Court, a historic, H-shaped alley in Shaw. Although most of their friends and family were appalled by their decision, they rave about their experience so far, comparing their two-story renovated stable with its alleyway entrance to a British mews (an alley stable converted into a residence). “People here live a little bit more like the Europeans live,” says David.
The District’s real-estate boom, along with shifting attitudes toward urban living, has helped developers exploit the loopholes of the 1958 law. They can build single-family houses on vacant lots, or renovate existing structures (such as warehouses, garages, and carriage-houses). They can build in alleys that are 30 or more feet across without getting special permission. But Geoffrey Griffis, chair of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, points out that most alleys, such as the one where the Salters live, are far narrower. According to Griffis, the zoning regulations for real alleys are still strict. The developer has to get special exemptions from the zoning board and from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and prove safety, accessibility, and demand.
But lately, alleyway housing has acquired so much cachet that developers are incorporating alleys and side streets into their designs and then playing them up. A prime example is Harrison Court (behind the 1200 block of V Street NW), where a courtyard filled with fancy town homes is sandwiched in between two alleys lined with rental houses. These town homes go for about $550,000 each. And the developer PN Hoffman is currently finalizing plans for Union Square (originally called Fristo Flats and Fristo Alleys), a massive, 280-unit housing complex that straddles three alleys between the 1400 blocks of V and W Streets NW. According to Hoffman spokesman Mark Stahl, “In an older-style situation, you wanted your house to be on a nice street like W Street or V Street. Now it’s kinda neat to be tucked away off in the alley, kinda cool….It’s very in right now.”
Because of rigorous zoning laws and the aesthetic demands of wealthy buyers, today’s alley-dweller hardly faces the horrendous conditions of times past. “We’re essentially dressing the alley up to be a community pedestrian area as opposed to rear access to houses,” says Adams Investment head John Holmes, who plans to pave the alley surrounding his development near 17th and Kalorama Streets NW with decorative concrete. When built, the two- or three-bedroom residential units will be worth $450,000 or more. Right now, though, the alley is filled with a muddy sofa and dirt-encrusted soda bottles. Several back doors are a stone’s throw from the new construction. But Holmes claims that at least seven of these houses are being renovated; their designers plan to reorient them so that they look toward the alley system, rather than the street.
Architect Patrick Jones points out that this trend has existed in New York City and other major Western cities for years; he claims that D.C. is finally comfortable enough with itself to let itself be more modern. He also believes that the alley dwellings are attracting a specific crowd. “You’re not going to get uptight people who’re neurotic about being in the city to begin with,” he says.
Two years ago, Bloomingdale resident Lisa Woodward, who works at a development bank, and her husband, a historian, converted two carriage houses in an alley into their own luxury loft. The extremely contemporary interior includes space for the old-fashioned printing presses that Woodward collects, a playroom for the baby, and some striking handmade stairs, which she likes to compare to a ship’s ladder. Woodward estimates that her house is now worth upward of $750,000.
But crime, vagrancy, and structural issues continue to be problems even for high-end alley-dwellers. Although Woodward’s first floor is filled with small windows, it doesn’t get too much light. Her husband, who does not wish to be identified, says, “There’s a lot of people pissing in an alley, I’ll tell you that. It stinks out there.”
Over at Naylor Court, condoms can be found on the ground on a regular basis. And after midnight, prostitutes and their clients are often in evidence. “We have little bushes outside. It’s like a little Christmas tree with all the condoms around. You have red; you have green,” says Michel V., the chef at Bistrot du Coin, who lives a block away from the Salters, in Blagden Alley.
Michel, who moved in two-and-a-half years ago, paid $525,000 for his alley dwelling. He has been trying to get the alley’s seven broken streetlights fixed for the last year and a half. He claims that it took the city months to locate Blagden Alley; because the main alley is connected to several side alleys, it’s always difficult to give an exact address. Still, he decries the “rabbit-cage houses” that line real streets, and says he loves his unorthodox home.
Although affluent people such as Michel and the Salters may be willing to pay top dollar for a view of their neighbors’ trash cans, alley-dwelling is still off-limits to the poor. Last year, the Board of Zoning Adjustment rejected a proposal to put affordable housing in an alley near the intersection of 12th and U Streets. “Unless you’ve got some extraordinary design that deals with the demands of the zoning code, I just don’t see how you can do it,” says Cardozo Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Phil Spalding.
Spalding opposes building alley dwellings because he believes they violate most of the appropriate guidelines in an urban area. Allan Etter, Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesperson, says that if building and fire inspectors approve, then there shouldn’t be a problem. But he concedes that it would be a very tight squeeze to maneuver some emergency vehicles into the alleys.
In addition to fire safety, building new alley dwellings poses environmental dangers. Recently, Thomas Duffy, head of Duffy Enterprises, proposed converting the garages in a Bloomingdale alley into three-story condos. But neighbors worried about the strain on their sewer, which is already overtaxed.
When they suggested that Duffy build five alley units instead of the proposed 10, he replied that in order for him to turn a profit, each unit would have to sell for $1 million. Some residents, unaware of such high-rolling alley-dwellers as the Salters, suggested he scrap the plan altogether. “How many people are going to pay a million dollars to live in an alley?” asks Bloomingdale Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Vicky Leonard-Chambers. CP