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If you’ve ever wandered through the alleys south of U Street NW, you may have noticed a large empty lot inside the block between 12th and 13th Street, unkempt and fenced off. It’s a shock to find such an expanse of unused space in this increasingly expensive neighborhood. I first thought it must be some kind of toxic waste dump where it might be too dangerous to tread.
Of course, like many mysteriously unused plots of land, the 13,000 square foot site has a long history. “Temperance Row/Court/Alley”, as it’s been variously known, housed alley dwellings until they were demolished in the 1950s. It was traded back and forth between private owners, until the Public Welfare Foundation, headquartered in the True Reformer Building on 12th Street NW, bought it in 1999. A few years later, in partnership with Manna, Inc., they tried developing 10 single family rowhouses, but the Board of Zoning Adjustment said the lots were too small for the density they wanted, despite support from community groups and city agencies. The application popped up again in 2008, but the plan never came to fruition.
Things may be looking up for the vacant parcel. In May, another U Street nonprofit—-CityFirst Enterprises, which helps finance affordable housing projects—-bought the lots for an amount not specified in city records. They’re not quire sure what to do with it yet, but they’re an experienced outfit, with access to capital to make something happen.
“We acquired the site recently with the specific intention to support CFE’s mission to create permanently affordable housing in the District and gentrification response,” writes executive director Dave Wilkinson. “We are currently exploring how best to leverage this land to serve this mission.”