Author: Claire Jaffe

County Council Considering Diverting Funds From Montrose Parkway East Project

More than $ 120 million in funds could be redirected to other transportation projects or for school construction

Several County Council members are considering diverting about $120 million in funds from the Montrose Parkway East road project to other transportation or schools projects after smart growth advocates and Forest Glen residents came out in force against the spending during a capital budget hearing earlier this month.

County Executive Ike Leggett in his fiscal 2019 capital budget proposal recommended the county fund about $124 million over the next six years to build the proposed four-lane parkway between Veirs Mill Road and Parklawn Road in the North Bethesda area.

The road project is expected to reduce traffic congestion in the area, according to the county. The project would require cutting through a section of Rock Creek Stream Valley Park. County officials first proposed the roadway in the 1992 master plan for the area, but the funding to build it has been delayed.

An outline and map showing the proposed route of the Montrose Parkway East project via Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation website

During the hearing earlier this month, several residents and transit advocates urged the council not to provide the funding.

“We ask the council to delay expensive or outdated projects like the Montrose Parkway East and invest in projects like a second entrance at the Forest Glen Metro station or the White Flint Metro station,” Peter Tomao, the Montgomery County advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, told the council.

Dan Reed, who was representing the Action Committee for Transit, said he was concerned road projects such as Montrose Parkway East take away funds from efforts to make neighborhoods more walkable.

“We could do so many better things with that money,” Reed said.

The Forest Glen residents, many who live on the east side of Georgia Avenue, testified that crossing the roadway to get to the Metro station is dangerous and they avoid doing it, even though they live close to the station.

“I was especially appalled by the proposal to build Montrose Parkway East,” Forest Glen resident Alison Gillespie said. “That parkway would cut through parkland next to Rock Creek and seems to go against every stated smart growth goal the county has set for the last 20 years.”

Many Forest Glen residents said crossing Georgia Avenue at Forest Glen Road (pictured) is dangerous and requested a second entrance built on the east side of Georgia Avenue to avoid having to make the crossing. Via Google Maps

Now council members Marc Elrich, George Leventhal, Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner said Wednesday they’re looking to use those funds for other projects.

Elrich sent an email to his colleagues after the public hearing suggesting that the council use the money to increase funding for school construction and to build a new Forest Glen Metro entrance, and for other transportation projects in the county.

On Wednesday, Elrich said the school system’s construction plan covers expected increases in enrollment, but doesn’t address school overcrowding or the backlog of proposed projects.

“We really need to deal with class-size growth,” Elrich said.

Roger Berliner, the chair of the council’s transportation committee, said Montrose Parkway East could be needed in the future to handle traffic as the White Flint area develops, but he doesn’t believe it’s needed now.

The transportation committee is scheduled to examine the funding for the parkway at its March 8 meeting. Council members Tom Hucker and Nancy Floreen are also on the committee.

“I believe it is likely the committee will be recommending deferring moving forward on Montrose Parkway East at this moment in time,” Berliner said.  “If Amazon were to come to the areas where we put forward, that would definitely have an impact—it would become a much higher priority at that juncture.”

Officials have told Bethesda Beat the county pitched the White Flint area to Amazon for the company’s second headquarters, although the county has not formally confirmed that’s the case. Berliner said if Amazon were to choose the county, then perhaps the council would consider funding the parkway sooner. He also noted the state has proposed $2 billion in transportation improvements if the company picks Montgomery.

County Council President Hans Riemer said he supports redirecting the funds for the parkway to projects such as a second entrance at the White Flint Metro station and building bike lanes in White Flint.

“I think that Montrose Parkway East is premature,” Riemer said. “I think it is designed to serve development that doesn’t yet exist.”

Council member George Leventhal also said he was receptive to the concerns expressed by residents at the hearing.

“At our public hearing we heard from a lot of folks who want to divert that money for other worthy purposes,” Leventhal said. “We did not hear from people expressing support for Montrose Parkway East.”

He added that he supports moving forward with building a second entrance to the Forest Glen Metro station on the east side of Georgia Avenue.

Floreen said Wednesday she is opposed to diverting the funds for the parkway.

“I think it’s outrageous frankly,” Floreen said. “Road money is an easy target for people. Of course, we’d rather fund schools. If we didn’t have to fund anything else, all we’d do is fund schools. But road construction gets the short shrift. When people complain about congestion in the Rockville and North Bethesda area—blame the County Council.”

Read the original article here.

Historic rescue for Metro? Both Virginia and Maryland legislatures will study funding bills.

In a bid to cover a financial gap that has hampered Metro since its creation, state lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland will consider bills to give the agency a permanent, dependable source of funding worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

It will be the first time since the agreement to build the subway more than 50 years ago that lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis have simultaneously sought to provide dedicated funding for the transit agency.

The District strongly supports the goal, so agreements in the Maryland and Virginia legislative sessions that begin Wednesday would mark a breakthrough. Metro is the only major transit system in the country that does not receive a significant part of its funding from a tax or other dedicated source of revenue, a shortcoming that has been identified as a weakness as far back as 1979.

A key to the new effort is flexibility; each state would come up with its own way to raise the money. Virginia is considering doing it partly through tax increases in Northern Virginia, whereas Maryland is looking at diverting existing transportation funds to Metro. All three jurisdictions say they will provide additional funds only if the other two do so.

Success is hardly assured. In Virginia, both Democrats and Republicans are raising objections to a plan proposed last month by outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that would increase taxes on real estate sales, hotel stays and wholesale gasoline.

In Maryland, obstacles could arise in the perennial tug-of-war between Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

It’s also possible that the combined measures would fall short of the $500 million a year in additional, dedicated funding that Metro says it needs starting in July, to ensure safety and reliability.

Maryland Democrats to propose Metro funding bill, and Hogan’s initial response is positive]

Still, it’s significant that the effort has advanced this far, analysts say. Senior legislators in Virginia and Maryland say the bills will receive serious consideration amid hope that progress on one side of the Potomac will encourage movement on the other.

Political winds are favorable. Democrats, who are traditionally pro-transit, won all three statewide offices in Virginia in the November election and gained 15 seats in the House of Delegates.

In Maryland, the two powerful leaders of the General Assembly — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — said last week that they support dedicated funding if certain conditions are met. Hogan has signaled he is open to the idea, although he is deferring judgment until a bill gets close to his desk.

“We have cause for measured optimism,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime Metro supporter. “All three jurisdictions are talking about dedicated funding at the same time, and I hope last November’s election creates a real opportunity for Richmond to show its commitment to Metro’s future.”

In addition, a high-powered coalition of regional business organizations and nonprofit groups was formally launched Monday to back efforts in Richmond and Annapolis to provide Metro with the dedicated funding it needs and reform its governance.

The group, called MetroNow, grew out of a Metro reform effort started in late 2016 by the Federal City Council. MetroNow is being led by the council and five other groups: the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Greater Washington Partnership, 2030 Group, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Their representatives will be active in lobbying in the state capitals for measures to help the transit agency.

“We will be on the ground simultaneously in Richmond, Annapolis and D.C., advocating off the same hymnal,” said Michael Forehand, vice president for government relations at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The business community has supported dedicated funding for Metro in the past, including in a major report in 2005. Business leaders have redoubled their efforts, however, because the success of Metro is viewed as critical to the region’s economic health — both in attracting investment dollars and workers from the pro-transit millennial generation.

The value of Metro was reinforced recently when online retail giant Amazon said access to transit was a top priority in picking a site for its new second headquarters and accompanying 50,000 new jobs. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“If you look at Amazon and what their criteria are, transit is crucial,” said Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a sponsor of the Metro funding bill in Annapolis. “It’s particularly important for us in Maryland with Gov. Hogan to have significant business community support.”

The pro-Metro coalition also includes nonprofit transit advocates and environmentalists. The Sierra Club has listed dedicated funding for Metro as a top priority in both the Annapolis and Richmond legislative sessions.

“The most effective collaborations we have had have been when business and nonprofits worked together,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He referred to past efforts to support the light-rail Purple Line in suburban Maryland and redevelopment of the Tysons area in Fairfax County.

In Virginia, McAuliffe’s budget proposal includes $150 million a year in dedicated funding for Metro, of which $65 million a year would come from higher taxes on Northern Virginians for real estate sales, hotel stays and wholesale gasoline. The remaining $85 million would come from committing transportation funds Northern Virginia already receives to Metro.

But Northern Virginia Democrats have asked for revisions to the proposal so that at least some of the money comes from state funds — and their region does not have to bear the full burden.

“There has to be state revenue in there, not just regional revenue,” said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), a former state transportation secretary who also is the ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee.

In addition, key legislators expressed doubt that it would be possible to persuade the GOP majorities in the House and Senate to go along with the higher real estate and hotel taxes. Some of the necessary money may have to be found elsewhere, they said.

Republican leaders also have signaled that they would set conditions on any additional money for Metro, such as requiring curbs on overtime pay, pension benefits and other labor costs. They would not be satisfied with McAuliffe’s plan to fix the transit agency’s governance simply by replacing its 16-member board with a five-member reform board.

“All of those are issues,” Watts said of the GOP concerns. “Whether they end up being conditional [for funding] will be what this session is all about.”

Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who is helping draft the legislation, expressed confidence that a funding bill would be approved because lawmakers realize Metro is critical to Northern Virginia’s economy, which is vital for the entire state’s prosperity.

“Nobody is going to get everything they want, but . . . there is clear unanimity of opinion that this issue needs to be addressed,” Barker said.

In Maryland, the planned bill backed by Korman and two other legislators would commit $125 million a year to Metro from the state transportation trust fund. Miller and Busch, the state’s two top legislative leaders, said Thursday in separate interviews that they are supportive.

Miller, the Senate president, said he supports additional state funding for Metro “coupled with a plan for improvement, expansion and maintenance, and also management.”

“There are going to have to be some concessions in that regard, but if you can get those concessions we can get a funding source from Maryland and Virginia and D.C., and positive things happen,” Miller said.

Busch, the House speaker, agreed that Maryland should provide dedicated funding if the other two jurisdictions agree to do so.

“If they put up the money, I think it’s an obligation that certainly the state of Maryland has to do that,” he said.

There appeared to be little interest in Annapolis in McAuliffe’s plan for a five-member reform board, which also has support from the MetroNow coalition.

Korman said it’s “appropriate” to provide money only if changes are made, but said the reform board is not necessarily the right vehicle.

“It’s not clear that is gong to be the exact path of reform, but we all want to make sure the money is spent well,” Korman said.

Josh Hicks contributed to this report.

Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post. Read the original story here.

With new tax law, will employers continue to subsidize your commute?

For every tax provision, there’s a loophole — or so it’s said, anyway. And public transit advocates are worried that a seemingly minor change included in the new federal tax law could push employers to seek workarounds that would have a long-term effect on commuter benefits for people who use public transportation.

Of concern is a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that eliminates tax write-offs for employers who subsidize the cost of their employees’ parking or transit passes — as many as a third of employers in urban hubs such as Washington.

The change won’t affect people who use pretax dollars to pay monthly parking or transit costs, the most popular form of commuter benefits offered by U.S. employers. In fact, those commuter benefits are increasing slightly. The maximum amount of pretax income that can be used each month for commuting expenses increased to $260 this year from $255 in 2017.

But at companies where the employer covers part or all of their employees’ commuting costs, those subsidies are no longer considered a tax-deductible business expense.

Lawmakers say they advocated for the change because standard corporate tax rates are dropping dramatically — to 21 percent from 35 percent — under the new tax law. With so much cash freed up, they argue, employers have more freedom to provide benefits and perks that would be most valuable to their employees.

But transit advocates worry that the change could lead employers to recoup some of the money they were previously able to deduct by finding an alternative — and tax-deductible — method to pay for the benefit under the umbrella of their property lease — a workaround that some say has been recommended by tax attorneys.

Here’s how it would work: Employers who rent office space and also separately pay to provide parking for employees could try to “bundle” those expenses. They could, in theory, negotiate a two-in-one agreement, in which the cost of providing parking would be embedded as part of their lease — a tax-deductible expense.

“It would be a way for an employer to provide a benefit and still be able to wrap it into their office lease, since it’s an office expense that is deductible,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The workaround would be good only for parking, not public transit subsidies. Although it’s still a win for workers in that it allows employers to offer a perk, transit advocates say it will encourage more people to drive.

It’s even more of a concern in dense cities, where the cost of parking can be exorbitant — a valuable perk for employees but expensive to subsidize.

Transit advocates fear that over the long term, the provision will worsen the disparity between transit and parking benefits, with employers opting more toward parking subsidies than those for transit.

For years, transit advocates have complained that federal tax law rewards those who choose to drive to work and fails to incentivize using public transit. Through the 1990s and much of the 2000s, the tax-free limit for monthly parking fees was much higher than its transit pass equivalent.

That’s why some cities and states have enacted their own legislation to tip the scales away from parking credits and toward transit. In 2014, the D.C. Council, for example, enacted a law that requires all D.C. businesses with more than 20 employees to offer a way for workers to pay for public transit costs with pretax wages. The council is considering legislation that would require businesses that offer free or subsidized parking for employees to offer the cash equivalent of that parking to employees who choose to use transit, walk or bike.

“There have always been ways that the federal tax code had encouraged subsidized parking as a commuter benefit. Over time, we’ve struggled to get some parity, but we’ve never reached parity,” Cort said.

Others, however, say advocates are being alarmist. It’s also unclear whether the workaround is even allowable.

“It’s a question that the IRS will definitely have to look into,” said Jason Pavluchuk, policy director at the Association for Commuter Transportation. “If employers start to look for workarounds, I think the IRS will start to come down pretty harshly against that.”

Another possible outcome of the new tax law, experts said, is that more employers will consider ditching their transportation subsidies altogether, opting instead to enroll their employees in pretax commuter pass programs.

“I don’t think they’re going to stop providing transit or parking benefits tomorrow, but they’re certainly going to rethink them in the future,” Cort said.

But Pavluchuk said he has spoken to several national employers known for their robust transportation benefit packages, and they don’t expect to change them, despite the fact that they will no longer be able to use the tax deduction.

“They don’t do it for the write-off. They do it for the employee recruitment and retention. And they do it because it helps not to have to figure out parking,” he said.

If that happens, it could have an opposite effect on commuting habits: In midsize, car-dependent cities, employers that ditch their commuter subsidies are more likely to eliminate parking subsidies — and instead get workers to sign up for transit passes.

Still, they question whether the elimination of the corporate tax write-off will be enough to get a large number of companies to change their policies.

“If employers are looking to improve their bottom line, transit benefits are not going to be the first place they look,” said Jody Dietel, chief compliance officer at WageWorks, a company that administers pretax benefits like parking and transit passes.

“In a lot of places, commuter benefits have become like health benefits — it’s a given,” she added. “Employers will say, ‘No way am I going to get rid of those benefits that are so valued by my employees.’ ”

Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post. Read the orginial story here.

Metro is mulling a major redesign of the bus system. But first, officials need to figure out why people aren’t riding.

As Metro’s bus ridership continues to wane, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is pushing a drastic idea: Blow up the system and start from scratch.

It’s an approach that has been taken around the country by other transit agencies facing similar declines in ridership — specifically Houston, which garnered headlines two years ago when it rolled out a completely reconstituted system over the course of one chaotic week.

And it’s a strategy that is being pushed by the Washington region’s leaders, eager to see Metro seize opportunities to save money and “right-size” service — essentially, to eliminate buses that consistently fail to run at capacity. A bus network overhaul was among the ideas recommended by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood in his recently released report on how to fix Metro’s structural and financial problems.

“The idea is not simply to curtail low performing bus routes. Something much more comprehensive is needed,” LaHood wrote. “By re-examining the entire system of bus routes, schedules and operating practices, we can find opportunities for things like more efficient routing that save money and improve service.”

But before Metro officials can do that, they have to figure out why bus ridership continues to decline even as ridership on the beleaguered rail system has begun to stabilize.

Asked about the causes of the downward trend at a recent board meeting, Wiedefeld responded: “I’m not sure yet. We’re trying to figure that out. And it’s not only here — you’re seeing that around the nation. Bus in general has taken a hit.”

According to the transit agency’s most recent quarterly performance report, average weekday bus ridership from July through September was down 8 percent from the same period last year; average weekend ridership was down 6 percent. And yet, during the same period, Metrobus had its best on-time performance for any year since the report began in 2010.

Weekday and weekend rail ridership was down just 1 percent — not a huge coup but a sign that the precipitous years-long decline may have begun to bottom out. It’s also a reversal of the trend during the agency’s year-long SafeTrack reconstruction program, when quarterly drops in rail ridership far outpaced bus losses.

Many people thought SafeTrack would be good for bus ridership in the long term. The train disruptions pushed many riders to try Metrobus for the first time, with some enjoying it so much they said they planned to make a permanent change to aboveground transportation. Many riders said the advent of mobile apps that provide real-time data on bus arrivals encouraged them even more.

But those positive circumstances, it turns out, have not been enough to stem the decline.

There are broad-stroke theories about the primary culprits. Private ride-share companies such as Uber, Lyft and Via have certainly lured away some would-be riders. And the growth in telecommuting means it’s become increasingly common for residents to commute fewer days per week.

Metro’s latest fare hikes also hurt. Basic bus fares increased a quarter, to $2, and officials say the increase probably had more significant consequences than the rise in rail fares because, on average, bus riders make less money.

But transit experts say the issue is probably more nuanced.

Although bus and rail ridership usually trend hand in hand — people often use buses to reach their nearest Metro station — the post-SafeTrack reliability improvements on Metro could be having an opposite effect. Rail may in fact be winning back riders who abandoned the system for slower but more reliable buses.

The growing popularity of bike sharing also could mean that bikes are being used as a replacement for shorter or “last-leg” trips that otherwise would be made by bus. (Capital Bikeshare usage jumped 50 percent from the first three months of 2015 to the same period in 2017.)

With more people working jobs outside the traditional 9-to-5 day, riders’ needs have shifted toward off-peak hours — windows in the bus schedule when it’s common to encounter a 30- or 60-minute wait between buses.

And the change in demographics and housing density in the Washington region has probably led to a fundamental mismatch between the places where people want service and where they’re getting it.

Some experts worry about the long-term effects of bad press about buses (they cited not-so-flattering episodes such as a woman throwing a cup of urine on a driver) and see a need for a positive Metro advertising campaign focused on encouraging people to ride buses.

Metro riders are inundated with messages assuring them that the rail system is getting “back to good,” but Metrobus campaigns are aimed more at imploring riders not to punch their drivers — not highlighting the fact that buses are often fast and frequent and nearly always cheaper than Uber or Lyft.

Pete Tomao, Montgomery County advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argued that Metro’s bus maps are too difficult to comprehend, discouraging those who might be open to taking the bus but are confused about what routes would serve them.

“Just with a new map, you can really make the buses a lot more user-friendly and more navigable,” Tomao said.

And there is the lack of bus amenities that advocates have requested for years: dedicated lanes that would allow express buses to beat the traffic and off-board fare payments so buses could spend more time moving and less time idling as embarking riders fumble with their SmarTrip cards.

“The region really hasn’t fulfilled the vision of networks of express bus routes that are robust and have dedicated lanes,” Tomao said.

That, he said, is why some advocates in the region are pushing back against the idea that the Metrobus system needs a bottom-up design overhaul.

“Before we move to say, ‘Oh, we have to redesign the whole thing,’ we need to look at corridors where we could have huge ridership and yet there’s no express bus or off-board fare collection,” Tomao said. “There’s low-hanging fruit that we haven’t done that could attract ridership.”

Yet in Houston, a top-to-bottom redesign has been a game-changer.

“There was a pretty stark decline,” said Kurt Luhrsen, the Houston Metro’s vice president of service planning. “We’d lost 20 percent of ridership in 12 years, at a time when Houston was booming and adding people and jobs and building new light-rail lines.”

Transit officials decided to overhaul the entire system, a plan that proved unpopular in many quarters. Much like in the District, where some bus routes were modeled off previous streetcar tracks and haven’t changed for years, there were some lines that had existed almost untouched for generations.

“There are some communities that are known by the route number that it goes through,” Luhrsen said. “There’s a big hesi­ta­tion about change and an assumption that any change will be bad. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.”

The process started with extensive surveys in the communities that would be affected by potential changes. People were asked to identify their priorities. Would they prefer extended hours or shorter waits between trains? Were they seeking express routes or shorter walks between stops and popular destinations?

“The way these projects normally go, you hire a consultant, devise a plan, you bring it to the public, the public comments — and that comment can sometimes be very loud and nasty — and you make tweaks and the board adopts the plan and you move on,” Luhrsen said. “It’s not very satisfying, and it tends to rile people up.”

Consultants came up with sweeping changes. The bus network went from a hub-and-spoke design, aimed at accommodating commuters concentrated in Houston’s downtown, to a grid design that assumed that there was just as much demand for destinations outside the downtown.

And officials focused on providing more frequent service throughout the day rather than clustering their efforts around the morning and evening peak periods. They also beefed up weekend service.

“We in transit tend to have an overwhelming fascination with weekday peak-hour service, but that’s not what all of our users do,” Luhrsen said.

In the course of one week, the system rolled out the whole plan, a change that involved a lot of chaos but also opportunity. The bus system was able to catch new potential riders, people who before the redesign had not attempted to use the bus system.

“The rollout gave an opportunity for education, which you don’t always have a chance to do,” Luhrsen said.

The effects on ridership are heartening: In the first year after the redesign, Saturday ridership increased by 15 percent, and Sunday service was even more popular.

To be sure, the booming success of the initial rollout of the bus network quieted quickly. From July 2016 to July 2017, total monthly bus ridership for Houston Metro stayed nearly flat. Still, Luhrsen said, that’s a change from the dramatic year-to-year ridership drops before the overhaul.

Houston has gotten pushback from people who say the city has shifted resources from low-income and minority communities. Luhrsen says that’s an oversimplification. Some communities that have lost density over the years now see longer wait times between buses. But those resources have been directed to communities where the population has grown rapidly, communities that are still largely populated by low-income or minority families.

“You don’t put less service in poor or minority communities, because those are the people who use transit the most,” Luhrsen said.

Still, there’s one snag to the success story: Houston’s plan didn’t actually end up saving money. In fact, officials ended up spending 4 percent more than the previous year’s budget for bus operations — an additional $12 million — in executing the new plan.

Luhrsen said the redesign was never meant to cut costs. Instead, he said, it was aimed at accommodating more people without adding too much in cost.

“Most agencies, to increase ridership, they build light-rail or streetcars that cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and that adds 20,000 or so riders to the system,” he said. “We did that for many, many times less money.”

Photo courtesy of Matt McClain. Read the original story here.

Are alleys the new frontier for D.C.’s housing market?

From the very inception of Washington, alleys have crisscrossed the city’s blocks, invisible passageways etched deep into the urban core. Over the course of generations, they have played host to horse stables, carriage houses, garages, artisans’ workshops and slums of such squalor that a 1912 inventory deemed them “evil.”

Now, the District’s alleys may be the next frontier in the city’s red-hot housing market. And across the country, cities including Austin and Denver are also turning to alleys in the hope of tackling unabating crises in housing affordability.

“This is creating new housing opportunities in places that are woven into our neighborhoods and were previously pretty much unavailable to us,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Adding alley-lot dwellings to a neighborhood block, she added, “can substantially increase the housing opportunity on that block . . . and that is a meaningful contribution to the diversity of housing choices and housing type.”

Tucked behind block upon block of neat rowhouses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood is an intricate network of alleys. The alleys, which historically served as back entrances or equestrian passageways, and in the city’s more recent troubled past as the domain of prostitutes, gangs and drug dealers, are today largely underutilized and underdeveloped. But the city’s new zoning code, which went into effect last September after almost a decade in the making, now makes it easier to develop alleys, easing previous restrictions like the minimum width of an alley, height limitations, and its distance to a main street.

One person doing a lot of that developing is Sean Ruppert.

Ruppert, the principal of the development firm OPaL, last month listed his latest completed alley project on the market, on Adolf Cluss Court SE in the Capitol Hill neighborhood: two 2,700-square-foot apartments, built out of a 1920s-era brick garage, for $1.895 million apiece.

Ruppert has done a handful of alley projects in recent years, including the award-winning three-home Naylor Court Stables development in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, and has noticed the growing popularity of alley homes among home buyers.

“I think there’s more of a willingness to live in alleys,” he said. “Now it’s seen as a quirky, unique space to live in, especially in a city that is so full of traditional row homes. This is really quite a unique space.”

Ruppert is betting on growing demand for alley homes. Just a block and a half away from his Adolf Cluss Court project, he is collaborating with local developer Martin Ditto of Ditto Residential on an alley project that will feature 45 residential units when completed. The project is being billed as “D.C.’s Next Great Alley.”

Individual homeowners, too, are increasingly interested in developing alley lots, said Nick Burger, a commissioner with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission on Capitol Hill who has been helping his constituents and other neighborhood residents through the long, complex process of obtaining permission to develop alley lots. In his neighborhood alone, four alleys have been named since last September, all in relation to plans for development, Burger said.

“What we found was that the vast majority of alleys on Capitol Hill . . . didn’t have names,” he said. “What many of these alley lot owners found was that they couldn’t build until they got an address, and they couldn’t get an address until the alley had a name.”

And then there are neighbors to placate.

Gillette Wing, who grew up in the District and now lives in Kingston, N.Y., owns an alley building just five blocks from the Capitol. The former stable used to be her grandmother’s, and when she passed away, ownership was transferred to Wing’s parents. But the property was left in limbo after Wing’s parents divorced, and for years the building was used only for storage, slowly falling into disrepair.

After the new zoning code went into force last year, Wing started thinking about turning the building into a residential space. Because the building didn’t fit the exact conditions laid out in the zoning code — for one, the 10-foot-wide alley was less than the required minimum width — Wing had to apply for a special exception, a process that includes input from neighborhood commissions and other D.C. agencies. Initially, some neighbors weren’t too pleased.

“Nobody wants construction in their backyard. I understand that,” Wing said. “I think there were points when it seemed like, oh, is this going to be so hard and painful?”

Wing ultimately won the support of the neighborhood commission, and a final hearing this week before the Board of Zoning Adjustments also yielded a unanimous vote of approval.

While the rehabilitation of vacant alley buildings into residential homes is not new to the city, the recent flurry of activity involving alleys — both from developers like Ruppert and individuals like Wing — points to a growing public consciousness of all that an alley can hold.

Alley homes, Ruppert said, “are trending, but not trendy.” Yet.

The affordable housing crisis afflicting cities nationwide is partly a physics problem: There is only so much space to build on, but an ever-growing population to accommodate. Alley dwellings, experts say, help by creating housing options in existing, underused space.

“You’re kind of filling in the cracks and crevices,” said Yolanda Cole, the senior principal, and owner of Hickok Cole Architects, which is providing architectural services for the 123-unit residential project on Blagden Alley, in the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District downtown. Construction is expected to begin early next year.

Capitol Hill, the site of many alley buildings, has seen property prices increase by about 30 percent in the past five years, according to the online real estate company Zillow. Alley homes could take some pressure off the housing market, said Cort, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“We think it’s great to bring these places back online in order to create more housing opportunities,” she said. “A smaller space also costs less to build, so it’s naturally less expensive.”

Of course, alley homes alone won’t solve the housing crunch. High-end homes like Ruppert’s Cluss Alley will be out of reach for many, and even non-designer homes may be too expensive for low-income home buyers. But middle-income households are also struggling to find affordable places to live, and alley homes can fill in the “missing middle” of housing, said Lisa Rother, executive director of Urban Land Institute Washington.

“It is not a big deal in and of itself,” she said of alley homes. “But I think what’s important is we need to use every single way of creating affordability in our toolbox. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Other cities are looking to alleys as a way to increase housing stock.

In Austin, the Alley Flat Initiative has identified a network of vacant and underused alleys in the city’s east, and is working to build alley flats in the residential lots facing these alleys. The initiative has built seven such flats and has another 10 in development, according to Nicole Joslin, who heads the program as executive director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center.

And in Denver, the Single Family Plus housing initiative, spearheaded by the city-supported West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, will kick off next spring with the goal of building 250 backyard or alley homes over five years.

Those homes, called accessory dwelling units, are technically different from the alley lot buildings seen in Washington. Instead of a structure on an alley lot unconnected to a street, an ADU is an additional dwelling on a single-family lot, either attached to the main building, say in the basement, or detached as a separate structure at the rear of the property. But while ADUs and alley lot dwellings differ in definition, they serve largely the same purpose: putting free space to use.

“Our goal is to create a pathway to make ADUs accessible to low- and middle-income homeowners,” said Renee Martinez-Stone, the collaborative’s director. To streamline the process and to reduce building costs, the initiative plans to offer a menu of preapproved ADUs for homeowners to choose from.

And beyond expanding the housing stock, the repurposing of alleys offers a new way to build and engage with the urban environment.

For Rebecca Summer, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied alleys in the District, how alleys are regarded in the public’s mind offers a clear snapshot of the city. Where alleys used to be treated as breeding grounds for vice, they are now celebrated as edgy and quintessentially urban, she said.

“Now, they’re still hidden,” Summer said. “But instead of people denigrating them, they’re seen as cool spaces.”

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