Georgetown Current

New Survey Highlights District’s Historic Alleys

May 14, 2014

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

Despite its usual vigilance in documenting and preserving its historic buildings, D.C. is only now starting to account for hundreds of structures concealed from plain view — the old stables, homes, warehouses and garages that line its back alleys.
The first formal attempt to survey these buildings, launched in 2011, is now detailed in a new report from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

The effort focuses not only on preservation, but also rediscovery and reinvention of these hidden networks of the city. In the future, the report suggests, D.C.’s alleyways could play host to new types of development, heritage tours, public art, festivals and urban farming, among other opportunities.

The survey documented 1,249 surviving alley structures over 50 years old within established historic districts in and around the L’Enfant city. Of the neighborhoods reviewed, Capitol Hill has the highest concentration of alley buildings, with 519 total. Next are Georgetown (253), Dupont Circle (101) and then U Street (82).

The buildings catalogued — the main types, in order of prevalence, are garages, stables, dwellings, workshops/warehouses, and studios/sheds — date back as far as 1863.

Although their location within neighborhood historic districts provides protections, the alley buildings actually didn’t factor into the formation of those districts. That oversight “was the main impetus for the [new] survey,” said Kim Protho Williams, the architectural historian who led the study.

The exception is the Blagden Alley-Naylor Court area of Shaw, which is recognized as its own historic district due to its intact alley network and collection of old buildings, including 24 former stables. The report notes that this area is seeing a renaissance today, as its alleyways thrive with residences, restaurants and shops.

Naylor Court resident David Salter, who runs a blog called “Preserving DC Stables,” helped push for the launch of the city’s survey. He said the documentation makes D.C. alley structures “more protected than they were before” and also heightens awareness of “new areas for people to live in and develop” in the increasingly dense city. “New residents are just starting to venture into the alleys, saying, ‘I never knew this existed.’”

Salter said in his own alley neighborhood, redevelopment has been “like a slingshot” following the recession. But an active preservation-minded community has steered developers and architects “to design things that are sensitive to the alley,” he said.

The new report also points to the reactivation of Cady’s Alley in Georgetown, where the “formerly under-utilized collection of 19th century stables, warehouses and alley dwellings has been converted into an exclusive shopping district.”

The alley structures remaining today in D.C. reveal only a shade of the city’s broader history with alleyways, which the report recounts in detail.

Starting out as a way to increase housing options and landlord incomes in a growing city, D.C.’s alleyways transformed after the Civil War into slum areas housing predominantly African-American residents. These neighborhoods, lacking adequate sewer and water connections, were known for their substandard conditions. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt denounced the alleyways as “breeding grounds of vice and disease.”

Over the years several formal efforts were launched to condemn and eradicate alley buildings. In 1934 Congress established the Alley Dwelling Authority, which aimed to clear all D.C. alley homes of their occupants within a decade. The advent of World War II ultimately derailed that goal, and the act was later repealed due to the activism of affluent white residents then living in renovated alley homes in Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom.

The new survey found 108 alley buildings that originally served as residences — most in the aforementioned neighborhoods. Williams noted that this is only a 3 percent survival rate, based on figures from a 1912 survey. One notably intact cluster remains in Foggy Bottom, along Snows Court and Hughes Mews.

Looking forward, the Historic Preservation Office hopes to expand its survey to more areas outside of the L’Enfant Plan, including Sheridan-Kalorama and Mount Pleasant; and beyond that to neighborhoods like Petworth and Bloomingdale that aren’t formally recognized as historic. (Williams mentioned that a number of alley residents in Bloomingdale have been talking about pursuing their own historic district.)

Williams also said she’d like to see a website or virtual tour devoted to the District’s alleyways.

From an urban planning perspective, the report lays out various recommendations, including activating the spaces for uses like art, street fairs and community gardens. To increase the visibility of alleyways, the report suggests granting them all official names and signage, and promoting tourism opportunities.

Williams said inspiration for such approaches comes from other U.S. cities working to activate historic alleyways, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver.

The D.C. report also points to eight areas that could serve as targeted “case studies” for alley revitalization. Those include St. Matthew’s Court in Dupont Circle, Congress Court/Oak Alley in Georgetown, and “Square 242” near 14th Street.

The full survey is available online at or through the D.C. Office of Planning’s website,

This article appears in the May 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Sewage Overflow Shuts Capital Crescent Trail

May 7, 2014

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

A major sewage spill last week continues to impact the D.C. stretch of the Capital Crescent Trail, as the city works on cleanup efforts.

Last Wednesday’s spill of about 5 million gallons of overflow sewage also affected the Potomac River and a portion of the C&O Canal. Both of those bodies of water have now been cleared as sanitary, according to officials.

The off-road Capital Crescent Trail, however, remains closed between Fletcher’s Cove and Water Street in Georgetown. The trail, known as one of the most heavily used in the nation, is popular not only for exercise and recreation but also as a major bike commuter link between Maryland and the District.

“We’re cautioning the public to expect the closure to last for several weeks while [the trail] is cleaned up appropriately and made safe for the public,” said Jenny Azelmo-Sarles, spokesperson for the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the D.C. portion of the trail going into Georgetown.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is in charge of that work, which “involves cleaning up solid waste and sanitizing the area,” according to Azelmo-Sarles. Authorities are applying “an extra level of precaution,” she said, because the trail’s users face more direct exposure than, say, motorists.

“People are hiking, walking, biking, running, bringing their kids and dogs,” she said. “This is not something that people are going to want to be tracking into their homes. It’s not just on the tires of their cars.”

John Lisle, spokesperson for the city’s water agency (also known as DC Water), said cleanup began last week after a plan was approved by the Park Service.

“We have completed the majority of the cleanup,” Lisle wrote in an email, “but are still working on some mitigation measures in coordination with NPS.”

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the trail closure “is impacting [bike] commuters, so it’s a bit of a problem.”

But Farthing said a parallel trail on the C&O Canal towpath offers “a relatively good workaround,” and he also expressed confidence that the city and Park Service are working quickly on solutions.

The spill happened late in the day April 30, during record-breaking rains. A rupture in a large interceptor sewer caused “an estimated 5 million gallons of combined sewage to overflow into the Potomac River,” running first over portions of the Capital Crescent Trail, according to DC Water.

Authorities cautioned the public to avoid contact with the Potomac River — an advisory that was lifted Monday, according to Azelmo-Sarles.

Lisle said his agency is “still investigating the cause” of the sewer line break, which appears related to the failure of an inflatable dam at a combined sewer outfall of the Potomac. The sewer system — installed in the late 1800s — is designed to operate during heavy rainfall. But in this case combined sewage “backed up and surcharged, spilling out in several locations, including a junction vault near Foundry Branch Tunnel, and from preexisting breaks in what we call the Upper Potomac Interceptor — a section of pipe that is out of service,” Lisle wrote.

The problem conflated when untreated sewage overflowed from a manhole into part of the C&O Canal on Friday night. Though activities on the canal towpath were allowed to continue as normal, authorities warned the public not to use the canal itself for fishing or recreation below Lock 6. That warning was lifted on Sunday, according to Azelmo-Sarles.

Jennifer Chavez, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the bigger picture is that the outdated, overtaxed D.C. sewer system can’t be sustained. “The similar common thread is that the District and [DC Water] have not kept up with the infrastructure, and they need to, and that’s just showing in so many ways across the city,” she said. “This is just one of the latest examples.”

“Clearly this is a big deal that they close down the Capital Crescent Trail due to ... to health reasons,” said Hedrick Belin of the Potomac Conservancy. For the waterways, he said, the event marks “a step backward for a healthy, vibrant Potomac River” and, by extension, the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Lisle with DC Water, the spill was not the only consequence of last week’s epic rainfalls. Overall, he wrote, “an estimated 215 million gallons of combined sewage was discharged into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek during those incredible rains.”

While “there are certainly risks” to those bodies of water, he wrote, “that would have been true whether or not we had the sewer break.”

Lisle also noted that these broader problems are exactly the focus of the DC Clean Rivers Project, a long-term plan to address sewage overflows into local waterways. Currently the agency is floating a plan to invest $90 million into “green infrastructure” solutions like green roofs and rain barrels.

More information about the Clean Rivers initiative is available at

This article appears in the May 7 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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City to Collect Unwanted Cans Soon

April 30, 2014

By Graham Vyse
Current Staff Writer

Unwanted trash and recycling cans sitting on properties across Georgetown and Burleith will be collected soon — no later than a month from now and likely within a week.

That was the assurance public works director William Howland brought to the area’s advisory neighborhood commission meeting Monday night. Howland’s appearance came following his department’s early-April distribution of new 32-gallon trash cans and 48-gallon recycling cans in the neighborhoods. The trash receptacles have been redesigned, and the recycling containers are 50 percent larger than those distributed previously.

Howland said the Department of Public Works delivered 210,000 new containers to 105,000 residential customers citywide, with the goal of increasing recycling. According to its website, the Department of Public Works received feedback from residents that their recycling cans were too small. Howland noted that the city currently has a 28 percent recycling rate, but its goal is 45 percent.

But many residents of Georgetown and Burleith are upset, saying the bigger cans take up too much space in dense neighborhoods where it’s scarce begin with.

“It isn’t working at all,” Pamla Moore, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, told Howland at the meeting. “The amount of … frustration is enormous.”

The city has asked residents to call 311 or 202-737-4404 to make removal requests for unwanted containers new or old, and to place “Take Me” stickers on the unneeded cans. Many have done so, but the receptacles remain. In some cases, residents turned bins upside down to signal they were unwanted, but passersby have flipped them over and are now filling them with trash, Moore said. She was one of several community members to suggest that the city find a centralized location for residents to bring all their unwanted containers.

“That’s not a bad idea,” said commission chair Ron Lewis. “It’s sort of the Georgetown equivalent of the western roundup.”

Howland suggested that no roundup would be necessary, with the agency now prioritizing collection efforts in dense areas like Georgetown, Burleith and Capitol Hill. He said crews will be driving through the streets to find cans marked for pickup. Residents should still call the city to request removal, but once the city hears from a single resident on any given street, a crew will be dispatched to that road. Crews will collect cans that have stickers or spray-painted “Take Me” messages as well as those turned upside down.

The director acknowledged that there will be some difficulties, specifically with regard to residents who spend months away from their properties. Asked how he would deal with their cans sitting unattended for a prolonged period, Howard said, “I don’t have a policy, to be honest. ... We probably just need to take them back.”

Howland also said he understand that many residents with lighter recycling loads — or with particularly limited storage space — are still using the small rectangular bins that the city used to issue, as opposed to the larger Supercan-style containers. He said he recognized there was interest in new small bins and pledged to check his inventory to see if there were any available. Lewis pointed out that residents can always purchase other cans from private stores rather than accepting the city-supplied models.


This article appears in the April 30 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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