Alley Alley, Not for Free

One symbol of the District’s hopelessly ad hoc land-use planning process is the D.C. Council’s dominion over alley closings. In a procedure that is inevitably politicized, the council determines whether or not to close public alleys and thus allow landowners to consolidate adjacent properties for development. Now another local political body has entered the alley-closing business: the control board.

The alley that drew the control board’s attention is an L-shaped one in the block bounded by 16th, 15th, R, and S Streets NW; the lots it divides all belong to the Scottish Rite Temple, which borders the land to the west. The temple has tentative plans to use the now-vacant property for an annex to its 16th Street edifice, adding an auditorium or library to the complex. But the alley closing is not designed to facilitate construction, which is not expected to begin for years. (Construction of an annex would also require a zoning change, since the land is now zoned for residential use.) Instead, the purpose of the closing is to reduce the temple’s tax bill.

Under D.C. law, vacant property is taxed at a higher rate than occupied land. The temple’s vacant lots are Class 5 property, while the temple itself is Class 4. If the properties are combined into one, the vacant land will be taxed at the rate currently applied to the temple. Annually, that change will cost the city between $36,000 (the National Capital Planning Commission staff’s figure) and $66,000 (the control board’s). Despite this financial hit, the council voted on Feb. 14 to close the alley. Before the vote, the council’s Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs submitted a report arguing that “the alley closing, per se’’ will not affect city revenues because, even without the closing, the temple could legally apply for a lower tax rate for the vacant land as long as it “is maintained as planned open space.’’

The control board, however, didn’t accept the council’s judgment. On Feb. 29, it resolved that the alley closing was “significantly inconsistent with the applicable financial plan and budget.’’ That leaves the alley open—and establishes another arena for the frequently bitter battles over D.C. alley closings.

—Mark Jenkins and Bill Rice

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