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The long road to naming D.C.’s alleys

See why one Columbia Heights alley had to earn a name to gain a future

All photos by Dustin Renwick

Fresh concrete blocks rise to form a wall within the angled arms of the original exterior shell, with its scattered rectangles of blazing color. Yellow and red mingle up there. Bright blue swoops across over here.

These anomalies amid the staid rust-red of standard bricks are the vestiges of expansive murals and graffiti. Their artistic loss is simply another notation in the century-plus history of a Columbia Heights alley that has now definitively answered the common question: what’s in a name?


“I feel like we kind of blazed a trail,” says Greg Gardner, an architect who’s worked in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade.

Gardner saw an opportunity in this particular alley, a north-south fork sandwiched between 11th Street and Sherman Avenue NW and bounded by Columbia Road and Irving Street NW. Gardner’s group, SevenFiveThree Development, bought the building in the alley in 2012.

“The zoning code at the time was black and white: Alleys should be used for nothing except for the storage of cars or artist studios,” he says.

He and his team worked to clean up the site and embarked on the process of obtaining municipal approvals. They divided the initial parcel to create two additional lots that would meet the zoning restrictions. When Gardner tried to file for building permits, he encountered the first of several changes to the local laws.

In the past, a building located in an alley might have received a “rear” designation based on the street-facing property. A 2014 update to the city regulations made separate addresses necessary.

No street name, no building permit, no project.

“We’ve been a lot more mindful lately on council about how we’re naming things,” says Brianne Nadeau, the D.C. Councilmember who helped Gardner. “There’s this great underrepresentation of African-American leaders in named public places.”

The five-decade evolution of the alley and the main building located at the eastern edge of the Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Plat maps via G.M. Hopkins Company and George William Baist

Nadeau’s team suggested Theodore Williams, a community leader in the neighborhood who prevailed against racial barriers to gain employment in the health care sector. Williams worked at Garfield Hospital and at the Hygienic Laboratory, the predecessor to the National Institutes of Health.

The city Council passed Nadeau’s bill in 2016, but Gardner still couldn’t proceed with his two new lots in Williams Alley. The switch had been approved as ceremonial instead of official.

Ceremonial namings have yielded such D.C. gems as Capitalsaurus Court or political jabs like the block in front of the Russian Embassy that carries a tribute to an assassinated rival of Vladimir Putin.

However, those honoraria don’t show up on maps. That means alleys with ceremonial titles would miss out on mail and emergency services. Water. Trash. Recycling. None of those happen without an address either. So the city council examined the law.

“They said, nope we’re just going to put everything on hold until we make this law clear,” Gardner says.

The delay created by the confusion netted a positive for Gardner because the council also passed legislation that relaxed restrictions on residential units in alleys. His plan for the development now includes one office space and two single-family dwellings.

Williams Alley gained official status in 2017. It’s the first one renamed under the current codes, and it’s a signal of the D.C.’s future development. Alleys provide an opportunity to balance the breathless expansion of luxury real estate.

“There’s a lot of [alleys] where we could provide density, provide housing,” Gardner says.

Owners filed building permits in 1901 and 1907. The resulting brick structure has been used as a garage and auto repair shop since the 1930s.

The capital has 356 miles of alleys, according to Terry Owens, the public information officer for the District Department of Transportation. Gardner questions why the city hasn’t designed a comprehensive nomenclature that mimics the roads, an action that would preempt this roadblock for any prospective construction. A report from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office made that same recommendation, but Nadeau says she isn’t aware of any discussions about enacting such a plan.

“We’re going to end up with all these one-block street names that will be hard to locate,” Gardner says. “Our alley, if you cross Irving Street, becomes an alley again. Why isn’t that going to be Williams Alley as well?”

For now, the majority of these critical conduits will continue to exist in modest obscurity, their potential missing a proper name.