Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Some current historic preservation issues in DC


When I was getting heavily involved in local issues especially historic preservation (as a tool to stabilize and maintain otherwise declining neighborhoods), I came across this searing series in the Chicago Tribune about that city's failure to adequately protect buildings eligible for designation, buildings that had already been identified through city surveys as being potentially worthy of saving.

-- Squandered Heritage article series from the Chicago Tribune (through archive.org), Part 1 (Search and Destroy), Part 2 (The Demolition Machine), Part 3 (The Alternatives).  From the first article:

Twenty years ago, the city of Chicago launched a mission never undertaken before by any major American community. It dispatched teams of architectural experts to examine every last one of the city's buildings -- nearly half a million.

Their charge: To inventory all the architectural jewels, some well known, most unheralded, strung along 3,676 miles of streets, then color-code them according to their aesthetic and historical value.

The survey took 12 years and cost more than $1.2 million. In that time, the experts turned up thousands upon thousands of sparkling gems.

There was, for example, the ornate movie house that enlivened life along 47th Street near the old Chicago Stockyards; the neo-classical office building that rose majestically above the squatting storefronts of the West Side; and the Art Deco bank that graced Rogers Park with exquisitely crafted stone details, including a stylized figure of a man holding a sun.

Each of the three buildings was historically and architecturally significant, the city declared when it published the results of the survey in 1996. In time, the city said, the structures could be designated official Chicago landmarks and be protected forever from demolition or defacement.

Now they are gone.

And so are hundreds of others, a nine-month Tribune investigation has found.

Mayor Richard M. Daley and his administration have failed to back up the survey with the necessary protections, and in essence have encouraged the rampant demolition of buildings they purportedly had sought to preserve.

Hundreds of buildings have been smashed to bits, carted off to dumps, buried in the ground, the shards of their decoration destroyed or sold to salvagers who peddled them to art museums, restaurants and affluent homeowners.

DC has similar issues. 

While Chicago had done a systematic survey of buildings potentially worthy of designation, categorizing them at various levels, including "structures of citywide, state or national significance" and "buildings of community significance," DC hasn't done a comparable survey of resources on a city wide basis--although many--but not all--neighborhoods have been surveyed as part of the consideration of the creation of neighborhood historic districts, and the Historic Preservation Office has commissioned a variety of "thematic" studies on particular types of buildings and/or infrastructure such as schools, telephone and telecommunications structures, and transit infrastructure.

Monday's Post had an article, "Georgia Avenue church fights historic designation," about a local ANC commissioner's filing of a designation application for a local church prominently located on Geogia Avenue.  Tuesday's Post reported, "Preservationists file to protect Corcoran," that the DC Preservation League has filed an interior designation application for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which has been in the media a lot lately because they have announced they are considering selling the building and moving to another cheaper location.

And GGW had a blog entry, "ANC opposes landmarking Western Bus Garage," about the potential nomination of the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights, which some people are against because they would like to see the property redeveloped (although there are no substantive plans for relocating the Metrobuses that are stored at the property).

I had been meaning to write about preservation because recently, Kent Boese, the ANC Commissioner involved in the Georgia Avenue issue, through his ANC compiled a report, Report to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A on Historic Landmarks, Potential Landmarks, & Sites of Historic or Cultural Importance within ANC 1A, that systematically identified and listed potential cultural and historic resources located within their ANC. 

It's commendable and worthy of blogging about because it is an exceptional action by an ANC to do a systematic evaluation of the potential resources within that geography.  

For an ANC to do this is commendable, although some ANCs have done related kinds of work, such as 6A and 6C pushing for cultural surveys in their neighborhoods and gettinng them funded through PUD associated "community benefits" proffers.

I seem to remember that the old Comprehensive Plan in the ward plans called for the systematic evaluation of historic resources within each ward.

To my knowledge that's not really been done, although thematic surveys do this for particular categories on a citywide basis.  

Most of the "more than 100,000 buildings that have been surveyed" (draft 2015 DC Historic Preservation Plan) in DC have been surveyed as part of neighborhood surveys (which may or may not result in the creation of historic districts).    I wouldn't call it systematic survey because for the most part neighborhood survey efforts are initiated by neighborhoods (although in the 1970s and 1980s the city did engage in more systematic survey efforts, which is in part why the Anacostia Historic District was created).

The 2015 draft preservation plan calls for "completing the city survey".  It should be the foremost priority, along with triage plans for each ward/ANC.

Without systematic survey on a ward/ANC basis, advocates are put at a disadvantage. And consideration of interior designation of certain buildings in a systematic way would have long ago captured the Corcoran Gallery of Art as a building worthy of such designation.

First, designation applications are usually filed on a triage basis and most property owners haven't done "due diligence" on their property when it comes to historic preservation.  

Second, the way the media covers the issue tends to be adversarial.  The Monday article is a perfect example of this, as is past coverage on the issue by former Post columnist Marc Fisher (see point 12 in this 2010 blog entry, "Reassessing historic preservation on account of it being National Historic Preservation Month"), although the real estate section of the paper is involved in a contest on historic houses right now and has published some good articles on the topic in the past few weeks:


-- "The challenges of preserving a historic neighborhood," Roger Lewis
-- "Renovating a historic house takes great skill and patience," Roger Lewis
-- "Historic homes in Washington DC area embrace a wealth of significant architectural styles"
-- "Historic Home Contest"

Third, we don't really have "systematic" preservation "education" either, so most city residents, especially newer residents, are unfamiliar with preservation's major and significant contributions to the stabilization and improvement of the city's neighborhoods, especially during the many decades when the city was shrinking in population and resources.  E.g., this is from "Historic homes in Washington DC area embrace a wealth of significant architectural styles" but most people don't know:

“There is a wealth of styles,” says Patrick Andrus, a historian with the National Register of Historic Places. “In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, D.C. was very cosmopolitan, very receptive to architectural styles. . . . D.C. adopted everything that was available.”

Many of those architectural gems still stand, largely because of the preservation movement.

Preservation efforts by homeowners, historians and groups — Cultural Tourism D.C., the D.C. Preservation League, Preservation Maryland, Preservation Virginia and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, just to name a few — have been extensive. ...

To date, more than 25,000 D.C. buildings are in a historic district, says Steve Callcott, deputy preservation officer in the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

Says Andrus: “It’s a rich environment for historic preservation.”

Washington was one of the earliest jurisdictions to create historic districts: first in 1964, although the designation was largely honorary, and later by law in 1978. (Georgetown was even earlier, with the creation of a historic district in 1950 by an act of Congress.)

Of course, then we could have a more informed conversation about how to go about "protecting" resources within communities and in terms of the city more generally. 

Somewhere I once wrote about looking at designation decisions on multiple levels in ways different than we do now.  Generally, my take is that HPO's approach is that every building of a type doesn't need to be designated (except in the context of the creation of historic districts) only the best examples.  That means that buildings that might be significant on a neighborhood basis don't merit designation when considering the type and style of the building in the context of the entire city.

That might mean that neither the old York Theater on Georgia Avenue nor the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights are worthy of designation.

Another element to consider, which logically isn't part of the _local_ law, is the local building in terms of an architect's total body of work.  In other words, do we need to save a Pei building (3rd Church) or Van der Rohe building (MLK Library) that are the only examples of their work _in the city_, when as examples of the architect's total body of work they may not be particularly exemplary.

And we need an articulate discussion of why churches shouldn't be exempt from the preservation laws.  (see the past blog entry, "Zoning and religion" among others)  I always find calls for exemptions ironic because in many ways, DC's local historic preservation laws were created in response to the Capitol Hill Baptist Church acquiring and demolishing buildings on the 500 block of East Capitol and replacing them with parking lots.

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