Ben's Chili Bowl demolishes 1001 H Street NE: Illegal demolition illustrates failures in DC's regulatory system
Historic buildings are the building blocks of successful urban commercial districts
As discussed in a previous entry ("Millennials, hipness, "rowhouse-y charm," and authenticity") it is the historic--eligible for designation or actually designated--building stock in neighborhood commercial districts that is the basic building block for "cool" "edgy" "interesting" "attractive" places to visit.
The link between urban revitalization and historic preservation is long standing. In fact, I am pretty much convinced that historic preservation strategies are one of the only sustainable methods for urban revitalization (transit helps, but isn't absolutely required) that there is. The Main Street program is based on this concept, and there are plenty of other studies and work that demonstrates the link.
Lately I am particularly enamored of the writings by John Montgomery, a professor and consultant involved in early culture and creative industries driven urban revitalization efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His book The New Wealth of Cities: City Dynamics and the Fifth Way, is probably the best single discussion of virtually every aspect of culture district based revitalization (even better than Cities: Back from the Edge, which is equally great and I will say, easier to read, but is not quite the same as a primer), including the historic preservation element. I wish we would have known about JM's work when we started the H St. Main Street organization.
More recently, the World Bank published The Economics of Uniqueness: Investing in City Cores and Cultural Assets for Sustainable Development which focuses more on the historic preservation/heritage conservation element.
In DC, only historically designated areas "enjoy" extra-normal protections such as more careful design review and restrictions on demolition
The reason the link between historic buildings and urban revitalization is worth mentioning is that it provides justification for regulating what happens to buildings in commercial districts.
About 10 years ago, I submitted testimony with regard to DC's Department of Housing and Community Development and the Main Street program, suggesting that as part of the creation of a Main Street district, development review guidelines and building protections should be put into place, regardless of the historic designation status of the district.
A demolition on H Street NE demonstrates the gap in DC laws
A few days ago, Ben's Chili Bowl, which bought 1001 H Street NE (two buildings) for a new location ("For Ben's Chili Bowl, expansion comes with responsibility," Washington Post) demolished the building, even though they submitted plans to the city's Building and Land Regulation Agency for renovation and never applied for a demolition permit. Despite the demolition, there isn't a stop work order posted on the property (at least as of yesterday afternoon, when I went by).
One of the provisions in the "Neighborhood Commercial District Overlay" discourages demolition by given a space utilization (or FAR, floor-to-area ratio) bonus. What this means is that property owners can use more of the site if they keep an historically eligible building rather than tear it down. Ben's was given that bonus, based on their submitted plans, but based on the demolition, they are not eligible for it. But it's not the same as the Cleveland regulation.
DC's regulation is based on the hope that there is goodwill and appreciation for historicity on the part of the property owner.
But I would think that the myriad examples of lousy work and boneheaded acts by property owners across the city would convince us that being hopeful isn't a good strategy.
DC needs building protections in commercial districts, whether or not these districts are historically designated
1. One example would be how Cleveland has a zoning classification called a "Business Revitalization District," which requires design review and development coordination for all projects in designated revitalization districts (H Street would be considered such a district in the context of Cleveland's regulations). This is to ensure that property owners don't take actions that diminish, rather than assist, revitalization. From the Cleveland webpage:
Certain proposals for construction, exterior alterations, building demolitions or signs in the City of Cleveland must undergo a process known as "design review." The City established this process as a policy to ensure that any visual changes to buildings or open spaces will enhance the architectural character of Neighborhood Commercial Districts.2. Ultimately, even in a historic district, you can't prevent a company from breaking the law if that's what they want to do. So buildings do get demolished, despite the best efforts of government officials and building inspectors.
The way to prevent this from happening is to have serious penalties.
Some jurisdictions--not DC--have provisions in the law so that illegal demolitions are "cured" by a complete rebuilding of the property.
But in DC, other than a wee fine, nothing of substance will happen to the company, and DC loses buildings that are more than 100 years old.
And to require that buildings be saved, or at least very difficult to tear down.
A more robust regulation like Cleveland's is definitely in order.
3. Another penalty to consider assessing would be on the firms/employees that performed the illegal demolition, forbidding authorization to work on projects in DC for a period of 18 months or more.
Flickr image of 1001 H Street NE by Inked78
Google Street View Image
Image from yesterday
Sign on the wall of the adjoining building, announcing the coming of Ben's to the H Street corridor
Yesterday, despite the illegal demolition, no stop work notice had been posted, and workers were on site.