Current and former DC Theaters. Photo by the author.

On July 28th, for the first time in nearly two decades, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board failed to achieve a quorum, and couldn’t hear several cases during its afternoon session.

The board had to postpone two cases to another meeting for the following week. Preservationists feel the administration has been inattentive to the importance of making appointments to HPRB. There are a great many vacancies in DC boards and commissions, but while most are advisory, HPRB is one of the few with direct influence over policy.

In January, 16-year board veteran Jim Kane resigned, leaving the 9-member board with only 8 members. 6 of the remaining members’ terms have already expired without being renominated or replaced.

The terms of 3 members expired in July 2010 (Elinor Bacon, Maria Casarella, and Robert Sonderman) and another 3 expired last month (Tersh Boasberg, Christopher Landis, and Joseph Eugene Taylor). Furthermore, some say Pamela Scott, due to health reasons, will resign as soon as the current vacancies are filled.

"This is a big deal,” said a former HPRB member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Everyone in the preservation community is asking themselves the same question; Why are these nominations languishing?”

Rule changes during previous mayoral administrations allow members of city boards and commissions to continue to serve and cast binding votes up to 180 days after their terms expire. However, HPRB currently has members whose terms expired more than 380 days ago and who are still serving.

If HPRB can’t reach a quorum during forthcoming meetings, it will impair city business. On average, the Historic Preservation Office approves 4,000 cases each year. Roughly 150 make their way to the HPRB for additional review. A delay in HPRB approval for commercial and residential projects is an effective stop-work order. Costs quickly accrue from additional interest payments to higher labor costs. Additionally, delays in HPRB approval can threaten contractual timelines. 

In response to a letter from preservationist Mary Rowse, Ronald Collins, Director of the Office of Board and Commissions (OBC) in the Executive office of the Mayor, wrote, “We will be sending nominations to the Council for the HPRB when the Council returns from its Summer Recess on September 15th.”

According to Rowse:

[The OBC] interviewed between 10 and 20 people for the HPRB earlier this spring, that four names were mentioned as possible nominees (two current members of the Board—[Maria] Casarella and [Elinor] Bacon and two new names: Nancy Metzger and Niani Kilkenny) but that the nomination process was put on hold and no names were sent to the Council.

Multiple sources report that due to considerable pushback against the leak of potential nominees, members of the preservation and business communities worried the HPRB could potentially become transcendent in their opposition to development rather than serving as a guiding force to make development compatible. Because of the resistance to the nominees, their names were not advanced.

"We would like to have the current vacancies filled by highly qualified professionals and committed active citizens,” said Buell, Chair of the HPRB, “who can help with the increasing volume of our workload. The size and scope of projects along 14th Street NW, the redevelopment of Hine Junior High School, and others have required our additional attention and oversight.”

The DC Preservation League, the Committee of 100, the District of Columbia Building Industry Association, community organizations, and private citizens have all suggested names for consideration.

Thanks to the delay, at least seven vacancies will have to be filled at once. That could mean a significant and sudden shift in the board, increasing the uncertainty for preservation and development stakeholders.