There is a lot of bad blood between the Dupont Circle ANC and the HPRB. Even before the Third Church issue, there were several other deeply felt conflicts, which led to serious discussion at this month’s ANC meeting about a “historic preservation bill of rights” limiting, in some ways, HPRB’s authority. Some ANC commissioners argued that HPRB is inconsistent in its application of law and inconsistent in its procedures, in effect simply deciding whatever its staff and members feel like requiring or allowing for any given property. And the apparent misconduct by the office in the Elkins case (news story, court opinion) gives additional ammunition to critics of the board.
I don’t yet know enough about the history or the law to have an opinion about HPRB’s overall operation. But there was something funny about their ruling in December about the U Street project. The ANC, especially Chairman Ramon Estrada, who lives near the project, opposes the size of the project and has voiced concerns about traffic impacts on the alleys and side streets. They sought to use an existing curb cut on 14th Street as the entrance to the underground garage, rather than having cars access the building through the alley or on T Street. The architect, Eric Colbert, expressed a willingness to explore this possibility at December’s ANC meeting.
HPRB, though, disagreed about the 14th Street access idea, ruling that “maintaining or creating a curb cut for parking, loading, and trash on 14th Street would be incompatible with the character of the district.” I find it disturbingly ironic that maintaining anything could be incompatible with historic character, especially given that when landmarking Third Church the commissioners essentially argued that despite its flaws, aesthetic unpleasantness, and failure as a public space, the building’s presence makes it part of the “historic character” of DC. Now, keeping a curb cut the way it is violates the historic character. The truth, of course, is that the board members quite simply judge anything they like as being historic, and anything they dislike as “incompatible”; and when thinking about buildings, like many architects they see each one in isolation as a piece of art rather than as an element of a larger fabric.
As for the U Street project, its many issues are complex. My personal feeling is that density near a Metro station is a valuable public policy goal, and therefore we should allow and encourage large buildings in these areas. At the same time, there’s no reason not to also make the building attractive and harmonious with the surrounding historic architecture, as well as avoiding harmful traffic impacts.
The best option was one suggested by Colbert at December’s ANC meeting: reducing the amount of parking entirely. DC mandates minimum parking requirements for new buildings, but according to Colbert there is precedent for waiving some of this for development near transit, coupled with restrictions that would limit or eliminate residents’ eligibility for parking permits. In essence, the building would attract residents willing to live without cars (and use Zipcars), knowing that they couldn’t simply park on the street and would have to pay for scarcer garage spaces. Creating more car-free residential housing is exactly what DC should be doing to build a less car-dependent city, the only way to keep traffic congestion down as the city grows.