The first post on Greater Greater Washington about historic preservation that didn’t deal with Third Church dates to March 10, 2008, and bears the title, “Historic preservation: a blunt instrument for design review.” Today, the historic preservation process remains a very blunt instrument for design review, and an even more blunt instrument for use regulation. Yet it also remains the only real tool for most properties. When a set of buildings aren’t really that historic, like Meads Row on H Street, there is no public policy recourse against seeing old row houses replaced with a surface parking lot.

The City Paper runs down the story. Three old townhouses remain on the 1300 block of H Street, NE, along with a one-story structure where a fourth once stood. Retailers don’t want to rent space in the dilapidated buildings, and one of the houses has a huge storefront gate marring most of its facade and that of the missing house.

Image from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.

The owner of the properties wants to tear down one, along with the one-story structure that replaced the fourth. In its place, he plans a surface parking lot. Critics charge that he just wants to avoid DC’s vacant property taxes. ANC 6A and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society sought to landmark the row, but Historic Preservation Office staff concluded that the buildings aren’t landmark-worthy on their own. They’re so significantly altered from their original appearance that little remains to preserve, and arguments that the builder, Charles Meads, was himself significant are thin at best. The staff report does leave open the possibility of creating a historic district for the entire H Street area.

HPRB agreed with their staff and declined to landmark the properties. The owner can now apply for a demolition permit, and surface parking will surely soon cover this site. Perhaps, as H Street’s revitalization continues and the economy recovers, the owner will eventually build a new structure here, maybe even better than the old. Still, that could be many years. Fixing up those old buildings would surely have contributed more to the area than tearing them down in the meantime.

From Google Maps images, it appears that vehicles can access the site from the rear, via a space that’s either alley or just a paved rear yard for the adjacent church. If so, DDOT ought to prohibit any curb cuts right off H Street, requiring cars to access the parking lot from 13th. Even if rear access isn’t feasible, DDOT could prohibit the curb cut anyway, effectively disallowing a parking lot use.

The revised zoning code isn’t yet complete and might not be for two years, but if it were, it would require the property owner to screen the lot from the street with somewhat attractive fences and greenery. Zoning could even require property owners to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a “special exception” to make a property into a parking lot.

Meanwhile, H Street will be a little bit diminished, and residents are left with few tools to influence what replaces these row houses. Historic preservation law gives HPRB board broad powers to review demolitions and the design of new buildings, but not every property is historic. We need the right tools to give communities some influence over other properties, but without the lengthy, heavyweight reviews that also impose serious burdens on development in historic districts.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.