Photo by In Shaw on Flickr.

Ugly home additions or new construction often lead to calls to expand historic preser­vation citywide, but our current historic review process is far too cumbersome and limiting. Instead, less stringent design review or neighbor­hood-specific zoning could help shape development effectively.

Last week, Richard Layman provocatively suggested applying design review rules to the entire District.

The historic preservation design review process can indeed prevent undesirable projects from moving forward, but the process also too often serves objectives unrelated to genuine historical preservation, such as simply wanting to limit development.

Layman writes:

For years I have been surprised that a city so defined by historical excellence in planning (L’Enfant, McMillan Commission) and excellence in architecture, does not require design review for the entire city, regardless of whether or not a neighborhood or building is designated as historic. ... This would be a way to right the terrible wrong that occurs in so many neighborhoods, when alteration of the housing stock is done in ways that diminish the value of place.


Applying design review for the whole city would definitely reduce the diminishment of the historic housing stock outside the designated historic districts, but it would come at a steep cost.

In DC’s historic districts, such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill, any modification or new construction of a building requires the approval of the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) or the District’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) design review board.

During the review, these boards often (if not nearly always) deny applicants the right to build as much on the property as zoning allows. For example, while the zoning code for the property may allow a building of 40 feet in height, the board requires a shorter building.

Sometimes this process protects against projects that even advocates of more density would oppose. This classic “pop-up” was labeled by the Prince of Petworth as the “Worst Pop-Up of All Time”:


Photo by Prince of Petworth.


Since this property is not in a neighborhood subject to design review, the owner was able to build to the zoning maximum. This completely breaks up the consistent roof lines of the block and the clapboard building material of the addition is completely out of place tacked on to a Victorian brick rowhouse.

Here’s another atrocious example of what happens when poor design meets maximum building size:


Photo by Hyperlocal Glover Park.


I have no doubt that neither of these pop-ups would see the light of day if they were subject to historical review. The buildings are out of scale with their neighbors and the building materials and styles are completely out of place.

The fact is that historical review is generally effective at preventing inferior projects like these from going forward. So Layman is right that expanding the entire District to review by the CFA or HPO could address “bad” projects that disrupt the aesthetic harmony of a neighborhood.

But a literal application of this approach would be a disaster. Neither CFA nor HPO has remotely enough resources to perform the design review that would be necessary if the entire District were one large historic zone. Moreover, enforcement would be nearly impossible. I can speak from experience that dealing with historical review is incredibly frustrating, and if it were applied across the District, I would fear a grassroots rebellion against any and all historic protection.

But more importantly, historic review prevents plenty of good projects as well. In Georgetown, for instance, Eastbanc has proposed to replace the Canal Rd. Exxon with a five story condo building. From a true historic preservation perspective, there’s not much of a case against the project. It wouldn’t break up the rhythm of the block and the proposed style, while not particularly elegant, was at least not discordant.

But neighbors along Prospect Street would lose a part of their fabulous view across the Potomac. So they argued vociferously during the design review process that the project should be reduced to preserve their views. This had little to nothing to do with genuine historic preservation. While the Old Georgetown Board (a sub-body of the CFA) did not endorse the Prospect Street residents’ objection specifically, they did hem and haw over the “massing” of the building before Eastbanc pulled the proposal. They are currently working on new plans.

This pattern is repeated frequently in Georgetown and in other historic districts. I’ve sat through dozens of meetings discussing scores of projects. Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character but rather because they simply just don’t like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it’s too big, you’ll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.

So while historical preservation design review can prevent projects that could truly degrade the historic quality of a neighborhood, it’s also used to prevent projects that don’t pose that threat and would in fact enhance the neighborhood.

But it is certainly worthwhile for the District to develop alternatives for neighborhoods looking to prevent the pop-ups, and the like, while avoiding the burdens and drawbacks of full historic district designation. The scope and objectives of such a review should be narrowly tailored.

A sliding scale of review could apply depending on the nature of the neighborhood. For instance, older townhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale may warrant stronger controls than a neighborhood full of detached houses of diverse styles.

Layman hinted at how the possible mechanics for this review could work. Rather than expand the jurisdiction of the CFA or HPO, tailor the zoning envelope to a neighborhood, or even to each block. If someone wants to build beyond that envelope, make a special exception the standard of review by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).

This is a lower standard than a variance. It would introduce a small degree of design review, without being the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent that the historic preservation design review often becomes.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.