Photo from Google Street View.

Should the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights be a landmark? The Tenleytown Historical Society is trying to get it designated as one, and a hearing will take place next week. But the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) says it’s just not a significant building.

This mostly unremarkable building is most significant for its location. It’s right near the Friendship Heights Metro, and backs onto Wisconsin Avenue. Therefore, many believe that residents opposed to growth in the neighborhood have sought to use the historic preservation process to keep any redevelopment away from this site.

ANC 3E’s resolution notes that the Tenleytown Historical Society never sought to landmark the building until WMATA issued an RFP in 2005 to redevelop it; suddenly, they filed the application. The ANC writes, “There is thus at least an appearance that the application in this case may in part be motivated by a desire to forestall the mixed use development of a site that sits on the same block as a Metro Stop.”

Is the building historic at all? The first section talks about the history of streetcars in DC, dating back to 1862. The Wisconsin Avenue side of this site held a streetcar car barn starting in 1888. But this building isn’t the car barn; that was demolished in the mid-1960s. The ANC writes,

It is hard to see the relevance of the fact that it was used as a streetcar barn when nothing remains of the street car barn that predates the current bus garage. In the meantime, the block itself and surrounding area will remain central to transportation uses regardless of what is done with the garage itself as there is a Metro stop there and it is a central area used by many buses serving both Maryland and the District.

Moreover, while the application goes to great lengths in describing the evolution of transportation uses at this site and in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor dating back to 1862, if approved this application could end or severely limit that evolution.

As for the architect, Arthur Berthrong Heaton, Jr., he had an impressive resume and designed over 100 buildings in DC, including the National Geographic building. But many of those buildings still remain, and are far more architecturally meaningful than this garage. The ANC writes, “It is clear that this project does not reflect his finest work.”

Finally, the application talks at great length about the brick work. There is indeed a somewhat interesting brick pattern on the 44th Street side. The other walls are not very interesting, and in fact were mostly party walls this building shared with other buildings at the time.

The ANC’s resolution says, “At base a simple brick façade is still just a brick façade. There is nothing about the brick used that is particularly noteworthy.” They do suggest that any future development incorporate these particular elements, and that they would not object to a historic designation that preserves just this façade while leaving flexibility to actually build something better on the site.

Should DC landmark on such tenuous grounds?

A landmark application must state why the property in question should be designated as a landmark. This application says:

The Western Bus Garage meets criteria for designation in the D.C. Inventory (section 201.1 (b), (d) and (f), 201.2 and 201.3) It is the site of transportation activities that contributed significantly to the development of the District of Columbia. It is associated with patterns of growth and change that resulted in significant development of the residential areas along the routes served by the buses, and it is the work of an architect of recognized achievement.

This seems quite tenuous. We have a mostly unremarkable building that happens to have housed transportation activities that were important to DC. The most historically important transportation activities, however, were associated with a different building that is no longer there.

Should we really consider landmarking buildings simply because they contained an activity that affected other parts of the District? Should the headquarters of every developer in the District be a landmark because people in those offices worked on projects which shaped the District? Every government building because people made policy that affected the District?

This architect built a lot of buildings in DC. This may be one of the least remarkable, yet the application argues it qualifies for designation simply because such an architect designed it. Is every building by every architect of any significant merit a landmark?

The bricks are interesting, but does one interesting architectural feature merit a landmark? All of these questions point to the same larger question: should we landmark virtually everything, or just a small minority of buildings which are truly remarkable or historically important?

There are other policy objectives besides architecture

WMATA needs to modernize this bus garage or replace it with a different facility. They hoped to build a new garage in the interior of the Walter Reed site, but opposition from residents and Councilmember Muriel Bowser made that impossible. If they rebuild on this site, a new garage could be mostly underground, possibly as part of a mixed-use building that contributes more to the neighborhood.

That may be exactly what some proponents of the landmark want to stop. The ANC resolution explains that there are many non-architectural goals, such as reducing pollution and noise from the garage, which landmarking could block.

[T]he kind of aboveground bus garages built in much of the 20th Century, like this one, can create health hazards with diesel fumes spreading into nearby neighborhoods. Underground bus garages with air filtration systems are safer and healthier. Similarly, the noise from public address systems can be contained in an underground garage, but can be a nuisance in above ground ones as it has been for neighbors of the Western Bus Garage for years.

Yet we have heard from individuals with knowledge about the designation process and WMATA’s construction needs that designation could make it impossible or cost-prohibitive to convert the current garage to an underground facility if the site is designated. It would be a shame if in an effort to preserve a purportedly historic fa├žade we took a step that could make it harder to achieve a healthier transportation configuration based on what we know today compared to what we knew when the Western Bus Garage was built.

We share the goal of preserving key elements of the historic fabric of our community. We are concerned, however, that the process of doing so sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally can stifle the goal of meeting the needs of future generations and can be a vehicle used to promote an agenda that is hostile to meaningful development of an area that we believe could benefit from such development.

This Western Bus Garage sits adjacent to an important commercial corridor (and effectively on top of a Metro stop) and in an area in which, in recent years, significantly greater development has occurred just north of the District border in Maryland than within the District. This site should be the subject of significant development to serve the community and City. Indeed, its current limited use makes no sense and creating impediments to the evolution of the site and surrounding area makes less.

Is preservation about real significance or just an anti-development tool?

The preservation movement has many adherents who value architectural variety and historic treasures based on their intrinsic merit. But since preservation has the power to stop change, it also has accreted many people who just want to stop a building, and who learn that if they slap the “historic” adjective on every sentence, they can add this tool to their arsenal.

There is very little meritorious justification for a landmark here, but an intense desire by some (though not the ANC) to stop any growth in the neighborhood. The preservation staff and Historic Preservation Review Board members will have a chance to keep preservation focused on actual history by postponing or rejecting the landmark application, possibly excepting the 44th Street façade. They should take the opportunity to do just that next week.

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.