The partially-removed fascia. Photo by Kent Boese.

The latest historic preservation fight is in the Park View neighborhood, where a newer resident wants to landmark a church on Georgia Avenue, but the church’s leaders and many longtime residents oppose the idea.

Kent Boese, librarian, ANC commissioner, Park View history expert, and former contributor to Greater Greater Washington nominated the Fishermen of Men Church as a landmark, Hamil Harris reports in the Post. The 1919 building was originally a silent movie theater.

The church removed the tin fascia on the church last year, to Boese’s dismay, replacing it with foam and stucco, which Boese says probably was more expensive than just fixing the historic tin. Boese filed a landmark application in the spring to preserve what’s left of the building.

Given the extent of changes, Boese may face a tough road. The Historic Preservation Office and Historic Preservation Review Board have been more reluctant to nominate buildings where much of the historic character is already lost. A designation based on the physical building relies on what exists, not what once did.

They’ve also been reluctant to designate buildings against the owner’s wishes in most situations, and this time, the owner and many other residents are strongly opposed.

“There is no historic value to this building,” Groover said during a sidewalk rally he held Thursday to protest the ANC’s action. The rally looked more like a curbside revival service complete with singing, people tapping on tambourines and several other ministers who spoke about how their congregations have been hampered by historic designations.

Behind Groover’s corner rally, the skyline was filled with new apartments, and young adults strolled on sidewalks lined with new storefronts. Groover, who is also the leader of a 21-church organization in the city, said he staged the protest because he thinks his church’s struggle is emblematic of a larger battle taking place in the District between longtime residents and new ones in gentrifying neighborhoods. At stake, he asserts, is the ability of churches to continue to exist in parts of the city.

There is indeed some conflict between longtime churches, many of whose congregants now live in Prince George’s County, and new residents in many changing neighborhoods. The disparate members want to drive into the District to park, but the influx of cars interferes with local quality of life.

This fight doesn’t really seem to be about that, though. Boese said he’s not trying to displace the church and there’s no real evidence he is. Nor is it really about churches at all. It does point out how the historic preservation system, generally popular in many existing historic districts, has a very different reputation outside.

Different neighborhoods may need different preservation rules

DC’s preservation laws arose in an era when cities were on the decline and the trend was to tear down large numbers of buildings for new freeways, suburban-style shopping centers, and other offenses to the walkable neighborhood. Most residents, especially in affluent areas, eagerly sought out preservation protection to keep this from disrupting their neighborhoods.

Inside most historic neighborhoods, there’s general consensus to keep the rules that exist. Many other neighborhoods could benefit from some design review and protection for existing structures, but the strict rules in place for current historic districts often don’t work for the residents of other areas. That’s why they turned down designation in Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, and preservation staff said that there wasn’t support for a district in Southwest Waterfront.

Chevy Chase residents were interested in rules that might prohibit “McMansions,” but they didn’t want to have to get approval for every change, such as the types of windows in a house or whether a small addition is visible from a street.

However, former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg consistently opposed a “preservation lite” set of less-restrictive rules for other neighborhoods. His hard line disregarded the value of listening to communities and crafting rules that meet residents’ wishes. Maybe there are historic protections that the longtime residents of Park View actually want, but which aren’t the same as what Cleveland Park wants.

Preservation often seems to teeter on the verge of just being a wall around a few parts of the city, mostly in Northwest, Capitol Hill, and Anacostia. If it does, people like Boese will find themselves lone voices in other neighborhoods. The preservation movement needs to think about how to win the hearts and minds of Boese’s neighbors, rather than just how to win a specific designation battle for a particular building.

Pending designation can freeze any work

The article notes that with the historic designation application on file, the church can’t get any permits to renovate. There’s some logic behind that, because otherwise a property owner would have an incentive to quickly destroy any historic elements in order to confound the preservation application, but it’s also very unfair to the owner when these applications drag on for months or years.

This application was submitted in March. The Historic Preservation Review Board now has a hearing scheduled in November, but when cases are controversial, the staff often pulls them from the agenda until there is more of a consensus.

The Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th and I had a landmark application filed in 1991, but wasn’t designated until 2007. The application for the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights has been pending since 2005. In its resolution opposing the landmark designation, ANC 3E wrote,

We have on several occasions observed that the mere fact of application appeared to be treated as de facto designation, resulting in deference to the preservation as a value overriding all other values in the planning process. …

ANC 3E urges generally that for future projects the HPRB should make clear to the SHPO and its staff, as well as relevant agencies, that a mere application for designation should not be equated with designation nor does it mean that all elements of that application are of equal merit or supportable.

It’s phenomenally unfair to deny a property owner the ability to make changes to a property which is not actually designated historic, and at the same time let it languish in possibly-historic limbo for years.

Government power usually does not work this way. Zoning changes might be on the horizon, but the Zoning Administrator does not deny all zoning permits until a zoning amendment is finished; instead, you can file plans under the current zoning rules until and unless they change.

It’s convenient for the Historic Preservation Office to have the power to put change on hold until it is ready to deal with an issue, but that further impairs preservation’s reputation among those affected.

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.