Photo from the report.

The DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has released a new plan for preservation through 2016. From conversations with preservationists and the public, HPO concluded that “preservation has a perception problem,” which it wants to combat. However, perception isn’t the only problem.

Most of the challenges the preservation office says they heard are about communication:

  • “Preservation has a perception problem”
  • “Many residents have no understanding or misperceptions of preservation”
  • “There is a perception problem with historic district designation—we need to address it”
  • “The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?”
  • “We’re not communicating well about what preservation is, especially to the younger generation”

The participants, and HPO, appear to assume or conclude that the problem with preservation is that people don’t understand it and all of the wonderful things it does.

And preservation has had a valuable impact on DC in a number of ways. Many proposals gain better architectural harmony with surrounding neighborhoods, more interesting ground-level detailing, and more interesting rooflines as a result of the design review from the preservation process.

But there’s a deeper issue than just perception. Preservation is often addressing the wrong problems for today. As Richard Layman often says, the preservation system arose during the era of the shrinking city, when people wanted to tear down beautifully detailed apartment buildings to create parking lots. Then, it was inherently a good thing to place more of the city under historic protection.

Today, the city is growing, and the challenge is to shape that growth. It should concentrate in areas with good transit. New buildings need to engage the street as old buildings do, and include some interesting architectural details to avoid a monotony of glass boxes. Designs should avoid leaving large dead spaces at the pedestrian level.

In many cases, design review is helpful. And the preservation office is right when it says in the plan that they could do more to communicate the ways projects get better through the process. However, the preservation movement is also full of people who just plain don’t want change.

With housing prices rising rapidly, the fact that there isn’t enough housing is a bigger problem than the fact that some residents have to look at new buildings that might be a little taller than some other buildings nearby. But when preservation is beholden to the anti-height set, it’s not solving the problem that many younger (and many older) residents see with development.

There’s one quotation on the list that gets at the real issue:

  • “Anti-development preservation gives preservation a bad name”

Unfortunately, the rest of the document doesn’t really follow up on this issue.

Graphic from the report.

Individual goals focus more on salesmanship than fixing problems

The plan seems to assume, but not directly argue, that giving the preservation office control over more of what happens in the city is the ideal goal.

The chapter on “why preservation works in DC,” for instance, almost entirely focuses on the numbers of historic districts and numbers of landmarked properties, as well as extolling the support for preservation from the federal government, DC’s local laws, advocacy organizations, and developers.

In several recent cases, people have opposed historic districts. That’s not because they don’t understand what preservation means. Rather, residents are often very concerned that preservation staff and the Historic Preservation Review Board will arbitrarily allow or block elements simply based on personal whim, subjective, aesthetic judgment, or an agenda to repel growth. That’s not imaginary; that is indeed what often happens.

The office needs to find ways to design the preservation process so residents can get the positive effects of historic designation and fewer of the negative ones. This report, however, doesn’t explore that. Instead, it focuses on how to convince people to support preservation as is.

For example, one of the specific goals seems tailor-made to address the concerns of urbanist critics, goal D1, “Practice sustainable urbanism.” It even has a picture of Capital Bikeshare. Aha! Here, HPO can clearly state that it should try to make preservation decisions that also support sustainable urbanism.

It does not take the opportunity. Instead, the goal is:

Make a stronger case for the connection between preservation, sustainability, and economic growth, and adopt supportive public incentives.

In other words, instead of actually practicing more sustainable urbanism, the office’s approach is to try to convince people that it’s already practicing it. None of the supporting goals call for any change to the “take off a floor” default stance from many preservation groups. Two of the supporting goals are:

Develop sustainability guidelines to educate residents about the resource investment in historic buildings, and ways to adapt them as energy-efficient, renewable resources.

Publicize the sustainability benefits of preservation on websites and through award presentations, publications, educational programs, and professional networks.

Once again, the approach to sustainable urbanism is to convince people to support what’s already going on. It doesn’t call for developing guidelines to better align actual preservation decisions with sustainability, but rather guidelines “to educate residents.”

Goal B2, “Speak out about preservation,” basically outlines a plan to try to sell more preservation to communities. The objective is:

Strengthen mutual support systems needed for an effective community voice for preservation, and use that voice to advocate for preservation in all modes of public dialogue.

Supporting actions include “revitalize the Historic Districts Coalition” to encourage new local preservation groups and “establish and develop an advocacy group for DC Modernism,” a phase of building that was particularly destructive to our city’s livable neighborhoods. Mismatches between preservation and good urbanism often come most of the surface when dealing with modernist buildings.

While the plan doesn’t call for the preservation office itself to take these steps, it’s astounding to see an official document from an office call for people to form advocacy groups to lobby for more influence for that office.

The preservation system has a tremendous amount of power over DC’s growth, more than in most cities. Preservation staff must be sure they are using that power wisely, not just put out plans which call for increasing their power and convincing residents to like it.

Instead of going into sales mode, the preservation movement, both inside and outside the government, needs to better confront the substantive critiques of its decisions. Next, I’ll look at some steps that the preservation office could prioritize that would both educate residents and also make the process better address the needs of today.

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.