Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
Eckington is the latest DC neighborhood to explore historic status. Residents’ debate over the subject has centered on their ability to make changes to their property, like adding solar panels and build additions, and the impact such a move would have on affordability.
The effort is being led by the Eckington Civic Association (ECA), which has engaged QED Associates to establish the neighborhood’s historic character and organized three “town halls,” two of which were held earlier this year with the third scheduled for May 9th.
"The two things that come up are pop-ups and other projects that are not within historical keeping of the neighbourhood,” said Randy Nolan, president of the civic association, when asked why they are looking at historic preservation for the neighborhood.
He is quick to note that the topic is nuanced and that the ECA has not taken an official position on historic designation, except to follow its membership’s desire that the topic be explored and considered.
The ECA began the effort after neighboring Bloomingdale began looking at historic designation, with the association’s board approving the study and town halls in the middle of 2015, said Nolan.
Is Eckington historic?
Eckington’s built environment is diverse. Brick row homes (author’s note: I own and live in one) that date back to the late 1800s make up the bulk of the housing stock while new development is rising in its southern reaches east of Eckington Place NE. Light industrial fills the blocks bordering the Metropolitan Branch Trail and those east of 4th Street NE.
McKinley Technical High School sits at the center of the neighborhood.
But one would probably not characterize Eckington as all that unique on first glance. It is certainly one of DC’s many beautiful older neighborhoods, but it does not stand out in the same way some of the city’s better-known historic districts in Capital Hill and Georgetown do.
On the other hand, QED has established some important historical links in Eckington. It was DC’s first streetcar suburb when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway line opened in 1888, said Peter Sefton, a historian with the consulting firm, at the first historic designation meeting in January.
Harry Wardman, known for building many of Washington DC’s row houses, developed the majority of Eckington after 1905. Construction of the homes that now line its hilly streets was largely complete by 1925, said Sefton.
Establishing Eckington’s historic significance — or where it is historically significant — is a key part of qualifying for preservation. This can include social, architectural or planning aspects of the neighbourhood, said Kim Williams from DC’s Historic Preservation Office at the January meeting.
The borders of the proposed district have yet to be set. However, they would include many of the historic row homes that fill Eckington.
What does historic designation mean?
Historic designation means a neighborhood’s character will be preserved in its current state, including previous modifications, and future changes will be required to keep with that historic character, said Williams.
Some examples are the adaptive reuse in the historic district along 14th Street NW. The corridor has been revitalized, with many of the old facades and buildings kept and adapted to modern uses. For example, the furniture store Room & Board at the corner of 14th and T Street is the site of a former Ford Motors showroom.
Some Eckington residents, though, are concerned over what historic designation means for any future changes they might want to make to their property. Everything from replacing a street-facing door to a backyard “bump-out” will be subject to approval by the Historic Preservation Office or, for larger projects, the Historic Preservation Review Board, said Williams.
Pop-ups, rooftop solar panels, and rooftop decks would be off the table unless they could be installed away from the street.
Pop-ups like this one on Todd Street NE, where the houses are very narrow, would not be possible in a historic district. Image by the author.
These limits bother some residents.
”[The] absolute restriction on massing changes in Eckington makes historic designation overly burdensome,” said one resident on the neighborhood listserv. “We have a small, infill row home like several houses in the neighborhood that’s only two bedrooms [and] 16 feet wide…. What happens when we need another bedroom for kids? Under historic designation, we are faced with having to buy a more expensive house that is already larger or leaving the neighborhood altogether.”
Flexibility to make future modifications to dwellings as resident needs and wants change is a common theme in comments on historic designation.
In response to repeated questions over solar panels and property additions, Williams said there are some ways these could be possible within a historic district. For example, solar panels are likely feasible on flat roofs behind “half mansards” and backyard additions will likely work in most locations, even with Eckington’s hilly topography.
One argument against historic status is that it makes neighborhoods more expensive by restricting supply.
"Historic districts do sell,” said Greta Fuller, a board member with the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society and former ANC commissioner, at the last Eckington historic designation meeting in March. “But the cost of housing in the District of Columbia is not run by historic districts, it’s run by economics and that’s another story.”
None of the speakers representing the District government at either meeting gave a very convincing argument that historic status does not impact the affordability of a neighborhood, especially one that faces pressures from gentrification.
"It’s not the historic designation itself, it’s the historic character of the neighborhood” that drives gentrification, said Williams. She added that there is no direct connection between gentrification and historic districts.
However, she and other DC government representatives, point to Dupont Circle, the 14th Street NW corridor and Capitol Hill — some of the District’s priciest neighborhoods — as examples of how well homes in historic districts can sell in response to a different resident question.
In addition to raising home prices, historic status could also put some basic home repairs out of the reach of lower income residents. A front door replacement would have to be within keeping with the character of the neighborhood, as would new windows or fixtures, potentially adding cost to such routine repairs.
Up to $25,000 grants are available to homeowners in historic districts to cover these costs but the District only awards 15 of these annually after a length application process, said Williams’ colleague Kim Elliott at the March meeting.
The approvals process can also be arduous. While Williams says minor changes can be approved within a day, it does require visiting the Historic Preservation Office and submitting paperwork for a planned project. Such added steps for minor projects could be difficult for anyone working on an hourly basis or simply have difficulty taking time off on a weekday to get a window replacement approved.
These are serious concerns for Eckington residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for years, to weigh as they consider historic status.
The ECA does not have a fixed timeline for the historic designation process. Attendees at its June 6th meeting will vote on whether to go forward with seeking designation after which the association will have to canvass the entire neighborhood before submitting an application to Historic Designation Board.
Once in front of the board, Williams says it could be three months to a year before a hearing is held and the board votes on a potential Eckington historic district.