A new building with housing and ground-level retail was set to go up just west of Dupont Circle, but the project has stalled because some DC officials say it would harm a historic gas station building. There’s often tension between wanting to preserve historic buildings and needing to build more housing for a region that will continue to grow. We asked our contributors what they think should happen in this situation.

The Embassy Gulf Service Station. Image from Google Maps.

Marx Realty & Improvement Company recently proposed potential designs for a nine-story, 34-unit residential building with ground floor retail at 22nd and P Streets NW.That address is also home to the Embassy Gulf Service Station — today a Sunoco — that was built in 1936.

The building was designated a historic landmark in 1993 because it’s a particularly good example of the neo-classical design used by many urban gas stations during the 1930s to make the car-oriented buildings more palatable to planners and zoning officials of their day.

In all three of Marx’s design options, the plan was to slightly move the gas station building so there was more room for the new one, and to adapt it for retail use. In some of the plans, there was to be a connection on the ground level between the old and new buildings.

Marx submitted these options to DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board the staff that advises the Historic Preservation Review Board, an agency that decides whether new building proposals fit with the historic landmark. Technically, the HPRB is only an advisory board, but if it says no to a design, it’s rare that the DC government issues a permit to build.

The HPRB Historic Preservation Office said in its report that none of the designs would work because of the “disparity in height” between the single-story station building and the nine-story proposal:

This is the principle the HPRB staff operated on: Any adjacent new construction should be substantially lower in height than is proposed so as to not loom over the landmark.

Here’s the HPRB staff’s ruling: The disparity in height between the nine-story new construction and the one-story landmark is stark, discordant and incompatible, and would result in the gas station being left in shadow. While the open lot site to the south is under separate ownership and apparently not available for development, its presence adds to what is an unsatisfying urbanistic solution in which the weight of the new tower is pushed uncomfortably close to the landmark while a large open parking lot would remain on the other side.

It’s somewhat confusing to hear that a nine-story building would provide an “unsatisfying urbanistic solution” when many nearby buildings, including a ten-story apartment building directly across the street, are around that height.

We asked our contributors to weigh in on the decision and the broader competing interests of preserving historic structures while allowing DC to grow for the future.

Several contributors, like Tony Camilli, disagree with the HPRB’s ruling:

DC already has more than 18% of its property designated as historic vs. 4.7% in Boston, 3.6% in New York, and 2.2% in Philadelphia. Yet these other cities are over a century older than DC.  This particular gas station is prime real estate in an area with many other transportation options and was built long before Metrorail and bike lanes came about. 

Modern cities have to change over time to remain relevant (see Detroit and other rust-belt cities for examples of failures to adapt).  DC has gotten very expensive and needs more housing, so 1-story gas stations located in densely-populated areas with many transportation options should not be saved even if the architecture and use are historic.  Document the station and archive its existence yes, but don’t hold DC hostage to the change it needs to be a 21st century city.

Dan Malouff simply tweeted the following:

David Alpert sees a double standard when it comes to building designs and building heights, and argues that DC needs to take advantage of limited infill housing opportunities:

I support having historic preservation. I think we have many wonderful buildings which add architectural and historic diversity to the city and are worth keeping.

But the preservation office says new buildings should be “of their time” in terms of architecture (look contemporary, not like replicas of old buildings) even if that means a super modern building is next to an old one, the thought being that such a move would just emphasize the historic. Okay, but then they say that new buildings should not be very different in size.

Why should a building be faux-historic in height but not design? Why shouldn’t the new building be “of its time” in size? Wouldn’t having a tall building next to a short one emphasize the historic height?

I think preserving valuable buildings is a great thing to do, but when we’re talking about new construction on vacant land I think HP can be too restrictive about “compatibility.”

Dan Reed raises the point that “preservation” is often about one group’s definition of history, but not another’s:

This makes me think about the fate of Phase 1 (before it Apex and Badlands), the gay club a few blocks away, which is being converted back to its “historic” appearance as a carriage house.

These preservationists don’t just want to save the gas station, they want it its surroundings to look like it did when it was built, nevermind how the context has changed since then. As a queer person, I personally think the “recent” history of Phase 1/Apex/Badlands overrules the 1900s history that none of us were there for and can apply any meaningful context to. But we often privilege the “built” history over the cultural history because the built stuff feels more tangible.

Jacqueline Drayer says that on the other hand, historic gas stations are extremely unique:

Very, very few gas stations in the US are protected (for good reason) - but they represent an integral part of 20th century US history. This one has both an unusual style and speaks to the lost practice of actually creating inspired station architecture. It is perfectly reasonable to maintain the spatial qualities of the still functioning gas station.

Steven Yates agrees, and wondered if a shorter building would work:

I’m OK with the gas station being historic. It is in fact fairly old (dating back to 1936) and a style we don’t see anymore (and not bad looking either). But to say a tall building is incompatible with it really ignores the context of the surrounding neighborhood (like across the street). And at what height does it no longer tower over?  It’s only a one story building so would three stories still be too high?

What do you think? Should a building go up as long as the gas station isn’t harmed? Is moving the gas station to face another way ok? Should the gas station stay around at all?

Correction: This post initially said that the developer submitted its proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board. It actually submitted it to the Historic Preservation Office. HPRB did not hear the case.

Bryan Rodda is a transportation planner and policy analyst. His interests include bicycling, designing streets for better walkability and barrier-free access, and transit maps. A Capitol Hill resident, he enjoys giving directions to lost tourists and always stands right, walks left on escalators.