Barney Circle. Image from Google Maps.

DC’s latest historic preservation debate centers around Barney Circle, the southeast corner of Capitol Hill, where preservationists are advocating for a new historic district.

Some residents in the area argue that Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and local ANCs did little to no outreach for public input on the proposed historic district. Due to opposition to the plan and questions from Councilmember Tommy Wells regarding the process, the HPRB postponed a vote at their June 24 meeting.

The proposed Barney Circle Historic District consists of 192 buildings, including 189 contributing structures and three non-contributing structures. The district is bounded by houses fronting on Barney Circle on the south, by those on the north side of Potomac Avenue on the north, by those on the west side of Kentucky Avenue on the west and by the Congressional Cemetery on the east.

Barney Circle consists primarily of front porch rowhouses, also referred to as “daylighter” houses, wide tree lined streets, and two triangular parks. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has recommended that HPRBapprove the historic district on the grounds that the concentration of front porch rowhomes are rare within the L’Enfant Plan.

Historic district designation can be restrictive for residents because it can impose harsh regulations regarding exterior alternations, tax liabilities, raising rents, and the displacement of low income residents.  There are benefits associated with historic districts as well, including increased property values and the preservation of historic buildings both of which can act as a catalyst for economic growth.

Some residents in the Barney Circle area feel that the historical designation process is biased and is being led primarily by individuals and organizations that don’t even live in the affected area, such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS). Beth Purcell, president of the CHRS, was one of the original drivers of the Barney Circle Historic District.  She lives outside the proposed boundaries.  Reuben Hammeed, former vice president of the local neighborhood association, has also pushed for the historic district but no longer lives in the area.

Others say that the ANC originally agreed to be the applicant for the historic district based on information given to them by Hammeed and others, who had only polled a handful of residents on the general idea of a historic district, but did not contact the vast majority of property owners and were not able to show any specific information about what the guidelines would be.  The ANC, knowing that only about one-third of homeowners were contacted, decided to go ahead and file the application with the HPRB anyway. 

At the June 24th meeting, opposition to the historical designation was labeled as “new young people” who are just being “hysterical” and uneducated about the benefits of living in a historical district. Concerned residents plan to voice their concerns to Mayor Fenty and the DC Council regarding the HPRB handling of the situation.

Conflicts over the definition and preservation of neighborhoods have become a common feature or urban politics, and Barney Circle is certainly not an exception. Neighborhood planning, including whether an area should be an historic district, should be an inclusive process that provides residents full disclosure of the proposed plans as well as a way for residents to speak for themselves. If you don’t allow residents of the affected area to be part of the process, then in effect you run the risk of destroying the cultural and social fabric of a community, factors that reflect just as much history as buildings.

Effective historical preservation needs to strike a balance between preservationists, developers, public officials, and residents. What works in one part of the District may not work for another area. The economic and social impacts of historic preservation are too situational, making the need for transparency all that more important.

The situation in Barney Circle calls into question how the process for other historic districts has been approached in DC. Are we in effect creating communities that benefit the privileged and ignore the voices of less privileged residents?

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Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.