Porch (in Col. Hts.) Photo by thegolzer on Flickr.

The proposed Barney Circle historic district has stirred up a number of negative responses. Is it really a bad idea?

Earlier, Lynda wrote about how many residents of Barney Circle feel they haven’t been adequately part of the discussion around the historic district, and that many leading the push actually live in the adjacent Capitol Hill area. DCmud scoffed at the requirements to get permits for alterations. And Matt Yglesias pointed out that we ought to be maximizing housing opportunities around Metro stations instead of creating rules to limit homeowner’s ability to expand their houses.

All are common objections to historic designation. Still, historic districts have enriched designated neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Anacostia, and more. DC would benefit from more historic protection for its many undesignated row house neighborhoods. However, historic preservation should also be more disciplined about which elements it protects and which it does not. There are elements of the staff report on the Barney Circle district that are troubling in how they bleed over the fuzzy line between preservation and zoning.

First, there’s little to fear in the permitting rules. Yes, historic designation requires homeowners to get approval for fences, windows, and other elements. Generally, that ensures a high standard of quality for historic districts. Outside historic districts, cheap construction often degrades the appearance of a neighborhood. Blocks of classic row houses become diminished when some houses are replaced or reclad with vinyl siding or junky fences.

The rules tend to simultaneously increase the costs of homeownership while also increasing property values. Generally, that’s good for homeowners, though sometimes a schism evolves between wealthier residents, who want to maximize property values and the appearance of the neighborhood, and poorer residents, who don’t want to see property values and costs increase as it can raise tax bills and make it hard for other people in that income bracket to afford to move in.

Matt Yglesias raises a bigger issue with historic preservation. Is it preservation to restrict the amount of building in an area? Can, or should, neighborhoods be “historically” low density?

Most of the time, preservation is concerned with not demolishing historic buildings and ensuring good quality of materials in alterations. But it’s entirely possible to uphold those principles while still allowing infill development, rear additions not visible from the street, or added height with setback and with high quality workmanship. In the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where I participate in the local preservation group, the Dupont Circle Conservancy, we’re usually quite tolerant of rear alley additions, for example.

However, preservation sometimes goes farther. In many recent buildings around 14th and U, for example, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) required lowering building heights to be more “compatible” with the neighborhood. Former HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg specifically said that he got involved in preservation because he didn’t want to see taller buildings at the Cleveland Park Metro. It wasn’t that he wanted to maintain the architectural style of the neighborhood or maintain the aesthetic of the Park and Shop strip mall; he specifically didn’t want taller buildings.

The HPO staff report on Barney Circle gives into this impulse in several cases. It talks about architectural features, like the front porches on the “daylighter” houses and front yard space that creates a sense of community. But it also makes repeated reference to the lack of development as a characteristic. It calles Barney Circle a “a neighborhood of modest rowhouses” with an “unusual urban calm” and a “semi-suburban open quality.”

In particular, the staff report talks about how the “daylighter” houses didn’t include the rear ells common to other rowhouses, bringing in more light but also reducing the overall size of the buildings. When a historic district is designated, preservation staff create guidelines to influence decisions about future preservation questions. Would this emphasis on the “semi-suburban” quality of the neighborhood and the rear light mean that HPO would oppose even rear additions not visible from streets, or any intensification of buildings?

Many preservationists would fervently hope so. The problem is that this view of preservation’s role puts it at odds with the city’s long-term growth needs, the imperative for more and affordable housing, and the value of maximizing housing choices near transit. There’s also value in letting homeowners grow with their houses, adding space for a second child’s bedroom instead of having to move out of what are often fairly small row houses by today’s standards.

Preservationists often talk about how preservation is not about zoning, but in truth there is a large gray area between the two. The more preservation pushes into this area, the more it risks losing support from those of us who also support urbanism and a growing city. With an approach more akin to the Dupont Conservancy’s recent positoins, it’s possible to have both in at least some measure, balancing the value of some open space and high architectural standards with a modest opportunity for growth as well.

As for Lynda’s procedural issues, I don’t know the details firsthand. I assume it’s correct that many people feel left out, and the level of outreach probably wasn’t sufficient. Therefore it’s appropriate for HPRB to ensure there’s a full and inclusive public process. However, once that’s done, they should move on to a decision. No matter how good the process, some people will come out of the woodwork at the last minute and complain that this is the first they’re hearing. All anyone can do is conduct a reasonable process, then move forward.

Historic designation probably makes sense for Barney Circle. The “daylighter” porches, for example, are a detail worth protecting. It would diminish the neighborhood if people started tearing down these row houses and putting in glass boxes or concrete bricks without porches and that don’t fit in. However, HPRB should also remove references to the “semi-suburban” character of the neighborhood, or at least clarify that the “distinctive rhythmic quality” shall be preserved, but the comparative emptiness compared to other neighborhoods shall not be beyond the already-restrictive dictates of zoning.

Someone will likely bring up my defense of light and air in the case of the Tabard Inn. What’s the difference? Isn’t that a lack of development? Am I just arguing against change in my own neighborhood and not in someone else’s? The difference is that, as I emphasized in my testimony, the Tabard is a particular treasure. Perhaps it should itself be landmarked, which coveys an added level of historic import to the property. It may make sense to keep certain open spaces in the Barney Circle neighborhood as well.

But there’s a key difference between wanting to preserve a few specific open spaces with believing that every single open space and every ray of sunshine is sacrosanct. The former protects what’s most valuable while allowing growth. The latter leads to a policy against any change at all. Preservation needn’t be so black and white. We can preserve some elements of a neighborhood, particularly those residents find most special, without blocking growth or change entirely.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.