Photo: Prince of Petworth.

DC should create a less restrictive form of historic district, in many places called a conservation district, for its historic row house neighborhoods and other areas with historic value but which aren’t interested in becoming full historic districts.

Residents of neighborhoods recently considered for historic review have expressed much trepidation about the designation process. Some worry that preservation oversight will significantly increase the cost of even minor additions, like requiring expensive and less energy efficient wood windows instead of the ones generally made today. Others feel that preservation unnecessarily restricts the growth potential of properties in dense urban areas where growth in appropriate.

In Chevy Chase DC, preservationists withdrew a proposal for a historic district after it didn’t receive majority support in an unofficial vote of property owners. In Barney Circle, HPRB postponed a potential historic district after residents charged that people from outside the district, in adjacent Capitol Hill, were trying to push it through without full participation by other residents.

However, some protection is important. People can now tear down 100-year-old rowhouses, even without plans to replace them with anything more than a parking lot. Horrifically ugly vinyl-sided pop-ups mar the landscape. We ought to be able to protect old buildings from outright destruction while still allowing additions provided they look more compatible with the existing building stock.

Conservation districts could accomplish this. Other cities have created such districts, like San Jacinto, TX. Here is a hypothetical set of rules what such a district could allow or allow only after review:

Razes of entire structures would be prohibited without approval from HPRB. The same criteria should apply to razes in a conservation district as in a historic district.

Additions not visible from a public street, like rear wings, porches, or the addition of extra floors set back sufficiently that a person standing on a sidewalk or in a public street could not see them, would be allowed provided they comply with zoning and any other regulations. HPO would sign off on permits to ensure that changes are not visible from the street, but if they are not they would not have the authority to restrict them.

Additions visible from a public street would be allowed (again assuming they comply with zoning and any other regulations), but HPO and HPRB would have approval authority to ensure that the modifications use materials and workmanship compatible with the character of the district the buildings are in. For example, top-floor additions would need to use similar materials as the rest of the building, and the Board could require roof styles, shingles, and cornice detailing to match that in use elsewhere in the particular district.

Modifications to the street facade(s) would be allowed without historic review if they are minor, with standard review if they are more major. HPO would have the ability to review these permits, but there would be restrictions on which types of changes it can exercise review over. A more detailed list would have to be developed.

For example, changing the material of windows would be allowed, but replacing a number of smaller windows with a large picture window would require historic review. Changing materials on front stairs would be fine, but removing front stairs entirely would require review. Repainting or repointing (the replacement of mortar between bricks) would be automatically approved without the level of scrutiny of the contractor in a historic district, but redoing a facade in a different material from the original would trigger historic review.

Modifications to non-street facade(s) would not be subject to historic review as long as the facade fronts onto an alley or another lot, even if that is visible from a public street. In other words, if the back of a house is visible when someone stands on a public street and looks down the alley, that wouldn’t count as being a street facade, but if the rear of a property faces a river, large public park, or other significant public space, the same rules as for a street facade would apply.

Construction of new buildings on empty lots would be subject to limited design review. That review could not dictate size and massing beyond the dictates of zoning, or materials and styles, but could request urban elements common to the area, like street-facing entrances instead of rear-only entrances. As with facade modifications, it would be necessary to flesh out more details to avoid this turning into design police dictating architectural choices, but it’s worth some role to ensure that a building isn’t actively hostile to the urban fabric of its area.

Under these rules, many old DC neighborhoods ought to become protected, and there’s a good chance they would be willing to. There could, and probably should, be conservation districts Barney Circle, Trinidad, Truxton Circle, Eckington, Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, Park View, Pleasant Plains, Petworth, Brookland, and Chevy Chase DC. There are many other neighborhoods where they could also gain support in the many low-density areas toward the edges of the city.

Would you like to see this in your neighborhood? What do you think of these guidelines?

Update: Added mention of the San Jacinto, TX district and Housing Complex’s research.

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.