This summer, a group of Bloomingdale residents applied to designate our neighborhood as a historic district under DC law.
If the application is accepted by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), new construction and exterior alterations to all properties in Bloomingdale will be subject to a historic preservation review to determine if they are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.
Bloomingdale is in fact very historic, but a closer look reveals that this initiative is less about preserving history and more about limiting the kind of changes residents can make with their homes.
A historic district will inevitably add costs
If you aren’t familiar with the details, this effort may sound like a good one. With a policy proposal of this magnitude, however, we need to weigh the impact it will have on the community at large. The reality is, moving forward with historic preservation will come at a cost.
Bloomingdale homeowners who want to make changes to the exterior of their homes could see that process become more (potentially much more) expensive and time-consuming. That in turn could lead to higher prices for renters as well.
The cost starts in the design phase. One neighborhood architect testified at a recent meeting that he charges multiple thousands of dollars more when he works on projects in historic districts, in anticipation of the extra meetings and revisions he has learned to expect.
Then comes the cost of the materials. All revisions must be made using approved lists of materials – many of which are significantly more expensive than similar alternatives.
The final cost is time and hassle. Not only do building permits require an extra level of review for historic compatibility (requiring an in-person trip on a weekday), preparing for that review necessitates more research, often including consulting with Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff in advance of the actual application. If the alterations are of significant enough scope, that escalates into a full hearing in front of the HPRB, which only meets monthly. Any rounds of revisions, therefore, can mean a multi-month delay.
The impact of these added costs — particularly on lower income residents — is one of the main reasons our next-door neighbors in Eckington decided against applying for historic designation last year. As one neighbor testified at the Eckington Civic Association meeting where residents voted against moving forward with the process:
My conclusion is that [historic designation is] overtly anti-poor. Anything that increases cost even slightly, pushes them out of a neighborhood. I understand the need to preserve heritage, but part of what makes neighborhood is diversity of ethnicity and income. I want to see that stay, that’s part of why we love the neighborhood.
Proponents of preservation spend a lot of time assuring residents that most alterations are minor and get approved quickly. They also emphasize that the Historic Preservation Office is making an effort to add less-expensive materials to the approved lists. Those are good steps, but they don’t cover all use cases. It’s the more complex cases that present the greatest potential for homeowners to get stuck with significant hassle and costs.
Proponents also enthusiastically draw attention to a city-sponsored fund (the Historic Homeowner Grant Program) that helps subsidize the costs for low- and moderate-income residents. However, this competitive fund only helps 10-15 people citywide per year, and is only available to residents in some of the historic districts. Bloomingdale would not automatically be added to this list; the neighborhood would have to go through a separate legislative process after historic designation to attempt to qualify.
This isn’t the only way to preserve history
History is important — who doesn’t want to preserve it? I certainly do. As the research in the application highlights, Bloomingdale has an extensive, interesting history that makes me appreciate living here even more. The application tracks the neighborhood’s significant people, places and events — like the lawsuits against racial covenants on Bloomingdale houses that eventually became a part of the landmark Supreme Court case finding such covenants unenforceable. With stories like these, the document makes an excellent case that Bloomingdale has an invaluable history that should be appreciated and preserved.
However, historic designation is a very clunky tool to try to achieve this goal. Architectural facades are one visual reminder of history, but they’re far from the only or most important aspect. Research and scholarship, markers and monuments, tours and lectures — all of these help us appreciate and learn from the past. The self-guided walking tour recently installed in the neighborhood is a fantastic example of the ways we can preserve and promote our local history.
And yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t protect buildings too! The great news is, there’s already a process for doing so. Preservation advocates will continue to be free to nominate buildings of special historic and architectural significance. We don’t need a neighborhood-wide historic district to preserve important locations and great examples of what makes this neighborhood notable.
If preserving history is your goal, we’re pretty well covered. Insisting that we actually need a blanket rule covering 1,692 properties in the neighborhood is something of a drastic measure — one, it seems to me, that offers little added gain.
This is more about looks than history
The key to understanding why advocates believe they need such a blunt tool is to look past the nominal talk about history. From the arguments I’ve seen put forward by supporters of the application, most are motivated — at least in part — by a desire to stop the dreaded “pop-ups” (houses with additions that raise them higher than the roofline of their neighbors). Pointing to some of the infamous examples around the city, they suggest the choice is historic designation or a proliferation of these egregious eyesores.
However, that ignores the fact that anti-pop-up advocates already won a major victory in the city two years ago when they persuaded the Zoning Commission to adopt stricter rules in rowhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale. The allowed height was lowered from 40ft to 35ft, the number of residential stories limited to three, and the number of allowable units a home can be converted into limited to two. The scope of pop-ups allowable without needing special permission has already been significantly curtailed.
Other proponents of designation go even further to say they are aiming to protect the streetscapes of the neighborhood. They assert that visually uniform blocks are a collective good for which homeowners should be required to sacrifice their rights to make the changes they want to their own houses.
I don’t mean to be glib. Based on the seriousness of the testimonies given by some of the application sponsors at a recent neighborhood forum, I can tell that they are genuinely and deeply upset about visual changes in the neighborhood. They described how Bloomingdale has become “unrecognizable” because of the “desecration” that’s happened to some houses that have been renovated; one went so far as to say it’s nothing short of “architectural rape.”
Hearing their experiences helped me understand why they feel so passionately about supporting this application. But it hasn’t yet persuaded me that those concerns from a handful of neighbors are worth burdening everyone in the neighborhood with more hassle and cost.
Mismatched buildings aren’t the biggest threat facing Bloomingdale. Affordability is.
The reality is that while some neighbors are focused on pop-ups, Bloomingdale is facing a more acute threat: affordability.
As an attractive, centrally-located neighborhood with beloved local businesses, demand for housing in Bloomingdale continues to climb – pushing prices higher and higher each year. Median home prices in the neighborhood crossed $800,000 this year, that’s a 73 percent rise from even just 4 years ago. The subsequent higher property taxes and rents put us on a clear path towards becoming a neighborhood exclusively available to residents with higher incomes. What good is it to keep the building facades of the neighborhood if we’re not keeping the neighbors inside them?
To be fair, there are bigger market forces at play in this specific conversation. The impact of historic designation on affordability one way or the other will be moderate at best. But given the scope of the challenge, I think we should be doing everything we can to avoid making it worse at the least. How much historic designation would raise costs for residents remains to be seen, but it’s certainly far more than the $0 increase rejecting this application would cost.
If you’re a Bloomingdale resident who feels similarly, I invite you to sign this petition put together by some of your neighbors expressing ours concerns and looking to bring more community voices to this process.
A version of this post first appeared on www.bloomingdaleforall.org. This article has been updated to reflect that there are 1,692 properties in Bloomingdale, not 2,000 as previously stated.