Kingman Park houses. Image made with Google Maps.

This winter there are two neighborhoods debating whether or not to become a historic district: Bloomingdale and Kingman Park. In both cases, opponents are concerned that the nominating applications were pushed forward before consulting the larger community and don’t have a majority of the community’s support.

In previous historic designation debates, such controversy resulted in the withdrawal of the application and the case never went to a vote. In these two instances, it looks like the vote might go ahead. This will put DC’s historic designation law to the test — because the law doesn’t technically require relevant district agencies to take public sentiment into account.

In other words, these neighborhoods might get marked historic whether or not the majority of the neighborhood supports becoming a historic district.

How a neighborhood becomes a historic district

DC has a number of tools at its disposal to preserve historic buildings and areas. Individual buildings can be nominated and receive landmark status, which broadly gives the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) authority to weigh in on external changes to the building. An area can also be nominated to become a historic district, which extends that authority to all contributing buildings in the area.

Image by Office of Planning.

In DC, multiple types of parties can file an application for historic designation, which eventually come before the HPRB for a vote. All of the agencies involved iterate consistently that applicants should do extensive community outreach when preparing their application. The law indicates specifically that “the views of property owners and the general public are essential to informed decision making in the historic preservation process” and that the “written view of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions shall be accorded great weight.”

An unrecognized civic association applies in Kingman Park

In the Spring of 2016, an application nominating Kingman Park for historic designation was put forward by members of the Kingman Park Civic Association (KPCA). KPCA is an organization with some controversy. It lost official recognition by the DC Federation of Civic Associations after reports that it was banning neighbors for life and other worrisome actions. In the past KPCA has engaged in a number of historic designation attempts near their neighborhood, including a long-drawn fight over the H Street streetcar where they challenged multiple aspects of the streetcar proposal in court.

There is an alternative (officially recognized) civic association in the neighborhood, the Friends of Kingman Park (FOKP). Members here claim that KPCA did not do enough community outreach about this historic designation application before filing.

There are three Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) partially encompassed in the proposed boundaries of the historic district: 7D, 5D and 6A. According to commissioners, the applications did not even present the application before filing to the ANC 7D for consideration. KPCA did eventually win a supportive vote from ANC 5D (though the local civic association in the area, Langston Civic Association, voted against), and ANC 6A sent a letter of opposition to the HPRB last April.

The application has been held up for some time while the HPO asked for revisions, and over the ensuing months many residents have attended agency sponsored meetings about the proposed district in protest.

There has even been a survey circulated in the neighborhood, claiming overwhelming (over 90 percent) opposition to the designation.

Besides the feeling that there was not enough initial outreach for this application, opponents voice a variety of concerns about their neighborhood becoming a historic district. Some simply feel that it is not the right choice for their neighborhood, and the real reason behind the application is a reaction to unpopular pop-ups (extra floors or additions to homes).

Lisa White, member of FOKP told me that she too is “not a big fan of pop-ups and pop-backs,” but felt that a historic district went too far: “Who am I to tell you what to do with your property?”

More than anything else, White’s primary concern was about her senior neighbors and how they would be impacted: “I’m concerned about the seniors. I’m worried about their difficulties navigating through the extra processes and costs involved, especially with some on fixed-incomes.”

Despite the strong pushback, the application is still scheduled to come before the HPRB for a vote, possible as early as this month.

A small group jumps the gun in Bloomingdale

While tension has not been as high in Bloomingdale, the process has some similarities. The Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) began discussing the idea of becoming a historic district as early as 2015. An internal committee began to organize a community survey and a series of meetings while the application was being prepared (something that requires extensive research)

LeDroit Park houses. Image by DCErica used with permission.

But before the survey and all of the community meetings were complete, a group of neighbors formed the Bloomingdale Historic Designation Coalition and worked with the DC Preservation League, a city-wide historic preservation advocacy organization, to file an application in July of 2017, a full six months before the survey was completed and sent out to neighbors.

This is a concern for a number of residents who are worried that the process is moving forward without their input, or without adequate time to have a debate with everyone sufficiently involved. As of publishing, neither the ANC (5E) nor the BCA has voted on this issue yet, though both plan on doing so in the next couple months.

Meanwhile, Bloomingdale’s application is scheduled to come up for an HPRB vote as early as February.

Legally, this disunity might not matter

If both applications move forward to a vote and both neighborhoods show such signs of division, it will put DC’s preservation deciding body into a position it so far has mostly been able to avoid.

As mentioned earlier, there are multiple pieces of DC’s preservation law that strongly encourage the applicant to do community outreach before and during the application process.

Critically though, the results of that input is not officially considered by the HPRB when it makes its determination and final vote. According to the Office of Planning (OP), community support is said to be important and “beneficial” to an application, but they note that “by law, HPRB makes its decision on the basis of the written designation criteria.” In other words, if an application comes to an official vote, HPRB members only look at the evidence presented in the application, not at any indications of public support.

Kingman Park houses. Image made with Google Maps.

So what happens if the public does not show clear support? Well, so far that issue has been successfully avoided, as this is not the first time a historic designation application has caused controversy.

In the past, strong opposition to a proposed district resulted in pulling the application

In 2016 in Eckington, the local civic association followed the agencies’ recommendations and did an extensive amount of public outreach before even officially filing their application. Ultimately, a plurality of neighbors were against historic designation, so the applicant just never filed.

In a similar fashion, in 2008 an organization called Historic Chevy Chase formed to apply for historic designation for that neighborhood. The ensuing community outreach ignited a firestorm of debate, and after the ANC passed a resolution not in favor, the historic district application was withdrawn.

In many ways, the system is working as intended in these cases. The applicants do extensive community outreach and, if they encounter more opposition than support, they stop the process. This has meant that the HPRB, which again legally doesn’t consider community support as a criteria for their decision, doesn’t even get involved unless the support is clear.

What is going on in Kingman Park, and to a lesser extent in Bloomingdale presents a new question. In both cases the HPRB ruling is imminent, and neither applicant has halted their applications despite some signs of division in the community.

The historic district debate is an important one for neighborhoods, and it should be had

There are good arguments on both sides of the historic designation debate, and it’s important that neighborhoods are given the chance to fully have the discussion.

Advocates for more historic districts say not only do they protect areas of historical value, but they also stabilize rising costs of the neighborhood. They claim that practices like “house-flipping” create dramatic swings in local home prices. A flipped home can suddenly raise the property values of the surrounding homes. As the argument goes, historic protections act as a check on these practices.

Others point out that historic districts are seen by many as one of the only effective tools to exert some control over fast-changing neighborhoods. As ANC Commissioner Hannah Powell (5E03) of the Eckington area points out,

“Historic districts are a blunt cudgel that many neighborhoods don’t want to use, but we just don’t have many other options to push for what we in the community want, which is to preserve the community’s character and the types of housing available.”

On the other side, opponents raise a number of issues about historic districts. They don’t like the added time and dollar costs a historic district inevitably brings. Some dislike what they see as an encroachment on property rights (“It’s my house, I’ll build that deck if I want to!”). Others claim that calls for historic preservation are too often a mask for alternative agendas, such as blocking change in a neighborhood or a fight against pop-ups.

Finally, there is mounting criticism that DC has an oversaturation of historic properties and districts, and continuing to push for preservation of marginal or questionable sites cheapens the laudable aims and purpose of historic preservation.

This is the debate that opponents in Kingman Park and Bloomingdale feel they didn’t get a chance to fairly have. We will soon see ultimately how, if at all, this discord affects both applications.