In 2016, a group of neighbors applied to designate the DC neighborhood of Kingman Park as a historic district. The Historic Preservation Review Board, the committee which reviews these applications, heard the case Thursday, but decided not to take a vote in the face of opposition from many neighbors.
Historic Preservation Office staffers, citing the same opposition, also recommended that HPRB wait before taking action.
Kingman Park residents and representatives are concerned by the lack of community outreach from the Kingman Park Civic Association members who filed this application. The Kingman Park debate, along with the ongoing wrangling in Bloomingdale, has renewed attention to the District’s historic designation process more broadly.
This kind of deferral is rare. HPRB’s instructions — that the extra time be used for more applicant outreach and more detailed building guidelines from HPO “to provide clarity and transparency” to the community — strongly suggest this decision was a response to criticism.
For and against a historic district
According to the HPO report, arguments for the historict district from supporters included “preserv[ing] the cultural history of Kingman Park as an African-American community…the importance of preserving the quality of its architecture…[and concerns] about the impact of ‘pop-ups’ and inappropriate renovations on the character of the neighborhood.”
Opponents, meanwhile, cited concerns about the added tax burden of rising property values on seniors and low-income renters, extra difficulty renovating properties, and the potential a historic district would deter potential investors in the Benning Road corridor. Consistent across many sources, though, were complaints about a general lack of information and outreach from the applicants.
Lack of community outreach is a longstanding problem
This hearing wasn’t the first time the applicants have been advised to conduct community outreach; they simply have ignored the previous instructions. As the HPO report makes clear, staff first advised the applicants of “the expectation that they would conduct significant community outreach” when they contacted HPO about their interest in applying all the way back in January of 2016. When the application was filed in August of that year without any progress on the issue, staff again “encouraged KPCA to continue public involvement and seek support from the affected ANCs.”
A year and a half later, that outreach still has yet to occur, leading to a lack of support for this application from two area ANCs. ANC 6A unanimously voted to oppose the district, citing “limited communication and outreach” in particular. ANC 7D declined to take an official vote, but did submit a letter highlighting “the applicant’s lack of documented public outreach, failure to provide an updated application, and substantial community opposition.” ANC 5D voted in support of the historic district proposal, but the neighborhood association actually within the boundaries voted against. Neither was mentioned in the HPO staff report.
In the absence of that outreach, opponents of the historic district took it upon themselves to survey their neighborhood. Out of the more than 300 respondents they reached, 90 percent opposed the proposed district. This case continues to highlight the limitations of DC’s current preservation guidelines on community support.
While the HPRB is not legally bound by community opinion, it clearly is weary of being seen as making a decision contrary to prevailing sentiment. The Kingman Park decision suggests a hopefulness on their part that extra time will allow for a change in the current optics, but it may be little more than kicking the can down the road.