Kingman Park homes. Image created with Google Maps.

Last week, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) again discussed making Kingman Park a historic district, after the unusual decision to delay it earlier this year. It seems clear that the district will soon be approved, but the ensuing debate revealed some troubling aspects of DC’s current historic designation processes.

The application for Kingman Park’s pending historic district was filed in January of 2016. Supporters of the historic district are looking for the city to recognize the neighborhood’s history as a predominantly African-American community that thrived during the Jim Crow era. They also want to restrict the kind of future development that can come to the neighborhood, specifically pop-ups.

Opponents of the designation are generally concerned about the impacts historic district regulations and processes will have on the affordability of the neighborhood and the ability for families to grow in place by making additions to their homes as needed.

The debate has been emotional, and for many supporters this district is symbolically very important. As one of the applicants said in his testimony: “There are 26 residential districts in DC and none of them are recognizing African-American neighborhoods. The score is currently 26-0.”

However, the proposal has never had a solid majority of the community’s support, in part because of the rocky engagement process. In fact, a lack of community outreach has been a persistent issue for the historic district applicants (a group called the Kingman Park Civic Association) from the outset.

Neighbors wanted more time to discuss, because the discussion didn’t happen in the first place

Last week’s HPRB continuation hearing was deemed necessary in January in large part because of testimony from numerous residents who said they had not been appropriately notified and engaged throughout the process. Current historic preservation law states that homeowner input is “essential” and that the onus is on the applicant for a historic district to seek out community engagement and support.

As Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staffer David Maloney relayed to the HPRB, the situation got so bad in Kingman Park that HPO had to step in and take over (emphasis mine):

“We had been talking with the [applicants] about the application since the summer of 2016 and had encouraged them…to do public outreach in the community. And that is normally the expectation that applicants for designations will take the burden of doing the bulk of public outreach.

When it became clear after we sent the notices in the summer of last year that there were a lot of people who felt that there was not adequate outreach, then we decided ok, it's necessary for us to step in and hold our own public meeting.”

So in January the HPRB delayed their decision in order to allow more opportunity for such community engagement. That also allowed time for HPO staff to design the district-specific design guidelines to accompany potential historic designation — giving neighbors a more finalized look at the exact regulations they would be subjected to.

Four months later, the board blames the ANC for little public engagement

While HPO did succeed in publishing those guidelines in March, unfortunately the applicants did not conduct any additional community meetings. Reopening the discussion last week, the board was understandably frustrated by this development. Amazingly, instead of directing their ire at the applicants, they turned it on the residents who oppose the proposed district and the ANC commissioners representing them.

When ANC 7D Commissioner Bob Coomber came before the board for questions, HPRB members sharply criticized him for not spearheading meetings himself. Coomber’s single-member district falls most significantly within the proposed boundaries, but he is not one of the applicants filing for the district and has in fact raised concerns throughout the process. Chairman Marnique Heath correctly identified that under current law, HPO staff shouldn’t have to be planning these public meetings.

But then Heath left the applicants out of her critique completely, saying, “It's not HPO's responsibility…to organize the community. You're the head of the ANC. You know who your community members are. It's your responsibility to organize the community.”

Kingman Park. Image created with Google Maps.

Coomber said he had made progress on organizing as soon as he could. When the design guidelines were released in March, he put together a working group of neighbors to discuss them, a step HPO staff endorsed. Right after the group held their first meeting, Coomber learned that the HPRB continuation hearing had been scheduled the same day the draft guidelines came out. So Coomber showed up to the hearing confused as to what HPRB expected of him.

The continuing conversation revealed the source of the problem. It seems that that the HPRB members believed Coomber and the ANC should not only be filling the role of the absent applicants regarding outreach, but that they also expected him to be making the case in favor of the historic district.

That is strange, especially since Coomber has been a leading voice in the opposition to the historic district for many months. While the instructions in January were “postpone for more community input,” it now seemed like the instructions were more akin to “postpone until you convince the community that this is a good idea.”

To be clear, the job of ANC commissioners is not to advocate on behalf of the positions of government agencies or boards. Commissioners specifically exist to take feedback the opposite direction: from constituents back to their city officials. In this case, in both a survey Coomber conducted of his single-member-district and in a review of all of the public comments submitted to HPRB, large majorities of area residents have opposed the proposed district (72% of the submitted comments from residents and a larger percentage on the survey).

An agency stuck in an awkward position blames neighborhood and leaders

As I’ve noted in the similar case of the proposed Bloomingdale historic district, numbers showing a split or unsupportive community put HPRB in an uncomfortable spot. Legally, the HPRB does not have to consider the sentiments of the community and instead is mandated to only rule on the historic merits of a case via the application.

Of course, it doesn’t look good to designate a neighborhood historic over the wishes of the community, and traditionally the board has relied on the applicant to withdraw their application voluntarily when support isn’t there. That hasn’t happened here, nor so far in Bloomingdale. Thus the HPRB, clearly inclined to adopt the recommendation of HPO staff and approve the Kingman Park district, are faced with having to steamroll community opinion to do so.

Their solution? Apparently it’s to claim the opposed residents are simply “uninformed.” HPRB board member Outerbridge Horsey was shockingly frank about this strategy in his remarks to Coomber:

“I think the understanding of this board last January [was] that the community was not very well informed and that's why we put the brakes on. We said 'the community needs more time to understand this process and what it means.' And you've basically done nothing in 3 months is the way I see it. And for you to say that 70% of whoever the people you've polled say no, I don't know what to make of that because I don't know what they understand. In January it might've been 70% too, and it was clear to us that a lot of people did not understand what it meant. And that's why we offered you 3 months…and nothing has happened. So you've failed in your responsibility as a public official.”

(To be clear, the 70% number comes from the public comments specifically submitted to the board to review.)

Boardmember Gretchen Pfaehler similarly expressed her belief that the ANC’s role should be to organize the community towards eventual support for the district:

“You could be having HPO help you with understanding…They could be talking to you about Homeowner Grant[s]. They could be talking to you about DCSEU's ability to help you with energy research to help folks be proactive in restoring their homes so they can stay there…So we're really wanting you to reach out and get the breadth of information out to everybody so they understand.”

Again, in all of this no mention was made of the role of the applicants, who, according to current guidelines, are responsible for the the community outreach and education, not the ANC. These exchanges sound like the board members believe that community outreach means talking until everyone is pro-historic district.

This revelation should not come as a surprise for a board that openly admits to not requiring community support to make decisions. But it should raise questions about whether this is the process we want.

The board ultimately made no final decisions at last week’s meeting, but indicated a willingness to do so at their follow-up meeting this week. Based on the exchanges, it seems clear the board is poised to vote in favor of the application.

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Nick Sementelli is a Texas native, but has lived in DC since 2005. He works as a digital strategist mainly serving advocacy organizations and publishers. Outside of the office, you can find him on the soccer field or at Nats park.