Image by Google Maps used with permission.

Last week, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) voted to designate our neighborhood, Kingman Park, as a historic district. This happened even though a review of comments to HPRB found a majority of residents opposed the designation.

This entire affair has revealed some deep problems with DC’s historic designations process. It needs reform to ensure that residents’ views are considered, as they are for zoning, transportation, schools, and other decisions.

I once pushed for a historic district, but after hearing concerns, decided against it

When I was relatively new to my adoptive community of Kingman Park, where I have served as ANC for the past three plus years, I was interested in proposing a historic district to capture the unique history of our neighborhood. After speaking to some longtime neighbors, I learned that they had concerns as to the effect a historic district would have on affordability.

I researched the issue, and found my neighbors’ concern to be generally confirmed, though it is still an issue of some academic debate. Restricting land use and housing repair options makes housing less affordable. Renovation expenditures contributed significantly to higher property assessments, up to an increase of 33 cents for each dollar spent. Additionally, many cities and neighborhoods actively seek historic designations to augment their property tax base, and one study showed that historically designated property sale prices are 16% higher than similar, non-designated properties.

Ultimately, I was convinced and decided to no longer pursue a designation for Kingman Park.

Neighbors exploring nearby historic district. Image by the author.

Nobody approached the community about the current historic designation

On January 5, 2016, a group called the Kingman Park Civic Association (KPCA) (which is no longer a recognized civic association and is more accurately just two longtime Kingman Park residents), submitted an application for the neighborhood to be designated historic. Preservation regulations require that historic district applications come from the preservation office, the ANC, or a “historic preservation organization.” The applicants did little to garner neighborhood support before presenting the application to the Historic Preservation Office. Even as the current ANC at the time, I never saw a copy of the application until August — seven months after it was initially submitted.

The neighborhood’s recognized civic association, the Friends of Kingman Park (FOKP), began an extensive review process to understand and decide on whether we supported the application. Ultimately, through our civic association’s vote and through a review of residents’ comments submitted to HPRB, the bulk of Kingman Park residents were clearly not interested in an historic designation.

However, DC’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) continued to move forward. This is in stark contrast to the way it handled controversial designations in the recent past. For example, for a proposed Barney Circle historic district in 2010 the applicants could not generate enough support. Then-HPO head David Maloney explained later that there was “not enough community support for an application” and therefore it really [didn’t] move through the system.”

The same happened in Chevy Chase in 2008, where a district was proposed but a resident survey showed opposition. Maloney told the Washington Post:

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that [Chevy Chase] has a good chance of meeting the designation criteria. The sense I get is that most people are not contesting that, they agree it's a wonderful suburb. What they are contesting is whether it's something they want to deal with in their daily lives. And that is an issue for us.

Ultimately in both cases, persuaded by the lack of community support, the applications were withdrawn. That didn’t happen for us.

Neighborhood opposition was clear in Kingman Park

After the FOKP decision, concerned neighbors distributed a survey throughout the neighborhood (paper and electronic), just as a commissioner in Chevy Chase had done before. We printed over a thousand surveys and spent many hours going door-to-door discussing the proposed district. We got hundreds of responses and hundreds of people sent comments to HPRB expressing their opposition to the district.

Map of comments from Kingman Park residents on historic district application. Red = against. Green = for. Click for detailed data. Image by the author.

Many of the people we spoke to had never heard about the proposed district before. By contrast, the applicants did little or no outreach to neighbors. Instead they solicited support from people they knew, many of whom do not even live in the neighborhood anymore. Comments of support came in from people who live in Maryland and even California.

Map of comments from non-Kingman Park residents on historic district application. Red = against. Green = for. Click for detailed data. Image by the author.

I heard from several neighbors who tried to contact the applicants to discuss the proposal, but received no response. Looking just at those responses from people inside the proposed historic district, 74% of the comments submitted to HPRB (including those who responded to our poll) opposed the application.

Despite this opposition, the process moved forward

On January 25, 2018, HPRB held its first hearing. 28 members of the public testified against designation or said they didn’t have enough information to support, and just seven testified in favor. The Board asked the applicants to do more outreach, and HPO to come up with draft guidelines for the neighborhood’s consideration.

HPRB held its second hearing on April 26, 2018. The applicants had still not held any additional public hearings, but the board chose to chastise me, asking why I hadn’t conducted a second poll.

The board delayed its vote for a week. When it reconvened May 3rd, it had expanded the historic district’s boundaries without hearing from the public. One board member even tried to incorporate a church built in 1999.

More than 50 Kingman Park neighbors attend a Friends of Kingman Park Meeting to discuss the historic designation. The applicants would not attend neighborhood meetings despite multiple invitations. FOKP ultimately opposed the designation. Image by the author.

This reveals an undemocratic process

HPO and the HPRB believe that historic districts are what’s best for communities in DC. However, a democratic process for homeowners to determine whether they should enter into — or remain in — a historic district is necessary. HPO has done this for decades, but only informally. Chevy Chase, Brookland, Barney Circle, and Northern Capitol Hill all had historic districts stopped by democratic opposition. As evidenced by our case, a more formal and clearly legally enforceable democratic review is necessary.

We can also instead emphasize other processes for preserving rich and interesting neighborhood history, especially when the architecture of the neighborhood isn’t integral to its history, as I would argue is the case in Kingman Park. The number of public monuments honoring women or people of color is shamefully low. Monuments, plaques, and heritage trails can actually teach the public about the impressive history of the neighborhood. Per our poll, over 90% of Kingman Park residents are supportive of these alternative measures.

Focusing on the physical buildings — rather than the remarkable people who lived in them — does a disservice to the history of our neighborhood. If the inspiring stories of the neighborhood are not preserved in the awnings on the front of our houses or the windows set in our walls, why are we insisting they be preserved?

When handing out the polls for the historic district, I asked one of my older neighbors what he thought about the application. “I don’t like it. These buildings are not historic,” he told me. “But you know what? DC government — the mayor and all them — they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and it doesn’t matter what I say, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

I assured him the city would listen. But he was right, and it’s a shame.

Bob Coomber is in his second term as the ANC Commissioner for 7D01, the Kingman Park neighborhood. He strives to make his neighborhood safer, greener. and more welcoming for seniors and working families. During the day, Bob serves as a senior labor attorney for the federal government. He lives with his wife, Nicole; their four sons ages 7, 4, 2 and 2; and their ever-patient dog, Penny.