Historic districts have been used by neighbors to fight unwanted changes to the neighborhood, such as pop-ups. The process is set up in a way that does not defend well against abuse. Pop up row house by nevermindtheend licensed under Creative Commons.

Recent contentious historic preservation cases have shown DC’s system can be abused by neighbors who simply want another tool to halt change in their neighborhood. Part of the problem is that the very process used to designate a site does not legally incorporate the views of the surrounding community.

Certainly, preservation officials should have some power to act on behalf of the priorities of historic preservation, but excluding the voice of the community is problematic.

Over the past few week’s we’ve explored multiple facets of DC’s historic preservation system that need reform. Take a moment to read and sign our full petition here. This week we’ll look into how residents’ views are not officially accounted for in historic designation, and propose more democratic solutions.

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A neighborhood can be designated historic without community education and input

When it comes to historic preservation, there are two different tools available: historic landmark status (typically for one building or a small group of buildings), and historic districts designating a geographic area, such as a neighborhood, historic. Buildings with these protections are governed by a number of site-specific regulations that aim to protect their historic character, mainly affecting exterior alterations.

In order to get a landmark or historic district, an applicant (typically a neighborhood group, or an organization on behalf of a neighborhood group) must apply to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO). Eventually the application is voted on by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a mayorally-appointed volunteer board which makes preservation decisions.

The very design of this process is problematic as we explored in an earlier post, but other reforms are needed here: community input is not officially quantified and considered as part of the historic designation decision.

Now agencies will point to regulations that say public opinion is “beneficial” “accorded great weight,” and even “essential to informed decision making in the historic preservation process.”

However, when it comes to the final vote before the HPRB the law is clear: “by law, HPRB makes its decision on the basis of the written designation criteria,” things like architecture, historical importance, or being the “work of a master.”

In other words, the board decides on the historic bonafides as described in the application. Community input is not legally weighed, as expressed in any Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) or community vote. HRPB members and other preservation advocates say this is correct, because whether something is historic or not shouldn't be put to a vote by the public.

As a result, we see cases where the HPO moves the application process along even if there’s community opposition. Fundamentally, both HPO and the HPRB rely on the applicant to conduct community outreach and education. Unfortunately, there are no legal requirements on what that outreach should look like, no number of required meetings, and no required proof of neighborhood support in terms of a vote or the like.

This isn’t how it works in, say, transportation or zoning. Sure, not every resident will agree about parking or a bike lane or setback rules or stormwater requirements, and the decision isn’t put to a strict vote every time. However, what neighbors think is a huge — and formal — part of the calculus.

This current system creates a risky dynamic where a motivated group of neighbors can simply apply for historic designation, do limited or zero community outreach, and ultimately secure a positive HPRB vote without community consensus or education.

Has this happened before? Not until recently.

In the past, applicants themselves have simply withdrawn or scrapped their applications when it was clear that the community opposed historic designation or there was at least severely divided opinion. This is what happened in Eckington in 2016 and in Chevy Chase in 2008.

But recently two cases have pushed this issue to the limit. In Kingman Park, a controversy-filled historic district was just approved by the HPRB. The applicant in this case did very little community outreach (in fact the vote was originally delayed because HPRB was worried about the outreach), and ANC votes were decidedly split on the issue (6A voted against, 5D for, and 7D did not take a vote, though the most-impacted commissioner in 7D was one of the most vocal opponents of the district).

Amidst all of this, ANC Commissioner Bob Coomber (7D) put out a survey and when combined with the official comments sent in to the HPRB, it is clear that most residents who responded opposed the designation. Yet HPO still brought the case forward for a vote, and HPRB designated it.

Map of comments from Kingman Park residents on historic district application. Red = against. Green = for.  Image by Bob Coomber.

Some residents in Bloomingdale are worried about a similar situation. A survey of neighborhood property owners revealed a majority opposed to the pending historic nomination, and later the ANC (5E) voted against it. To date, the applicants have still not pulled their application. The HPRB hearing and vote is set for July, and opponents are anxious that again, clear evidence of community opposition will not formally be accounted for in the HPRB’s deliberations.

These cases highlight a real problem with our current historic designation process. There should be a more clearly-defined procedure for public engagement. Why not actually require a vote from affected neighbors? Those are both things that agencies could set standards around and require from applicants.

HPO and HPRB could also start officially considering these metrics in their deliberations. Undemocratically designating buildings and neighborhoods historic does not seem like a good way to protect and preserve DC’s history.

Bloomingdale. Image by Aimee Custis Photography.

Help us take this issue to the DC Council

There are other aspects of how DC does historic preservation that could be reformed and we’ll discuss those in future posts. This particular issue of quantifying and requiring community support came up in the council oversight process of the Office of Planning (OP) and HPO. Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7, which includes Kingman Park) asked direct questions about how the office quantifies community support or opposition. The answer from HPO’s David Maloney was somewhat elusive: “It is up to the board to review the support and opposition and come up with a decision.”

Gray pushed a little harder:

With Kingman Park, you have people on both sides of the issue. You have some in favor, and a lot who are not. You said there is no quantification that is determitative, but there has got to come a point where there is a weighing here.

We agree! It’s not the only thing that should change about our historic designation process, but it is an important one.

If you agree, help us bring this issue to the DC Council and sign our petition. There are a lot of issues in front of the council right now, and in order for historic preservation reform to make it to the floor we need to show that enough neighbors want to see some changes.

We can and should have strong historic preservation in the District, but we also should ensure that it is fair and democratic process. Otherwise we cheapen what is fundamentally an important tool for maintaining our city’s historic places..

Sign the petition!