The Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to designate Bloomingdale a historic district two weeks ago at its July 26 meeting. This went against the opinion of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), which voted 8-1 against the proposal, and a neighborhood poll paid for by the Bloomingdale Civic Association in which 55% of the respondents were against becoming a historic district (the civic association ultimately voted in favor).
The designation comes after a long period of robust debate in the neighborhood. That intensity was on display in the hearing, where neighbors both in support and opposed testified for five hours. Proponents emphasized their desire to recognize the area’s history and to limit the types of development that can happen in the neighborhood. Opponents expressed concern about the added cost and hassle of making repairs and renovations in a historic district, as well as the impact it would have on housing affordability.
Ultimately, the board reiterated what four commissioners said in their re-confirmation hearing in June — that they make designation decisions exclusively based on the historic criteria and don’t consider economic arguments or neighborhood opposition.
Board member Brian Crane summarized that context at the hearing:
“I want to reflect that the way this board is constituted under the laws and regulations of the District is that our authority is very specifically limited, that we are, as I understand it, to consider the nomination that is before us according to the criteria for historic properties in the District of Columbia and the National Register of Historic Places. And that’s pretty much it...We have no expertise in and have no authority to weigh concerns about the economic impact. I hear those concerns, I understand them, but this board was not created to hear those concerns; there are other venues where those concerns can be addressed.
Likewise, while public comment is very important and it’s good to hear the various arguments that the public have for and against the nomination, we are not empowered to count votes. We don’t have votes before us. We can weigh arguments, but not count votes.”
The new historic district’s boundaries will be Florida Avenue, Channing Street, 2nd Street, and North Capitol Street. The triangle just east of the district (between 2nd, Florida and Rhode Island) was not included in the application, but the board indicated in their written decision that they believe it should be considered for future inclusion in either the Bloomingdale or neighboring Ledroit Park historic district.
Following the contentious designation of Kingman Park in May, Bloomingdale becomes the second historic district designated over neighborhood opposition this year — a marked departure from past precedent in which broad community support was necessary for an application to proceed. Coupled with the law’s broad criterion and DC’s reactive designation process, these designations are increasingly highlighting a system in need of reform.
This is why GGWash has been organizing people to discuss and push for reforms that ensure preservation, like all other government actions, balances a variety of priorities and factors in the views of residents. Officials should make decisions based on what's best for the city, the law should change to encourage them to balance public sentiment and other city needs, like housing, against whether properties meet a very broad historic standard in the law.