Bloomingdale by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

DC is growing, and as this spring’s passionate debate about the DC Comprehensive Plan revealed, managing this growth is one of the most important and contentious city planning discussions of our time. However, decisions about historic preservation are happening outside of this discussion, even though they’re having a big impact on our collective future.

One of these things is not like the other ones

As Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) members have made increasingly clear in designating Kingman Park and Bloomingdale this year, they are restricted to reviewing nominations exclusively based on the historic criteria in the law. Notably, that means they do not consider relative community support or opposition when making their decision — a characteristic that makes them fairly unique among DC government boards and agencies.

Perhaps more importantly, HPRB members are not tasked with balancing the needs of a preserving historic places with the needs of growing city. That is, they are very narrowly just trying to preserve what they think is worth preserving, and don’t consider what effects that might have on things like housing supply or affordable housing.

As @sharrowsDC opined, imagine if the city gave this same power to other priorities:

If the Council passed a law allowing the District Department of Transportation to put bike lanes on any street without considering neighborhood input, there’d be outrage. Is the preservation of every house in a neighborhood a significantly more important priority than the safety of our streets though? Current law implies yes.

Avoiding the political inconveniences of community opinion is only one of the advantages that HPRB’s narrow scope allows it. The other is the ability to operate outside of the city’s broad planning process where the benefits of preserving entire neighborhoods might be weighed against competing priorities like meeting the city’s long-term housing needs, addressing affordability, and equitably distributing growth.

Are historic districts just backdoor downzoning?

The reality is that neighborhood-wide preservation functionally downzones entire areas. While technically the density and use restrictions of historic districts are still controlled through the traditional zoning process, historic guidelines have a major influence. Historic districts don’t freeze a neighborhood in amber and stop any and all changes, but DC’s current historic protections definitely don’t help a neighborhood adapt and accept new neighbors.

When the historic character of a district is represented through its buildings’ size, scale, and facades, alterations that would significantly change those characteristics are generally off the table. This makes density-increasing changes — like converting single-family homes to multi-unit buildings or adding a larger apartment building to a block of row houses — significantly more difficult, even if zoning would otherwise allow them (or if future zoning changes tried to allow them).

As increased demand for housing in the region puts more and more pressure on core city neighborhoods to add units, historic districts are therefore more successfully able to shunt that growth elsewhere in the city.

The end result is two parallel but asymmetric planning processes. There’s one, the actual planning process, where residents on all sides of the issues converse and compromise. And then there’s a second, pseudo-planning process of historic preservation where anti-development residents can get another bite at the apple without any of the debate.

It’s not like there’s an equivalent “Growth Encouragement Review Board” for pro-growth residents to similarly push through changes where anti-growth arguments aren’t applicable because they are not part of the criteria evaluated. The advantage works in exclusively one direction.

Given this shortcut, is it any surprise anti-development residents would flock to the historic designation process when they feel stymied by the conventional planning process?

Bloomingdale’s designation is a template for future abuse

This was certainly part of the story surrounding the designation of my neighborhood Bloomingdale over the last year. While appeals to the social history of the neighborhood certainly did feature in the arguments of proponents, they were at least equaled in propensity and intensity as traditional NIMBY concerns about pop-ups (adding an additional floor or two to an existing building), conversions, and parking.

The applicants were honest about this themselves, noting that while there had been some neighborhood interest in a historic district for a number of years, it was a particularly galling pop-up that finally motivated them to apply (timestamp 1:04:15):

“Our Coalition was finally spurred into action in May 2015 by the completely insensitive redevelopment in the unit block of W St. This eye-popping alteration of the facade on such an interconnected block of homes was the catalyst that released a long, pent-up feeling that Bloomingdale was worth preserving and now was the time to act. As a longtime resident said at the time ‘we have a moral obligation to do something.’”

The pop-up that spurred the Bloomingdale Historic District application. Image by Andrew Salek-Raham.

Notably, shortly after that catalytic W Street pop-up went up, those concerned did fight for and win policy changes through the conventional planning process. In June 2015, the DC Zoning Commission voted to lower the maximum allowable height of homes in R-4 zoned neighborhoods like Bloomingdale from 40 feet to 35 feet, effectively prohibiting most pop-ups without a special exception.

But event that change ultimately proved unsatisfactory to its proponents, and there were complaints that too many unpopular renovations were still getting built. As DC Preservation League Executive Director Rebecca Miller explained, frustration with these zoning laws was a major factor in the decision to file the Bloomingdale nomination as an alternate method to achieve those original ends.

“Residents who sought recognition and protection for their community saw how DC’s new zoning changes didn’t protect their interests — pop-ups, turret removals, mansard roof alterations that were approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustment just set the tone that the new “special exception” process wasn’t so “special” after all. A historic district was the means to preserve the historic and built integrity of this very hot urban neighborhood.”

Other neighborhoods are clearly paying attention. At the Bloomingdale hearing, Kirby Vining, a resident of the nearby Stronghold neighborhood, previewed exactly how much of a template he thinks the designation process set. He doesn’t currently see a need for historic designation in his community because he’s satisfied with the zoning there. But he stands prepared to submit an application if that ever changes (timestamp 4:03:40):

“In Stronghold.. we fortunately are not confronted with this simply because a quirk of zoning. We are R-3. I have talked to so many real estate agents who say I want to buy these houses in here and flip them just like those big ones over in Bloomingdale. I say uh-uh-uh-uh no, you can’t condo it out and you can’t put that story up above. We are saved by that right now. If that changes, if that law, that zoning changes, I’m going to be the first to recommend that we’re going to head down this road here because of what I’ve seen done in Bloomingdale.”

The problem is fairly clear: historic designation is increasingly seen as a successful backdoor way to fight pop-ups and taller buildings when the more contentious traditional planning process fails to deliver. Given the number of fights related to these issues in neighborhoods across the city, it looks set to be an increasingly popular one.

A similar example is the current fight over a proposed new building near 16th Street NW in the Meridian Hill historic district. There opponents tried to use the historic design review process to argue that the height of the building was out of character with the district. When HPRB disagreed with them and found the building design compatible, neighbors’ revealed their true complaints were about density, parking, and traffic, and are now attempting to just directly downzone the site.

This isn’t unique to the city proper either. Similar concerns are being injected into a fight over a new mixed-use development in downtown Herndon. After the Herndon Heritage Preservation Review Board approved the project, neighbors launched appeals full of, again, complaints about parking, traffic, and density.

In DC, the only factor limiting historic preservation’s seemingly inexorable spread are the historic designation criteria. But the qualifications are written extremely broadly and as an HPO staffer told ANC Commissioner Bob Coomber, as far as she could remember, HPRB has never voted down a historic district application.

Ostensibly there are still some neighborhoods that would not earn approval of the board even despite the broad criteria. But not knowing in advance which neighborhoods would and wouldn’t qualify is exactly the problem with divorcing this process from the larger planning one. What if there aren’t enough total non-historic areas to accommodate all of the city’s needed growth, or what if doing so leads to a heavily inequitable distribution? Shouldn’t we figure that out in advance while we still have time to plan for it?

Those are the questions we as a city need to be trying to answer, but our current historic designation isn’t even set up to ask them.