Palisades Safeway. Image created with Google Maps.

In DC’s historic preservation process, all nominations start with an application. Often composed by professional historians and/or architectural experts, the application lays out the history of the property and explains how it meets the designation criteria provided in the preservation law.

Except when it doesn’t.

In a highly unusual development, DC’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) just announced it has received an application that ultimately makes the argument against historic designation of a site. Filed by Safeway concerning its store location in the Palisades neighborhood, the application presents a robust case that concludes:

The Safeway located at 4865 MacArthur Boulevard, NW, is neither the first grocery store in the District of Columbia, nor the first Sanitary Grocery Company or Safeway store in the District. It does not embody design significant to the development of the grocery store or supermarket. The building’s simple rectangular form is undistinguished and devoid of any architectural character or historical significance. It does not meet the criteria for individual designation and is ineligible for listing on the DC Inventory of Historic Place.

The Office of Planning's public affairs specialist Mekdy Alemayehu confirmed that while this is rare (the only other application to similarly argue for non-designation was for the Park Lane apartments on I St NW in 1998) the application meets the legal requirements and will be treated like any other, with an HPO staff report and Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) hearing.

Prepared by local historic research firm EHT Traceries and documenting a full narrative of the site, historic photographs, and 49 footnotes, Safeway’s application is no pro-forma rush job either. It represents a serious and preemptive investment.

Usually corporations incur expenses like these in order to proactively change a policy. But if this application “succeeds,” the end result will leave the building in the exact same regulatory state it’s in currently. And if it fails, and the building is actually designated, Safeway could find the property’s redevelopment options (and therefore sale value) significantly limited by the prohibition from demolishing a historic building. On its face, it’s all risk and no reward. So what gives?

The presumptive answer requires some background information about the current politics of historic preservation in the District. As I explored last year, while DC’s preservation law nominally restricts designation decisions to a limited set of historic criteria, it’s proving increasingly popular with anti-development activists. Opponents of various building projects around the city have been using the process to channel (and/or mask) their concerns about height, density, traffic, and parking—especially in cases where their appeals to other District agencies and boards have failed.

Presumably, Safeway is anticipating this tactic in response to a future sale and/or development of the site, and is attempting to secure an opinion from HPRB that will preemptively rule it out. It seems acutely aware of the fact that history is written by the people who write history, and would rather tell its story about the site before someone else makes a different case.

While a decision not to designate the property would not technically preclude a different outcome on a future re-application, it would strongly imply that such an effort would be unsuccessful. At the very least, it legally would prevent a new application from being filed for 12 months after the denial. (See Section 4(d)(1) of the law.)

Safeway’s pre-emptive concern may in part be a result of its somewhat contentious recent history at the Palisades location, which is a rare large site in Ward 3 currently zoned to permit substantial new development. In 2014, news came out that this specific store intended to put a covenant in sale documents that would prevent another grocery store from operating at the site after it left, limiting the chain’s competition in the region and potentially contributing to a food desert in the area.

The scuttlebutt created animosity with neighbors and prompted Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh to introduce legislation preventing such restrictive covenants. In the wake of the controversy, Safeway may be calculating that neighbors would be particularly motivated to pursue any avenue of opposition to its future plans.

The reverse-preservation strategy is not without considerable risk though. While Safeway has made an effort to present a comprehensive history, HPO staff will do their own research and may find different evidence or simply interpret the same information differently. The HPRB archives are filled with cases where property owners came to different conclusions than the staff and board about the same history. If that were to happen, Safeway could come to seriously regret the gambit.

On the other hand, if it succeeds, this could set a fascinating precedent for other property owners across the city.