Barry Farm apartment by Matailong Du for Street Sense licensed under Creative Commons.

Barry Farm residents have filed a historic landmark application as part of their ongoing campaign to make more significant changes to the planned redevelopment slated for their neighborhood in Southeast DC. If they succeed, the project could be radically altered again or even halted. While the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff report recommends against approving the nomination, the final decision rests with the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) at its meeting on July 11.

Barry Farm is a public housing neighborhood located just south of the Anacostia metro station between I-295 and Suitland Parkway. For the last 14 years, the city’s planned redevelopment of the neighborhood has stirred up a host of challenges. Selected in 2005 to be a part of the District’s New Communities Initiative (NCI), the goal of the development is to turn the aging public housing units into a mixed-income, mixed-use community.

The NCI program’s stated mission includes replacing existing public units one-for-one and giving all the people living there the right to return. However, long delays have left residents faced with a difficult choice: either leave without much certainty about whether and when they will be able to return, or stay in deteriorating units.

Some residents have concerns about the development planned for the site, bemoaning the replacement of the current groups of attached duplexes and their large yards with denser multi-unit buildings. “The residents of Barry Farms felt like they wanted the new community to have the same feeling as their home, not high-rise stacked apartments that could look like any suburb you’ve ever been to,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of the local organizing group Empower DC.

In 2017, residents raised those concerns in a lawsuit in the DC Court of Appeals and won. Last April, Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby vacated the Zoning Commission’s order that had approved the 2014 Planned Unit Development (PUD) for the site.

In response, NCI staff went back to the drawing board to edit the plan, conducting six community meetings last fall to solicit feedback. This March, NCI director Angie Rodgers reported that, in response to that feedback, the new plan will have 300 fewer units than the previous design to allow for larger yards and more multi-bedroom units.

That development has not satisfied all residents, however. Some are promoting an alternate, resident-led development plan with still-lower density and only affordable housing units. With more residents continuing to relocate and demolition proceeding, these advocates are feeling pressure to find other avenues to impact the future of the site.

A historic nomination doubling as a planning tool

That makes the timing of this historic application a pretty clear signal as to its motivation. Like the recent application to expand the historic footprint of the Scottish Rite Temple in Dupont, this application nominally focuses solely on the historic merit of the buildings, but is de facto an attempt to override the site’s land-use decisions made through the District’s traditional channels.

If the HPRB rules in favor of this application, the site’s new historic protections would require that new development rehabilitate and incorporate existing buildings instead of demolishing them. That change would, at the least, radically reset and delay the current plans and could potentially even blow up the PUD process entirely.

But when the board meets this week to decide on the application, no one will discuss this massive veto power. Their legal mandate to ignore all non-historic-related information will create something of a kabuki-hearing, where everyone will talk around the elephant in the room and ultimately issue a ruling that claims to have no knowledge of its own impact.

It’s just another example in a growing list of how ill-prepared DC’s historic process is for handling this increasingly common tactic.

What’s in the historic application

Filed by the Barry Farms Tenants and Allies Association (BFTAA) and prepared by Prologue DC, the application specifically nominates the 32 remaining attached duplexes (many have already been demolished) comprising the Barry Farm Dwellings.

Somewhat interestingly, the application does not appeal to the nomination criterion having to do with physical characteristics of the site, but rather exclusively to the criteria related to the social history, or the people and events related to the buildings.

Specifically, the application cites four historic elements of the site:

  1. The location’s establishment by the federal government for the purpose of selling affordable building lots to African Americans in the wake of the Civil War,
  2. The nominated dwellings’ post-WWII creation as public housing for African-Americans,
  3. The dwellings history housing families who were plaintiffs in a school-segregation companion case to Brown v. Board, and
  4. The 1960s history of residents’ activism around welfare and tenant’s rights.

HPO staff recommend against designation

In its role as professional advisors to the HPRB, the HPO released its staff report on the application last month. Evaluating the application’s arguments and evidence, it recommends the Board deny the application, though its reasoning differs for each claim.

Regarding claims 1, 3, and 4, HPO disagrees with the nomination that they rise to the level of the criteria, finding (in short) that:

  • Claim 1: None of the first-generation, post-Civil War houses survive today (though archaeological work is ongoing and future findings would lead to more HPO action),
  • Claim 3: The Brown v. Board related houses (as opposed to the plantiffs themselves) were not pertinent to the Supreme Court case history, and
  • Claim 4: The tenant activism was not particularly unique to this neighborhood.

It’s claim 2 regarding the history of the current dwellings creation as post-WWII public housing for African-Americans that provides the report’s most interesting conversation. The report actually agrees with the application that this fact deems the site historically significant, but concludes that the physical quality of the buildings is so diminished that they don’t meet the separate integrity standard:

Despite retaining their location, orientation, relationships and many aspects of setting, the buildings themselves have been altered significantly and, even in their altered state, are in poor to deteriorated condition. Many have boarded-up windows and appear vacant. Later stucco is stained and cracked throughout, and in many cases is spalling in wholesale sections. As built, the rows of buildings featured exposed concrete walls and simple detailing such as flat and shed-roof porches and bands of ornamental brick work, all of which reflected the war-time shortage of materials and funds and emerging proto-modern design aesthetics of the period. In the 1980s, these character-defining features were compromised when the exposed concrete walls and decorative brick flourishes were covered with stucco. Porches were removed, and front doors were embellished with stucco-clad surrounds with stepped and arched pediments of a vaguely postmodern design. The historically flat roofs of the end units on street-facing rows were raised and converted to gables, eliminating the most salient feature of the modern aesthetic of the buildings. All of the original windows and doors have also been replaced.

Ultimately, the staff conclude, “the buildings do not retain sufficient integrity to convey the values and qualities for which the property is judged significant.” HPO’s report, however, is only a recommendation, and the HPRB will make an official decision at their hearing this Thursday, July 11.