American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue. Photo by katmere on Flickr.

The battle is heating up over establishing a new historic district in Chevy Chase, DC. Residents opposed to the designation have been distributing “No Historic District” lawn signs and emailing neighborhood lists. The ANC is about to conduct a survey of residents to gauge support, and Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced legislation to require a resident vote, instead of merely HPRB action, to designate a historic district.

Fox 5 interviewed people both for and against the district. One woman wonders if historic preservation would stop her from having a rocking horse on her front porch (it wouldn’t). A pro-district organizer defends the need for permits for windows and doors, citing today’s cheaper windows which are lower-quality than the historic windows on Chevy Chase’s houses.

For many people, though, imposing rules on even small elements like windows is a scary implication of a historic district. Proponents primarily cite a proliferation of McMansions as the reason for the district; if the vote fails, it may be because residents don’t want McMansions but also don’t want fenestration regulation. Residents ought to have a wider range of choices beyond simply historic or unregulated; I’d certainly vote to keep the full regulation, windows and all, in Dupont Circle, but what’s good for Dupont might not be right for Chevy Chase (or maybe it is).

People have many very different reasons for supporting a historic district. One resident told me that he originally endorsed the designation when it appeared denser development in Friendship Heights might stretch toward Chevy Chase, but now that market conditions have slowed development, he doesn’t think it’s necessary. Many historic districts exist because urbanists and historians found common cause with anti-development neighbors; in Chevy Chase, that alliance may not be strong or urgent enough to designate this neighborhood.

If the vote goes against a district, Chevy Chase could suffer some very incongruent renovations and lose much of the neighborhood’s coherence. While not all DC neighborhoods may want the highest level of historic scrutiny, every neighborhood, designated or not, ought to receive some basic design review to at least ensure that a bungalow like the one at left doesn’t turn into the building on the right without some discussion and community input.

The architecture of that building is kind of interesting, and I’d enjoy looking at that house on a hillside in Seattle, but a street full of bungalows has value in its architectural harmony. Drastic, visible changes affect the value for everyone, and whether they’re ultimately allowed or not, ought to involve the wider community.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.