Photo from Brookland Avenue.

Opponents of a redevelopment project at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern next to the Brookland Metro are turning to historic preservation as their latest anti-building tactic.

Lydia DePillis reports that ANC 5A has nominated Colonel Brooks’ Tavern and the adjacent houses to be designated as historic.

The timing of this is quite suspect, since a Planned Unit Development (PUD) has already been filed to replace these buildings with a 5-story mixed-use project. The ANC is already on record opposing the project, and for that matter virtually any development around the Brookland Metro.

Most preservationists vehemently dispute that their field is simply about blocking development. Many people who don’t oppose all development nonetheless consider themselves preservationists or supporters of preservation. In the blog world, that includes people such as Richard Layman, Alex Baca, David Garber, and myself.

Unfortunately, at times preservation really has been a tool of opposition. Former Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) chair Tersh Boasberg readily admitted that his reason for getting involved in preservation was to stop development of the Cleveland Park “Park and Shop” strip mall into anything larger.

There is certainly a contingent of preservationists who are willing to accommodate change, as long as that change doesn’t involve getting anything any taller or bigger than it is today. There are others who see preservation’s proper role as focusing more narrowly on the most valuable elements of historic properties or districts.

That creates a dilemma for the Historic Preservation Review Board when they consider this landmark nomination, which does little to conceal its true motivation.

The criteria for designation are very broad. A property can be designated, for example, if it merely “embod[ies] the distinguishing characteristics of architectural styles; building types; construction types or methods; landscape architecture; urban design, or other architectural, aesthetic, or engineering expressions significant to the appearance and development of the national capital or nation.”

Colonel Brooks’ Tavern and the other buildings are indeed good examples of the kind of building that historically comprised Brookland. These are “typical owner-occupied storefronts of the first years of the twentieth century” which “were associated with an Irish American owner whose business catered to Catholic University staff and students throughout their history.”

In other words, it’s pretty typical. Does that make it historic?

The laws in DC are written to allow designating a wide range of buildings. In many cases, designation and the concomitant review for new development makes for better projects. They do, however, also impose stricter limits on changes and create more time-consuming process even for allowed changes.

HPRB could take one of several approaches:

  1. It could refuse to designate the property. HPRB previously refrained from designating the Giant in Cleveland Park, for instance, though that wasn’t representative of old stores in the area as Colonel Brooks’ is.
  2. It could designate the property, but then grant a raze permit anyway. This is what the HPRB did not do with the Third Church of Christ, Scientist downtown. This is difficult because they would essentially be saying the property is historically significant, but then declining to protect it at all.
  3. It could designate the property and then find some way to let almost all of the project go ahead, such as by preserving only the façade. It has not generally allowed this level of latitude with other properties in recent years.
  4. It could designate the property and reject the project or ask for very significant changes that force redesigning and substantially shrinking the project. Then, the owner could apply to the Mayor’s Agent to grant the raze or the change anyway. Preservation groups are currently pressing a lawsuit to try to limit the Mayor’s Agent’s legal ability to allow this.

What will the Board do? Many eyes will be on them in this case, which could set the tone for public support or criticism of preservation for some time, especially as Mayor Gray chooses new nominees for the board.

A few years ago, preservation was under attack in DC, with some negative stories around Third Church and residential properties in Mount Pleasant and Capitol Hill fed by critical columns by Marc Fisher. Following that, the Board made some wiser choices in a few cases, Harriet Tregoning acting as the Mayor’s Agent allowed projects at Third Church and the Heritage Foundation addition on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the real estate market slowed, reducing the number of controversial projects.

Now that the market is picking up again, preservation is set for some high-profile battles. HPRB and citywide preservationists would be best served not to make a stand on this particular battle with Colonel Brooks, where the justification for designation is relatively weak and the underlying, anti-development motivation very strong.

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.