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Plan for Lanier Heights Historic District Met With Heavy Opposition, Complaints


By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2008 issue PDF

Chaos, conflict, and candor — or the lack thereof — all threatened disruptions when over 100 Adams Morgan residents and District government officials crowded into a community meeting room — spilling out into the adjoining hallway — at the Mary’s Center in the heart of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood on evening of October 15 to participate in a community forum sponsored by the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).

This huge turnout for an ANC event, scheduled on the same evening as the third and final presidential debate, was called as a result of the acrimony arising from the on-going efforts of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) to have the area of Adams Morgan known as Lanier Heights designated a DC Historic District. These energized and passionately engaged attendees — the majority of whom expressed opposition to both the proposed historic district and to the process by which it was being created — faced an ANC-selected panel of experts and community activists consisting of long-time Lanier Heights residents Nancy Huvendick of the 21st Century School Fund and architect Robert Corcoran of Kvell Corcoran Associates; they were joined by Andi Adams, an architectural historian with the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Also participating as experts were DC State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney and three of his Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff.

Huvendick, who is coordinating the work of volunteers for the historic resources study effort, the first step in the designation process, stressed her concerns for protecting the remarkably intact segments of single-family row houses in Lanier Heights and retaining the neighborhood’s remarkable diversity. Huvendick further asserted that historic district designation would provide community control of any future development and, in her opinion, would not impact homeowners with any heavy burdens.

Architect Corcoran, who has over 20 years of experience working with historic properties both in DC and throughout the country, reported on his recent canvassing of his 32 Ontario Place neighbors. Of these, 25 responded with startled questions regarding the origins of this historic designation effort, questioning why they were first hearing about it, and stating their opposition and outrage over the process now underway. Two residents declined to place their opposition on the record, expressing to Corcoran their fear of KCA retaliation. The 28th respondent stated that he intended to do all of his repairs and renovations prior to the historic district being declared and thus did not care one way or the other.

Corcoran emphasized in his remarks the complexity and expense in hiring architects, engineers, and preservation specialists to deal even with certain minor problems of repair with windows, porches, front steps, and retaining walls — to say nothing of additions, like roof decks and new porches, and renovations, with or without mandated restoration.

Andi Adams emphasized her successes at guiding clients into working collaboratively with HPO staff and resolving permit issues before having to refer matters to the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), reminding all present that one does not know what will happen when a matter is referred for Board decision. Adams further observed that in her experience the process of working with HPO staff resulted in an improved product.

ANC commissioners offered questions about windows, roof structures, and the apparent absence of any environmental considerations in HPRB legislation and regulations. Little clarity was achieved on these and other questions concerning such matters as those of “definitions” — for example, what are HPO criteria for defining such key historic preservation terms of art as “appropriate” in replacement or renovation matters, and “compatible” in the design of additions to existing structures and the construction of new buildings. Much of HPO and HPRB decision-making in such areas is by its very nature subjective, and no emblematic or explanatory examples were offered, no doubt partly because of the evening’s time constraints.

KCA leaders had an even harder time than those from HPO, being unable to assuage the complaints about “process” and the expressions of barely restrained anger at what appeared to many residents in attendance as secretive arrangements between KCA and the  District’s HPO.

Several Lanier Heights householders peppered KCA President Denis James with repeated requests to view the historic resources study results and report — submitted to HPO by KCA’s contractor on October 10, 2008. James asserted that the study results and report were considered a “draft” and thus confidential and would remain so until edited by HPO and returned to KCA with historic district application recommendations. Only then, said James, could KCA release these documents for viewing by Lanier Heights residents.

James was equally unyielding on the question of whether or not KCA would withdraw any intent to file an application for historic district designation if a majority of Lanier Heights residents objected and expressed further concern about the hypothetical question of how one might determine what constituted such a majority.

Indeed, there is presently no provision in the District’s HPRB statutes or HPO’s regulations for any such majority vote by affected parties. In fact, the only legal notification requirement in the present law and regulations is that HPO, on behalf of HPRB, inform all property owners in an affected or proposed district once a public hearing has been scheduled for HPRB decision-making — the penultimate step in the process. HPRB (and HPO) are not bound by any requirement to respond to property owners, registered voters, or residents generally in the affected area of a proposed historic district. The required “great weight” HPRB staff has stated is given to recommendations of ANCs is thought by many to be more ceremonial in that the agency’s responses are delivered orally in an informal manner rather than substantively presented in any sort of written order.

The District’s historic preservation statute and regulations implementing it is at one and the same time both among the nation’s most broadly and idealistically ambitious pieces of legislation and perhaps, in the view of many residents and others who follow the preservation movement, its harshest in the regulatory regime it has established — complete with $1,000 per day fines and a seemingly irrepressible and concerted effort to move a program that began as one of historic urban community preservation to that of a regime focused solely on preserving and restoring existing structures whatever the cost and consequences. Its critics point to DC’s perceived concern for buildings, not people, and certainly not how people and their needs change over time. Adams Morgan already presents the striking results of gentrification, especially in those areas that have already been designated as historic districts.

These forceful protestations were presided over by ANC Chair Bryan Weaver, who exercised a commanding gavel tempered by strategic flexibility. Weaver kept the forces of chaos at bay throughout the course of the two-and-a-half hour meeting. And after the refreshing candor from the ANC community forum’s panel — Huvendick, Corcoran, and Adams — candid and clarifying responses and assertions from HPO’s David Maloney and his staff fell back on bureaucratic complexity and confusion, serving to reinforce the plain fact that historic preservation matters that concern individuals have become increasingly difficult to resolve with any real degree of directness and finality.

Before leaving, and without having spoken, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham left behind copies of his October 14, 2008 letter to HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg expressing his opposition to the imposition of an historic district on Lanier Heights based on “the means of imposition, the current regulations, and the position of property owners as demonstrated in petitions to me as a duly elected representative. . . .”

And for those still present when the community forum concluded at 9:30 p.m., ANC Commissioner Wilson Reynolds announced a November 15 meeting of his Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee with the issue of the proposed Lanier Heights historic district on the agenda. Reynolds promised the attendance of HPO staff and the Mayor’s Agent, who hears appeals from HPRB decisions.

Additionally, there was mention of the forthcoming November 21st hearing to be held by the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on the bill co-introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser which would mandate that “[b]efore any proposed historic district is designated as a historic district, the owners of the properties within the proposed district shall be given the opportunity . . . to concur in, or object to, the nomination of such district. . . . If a majority of the owners of such properties within the district object to such inclusion or designation, such district shall not be so included. . . .”