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Reader Comments & Opinions

AN APPRECIATION: Ann Hughes Hargrove

By Larry Hargrove

Ann Hughes Hargrove died of cancer at her Adams Morgan home on November 7, 2014 at age 78. For more than half a century she had been a Washington community activist and leader in historic preservation, land use planning and zoning. I’ve been asked to recall a few of the highlights of that life.

Ann enjoying her garden.

Ann enjoying her garden.

In 1963, Ann and I had moved with our young family into the neighborhood that was coming to be known as Adams Morgan, after a brief sojourn in the suburban expanse of Northern Virginia. We had bought a house on Biltmore Street equipped with six jerry-built kitchens and a congenial covey of roomers – really more a project than just a house. Ann was animated then and throughout the remainder of her life by having fallen in love with the elegant architectural smorgasbord of Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and similar row house neighborhoods across the city, and the diverse communities that they sustained.

She regarded these neighborhoods, distressed as many of them were at the time, as a great Washington treasure, and sensed early on that preserving them would require a willingness to do battle. The prevailing view of officialdom in non-self-governing Washington was that many of these inner city neighborhoods were irremediably blighted, and were best replaced by sometimes massive new private or public redevelopment lest the blight spread. Accordingly, only five years earlier, the newly enacted DC Zoning Code had imposed on Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle residential and commercial zoning calling for substantially denser development than that reflected in the neighborhoods as built. (This was done against the recommendation of Harold Lewis, whose “Lewis Plan” formed the basis for the 1958 code. Ann and Walter Lewis, who had also worked on the plan and who went on to serve as Chairman of the Zoning Commission for a number of years, developed a relationship of mutual respect, which stood her in good stead in the years immediately ahead.)

More immediately threatening were plans underway for an “inner loop” freeway that would have destroyed thousands of buildings in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and elsewhere, as well as an urban renewal project that, while developed with widespread participation of local residents and not as massive in scale as the one that had obliterated Southwest D.C., would have demolished significant numbers of “substandard” buildings in the Reed-Cooke community— the section of Adams Morgan bounded by Florida Avenue, 16th Street, Columbia Road and 18th Street.

DC would not have a historic preservation law for another decade and a half, so mounting an opposition required improvising on a case-by case basis. For example:

Planners had drawn plans envisaging the shabby but historic Adams Morgan commercial strip replaced by sleek high-rises, so Ann persuaded the Zoning Commission to down-zone, lowering the building height limit that had been assigned in the 1958 code.

A private development would have demolished all the row houses on the south side of the 1900 block of Calvert Street and several adjoining houses on Biltmore, long-time resident and former Kalorama Citizens Association President Marilou Righini, with Ann and others from KCA, engineered a public campaign of opposition that generated a long and sympathetic article in the New York Times and ultimately persuaded the developer to abandon the project.

In the late seventies, when parts of downtown Washington were still a rundown wasteland nurturing strip joints and porn shops, a convenient neighborhood porn shop appeared on Columbia Road around the corner from the Peoples Drug Store (now McDonalds). Thinking that that did not enhance the tone of the neighborhood, Ann, with KCA Treasurer Larry Karr and others, organized a small Legion of Righteousness from KCA to inspect the place, which was well equipped for lascivious viewing by means of what the DC Zoning Regulations characterized as “slug-operated mechanical amusement machines”. They found the establishment wanting, and Ann, working with the D.C. Corporation Counsel, found a legal basis for having it shut down.

Meanwhile Ann had joined with others across the city in the very vocal public fight against the freeway and the “Three Sisters Bridge” across the Potomac that would have connected it to Northern Virginia. (The proposal ultimately died in Federal court, thanks largely to Roberts Owen, an astute and dedicated Washington lawyer working pro bono.) The urban renewal plan was finally killed by the NCPC (where the fact that the then Chair, Elizabeth Rowe, had grown up in an Adams Morgan row house, may have played a role). Years later, in 1991, Ann joined with Reed-Cooke residents in formulating the Reed-Cooke Overlay in the zoning code, getting rid of the vestiges of industrial zoning that city fathers (there weren’t any city mothers then) had imposed on it over thirty years earlier.

The successful opponents of urban renewal were not able to avert the private demolition of a sizeable chunk of Reed-Cooke – the area that years later came to be occupied by the mixed-use garage/apartment development on Champlain Street — and the displacement of its largely African-American residents. That large development itself was hugely controversial in the neighborhood, pitting those who wanted just a multi-story parking garage, thought to be a boost to the business community, against advocates of retaining a substantial residential component on the site; Ann was a leader among proponents of the latter view.

Washington’s transition into Home Rule in 1973 opened new modes of action to preservationists, and not only through the elected Mayor and Council. In 1976 Ann helped found the Citizens Planning Coalition to ensure that citizens had a voice in preparing the first Comprehensive Plan under Washington’s new charter. She worked on successive amendments to the Plan, with special attention to Ward 1. Serving on the Mayor’s task force on the current Comprehensive Plan, she was instrumental in securing the inclusion of a number of key provisions aimed at heightened protection for residential neighborhoods. Some of these, mirabile dictu, are actually reflected in the currently proposed new Zoning Regulations.

In 1979, the Washington Hilton Hotel proposed to expand by demolishing the historic Wyoming Apartments and two adjacent apartment buildings on Columbia Road. Proponents of the sale of these buildings to the Hilton lauded the project as a way to stem the onslaught of blight “from the north and east”. Ann worked with ANC Commissioner Manny Lopez, youth leader Walter Pierce, residents of the three buildings and others to organize a somewhat raucous public protest at the Hilton, while as ANC Chairman she set about convincing the Zoning Commission to adopt its 1980 emergency order permanently banning hotel construction or expansion in residential neighborhoods citywide. That order still stands.

She served on the task force that helped draft the city’s historic preservation law, and its enactment in 1979 of course handed preservationists a new set of formal tools. The law had hardly gone into effect before Ann was working with residents of the Wyoming on landmarking that grand building. She invoked the landmarking provisions of the law to leverage a favorable outcome with developers threatening other historic structures, as when the MacDonald’s corporation proposed to replace a keystone building at 18th and Columbia Road, designed by renowned architect Waddy Wood, with a standard McDonald’s outlet. She joined in the effort that led to the creation of the Kalorama Triangle Historic District, and later organized and led the widespread community effort that produced the adjacent Washington Heights Historic District. More recently, she worked with Lanier Heights residents on securing the historic survey of that neighborhood — a project that, for the time being at least, has not ripened into the designation of a historic district.

In 2000, Ann led the ultimately successful effort to establish Adams Morgan’s first moratorium on new liquor licenses, which sought to moderate the impact of the area’s numerous ABC establishments on the quality of life of its residents. Denis James has ably taken over this role in subsequent iterations of the moratorium.

In 2001, working with the national organization Scenic America, she organized opposition to regulations proposed by the Mayor to allow huge vinyl wall signs to proliferate throughout the District, circumventing the District’ historic ban on billboards. Through inattention, the Council had allowed the regulations to become law, but opponents were able to secure a permanent cap of 32 on the permissible number of these “Special Signs” and to restrict the areas where they could be located. (Adams Morgan did end up with one junior-sized “Special Sign”.) In 2010 Ann orchestrated successful opposition to the proposal of another mayor to raise that cap. Two years later, thanks to the indefatigable outdoor advertising industry, proposals to allow both Special Signs and electronic billboards of the sort erected in Gallery Place to proliferate throughout the city, just on the Mayor’s say-so, turned up in proposed new sign regulations. Ann prepared an extensive analysis of the draft regulations strongly opposing these proposals, which the Committee of 100 submitted to the Mayor (the draft regulations are still pending).

Ann’s work locally and citywide was greatly helped by her experience with the DC Council in the 1990’s, when she served as legislative aide to Council Chairman David Clarke and later as chief of staff and legislative aide for Frank Smith, the Ward 1 Councilmember. She was also a Commissioner and Chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C, and an officer of various civic organizations in addition to KCA, including the Citizens Planning Coalition and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. She was Chairman of the Committee of 100 in the mid-2000’s, initiating the Committee’s annual Vision Awards honoring outstanding planning and preservation projects. She received lifetime achievement awards from the Ward One Democrats, the Federation of Citizens Associations, and the Committee of 100, and in 2013 was awarded the District of Columbia Mayor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Historic Preservation.

Ann was not obsessed with historic preservation in the Nation’s Capital to the exclusion of all else: she had worked in the South on behalf of migrant labor, with women offenders seeking entry into the workforce, as a consultant on urban planning, in her church, and on the family conservation project in West Virginia (she was recently recognized as a “Conservation Hero” by the West Virginia Nature Conservancy). But she was steadfastly concerned about the beauty, livability and architectural excellence of her city. In her Lifetime Achievement award ceremony in 2013, tossing aside her prepared remarks, she chided the Historic Preservation Review Board for its occasional custodial laxity, and exhorted new Washingtonians especially to be aware that much of what we all treasure about our town did not happen – and may not remain — without a fight.

Good points.

Copyright © 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Hargrove. All rights reserved.

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