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Citywide Preservation Groups Raise Objections at Hearing to Confirm New HPRB Members

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a dramatic confrontation between four nominees for new positions on the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and representatives of Washington’s most prominent historic preservation advocacy organizations — the DC Preservation League (DCPL), Historic Districts Coalition, and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City — DC Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray repeatedly probed for the reasons why the four nominees had not yet met with these three organizations prior to Committee of the Whole confirmation hearings on January 29, 2008. Delays in Council consideration of the nominees were consequently requested by the three groups.

Appearing genuinely puzzled, Chairman Gray reminded both nominees and protesting witnesses – by means of posing a rhetorical question — that the historic preservation movement was originally a citizen initiative, not just in Washington but throughout the country. Reasons for this lack of meetings — ranging from scheduling conflicts, conflicting signals from the Office of Boards & Commissions, and the formal availability or transmission of nominee résumés — seemed simply to beat around the bush without getting to fundamental differences between the Mayor’s choices and the preservation activists’ recommendations. Advocacy groups fell back on assertions that the four nominees were unknown to the historic preservation community and were not the best qualified candidates for the positions. Gray responded by noting that the law covering HPRB Board memberships sets basic qualification standards and specifications, not a requirement for “best” or even “highly” qualified.

This did not satisfy the objectors — Nancy Metzger, Coordinator of the Historic Districts Coalition, DCPL Executive Director Rebecca Miller, Barbara Zartman for the Committee of 100, and Richard Busch, President of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, appearing in conjunction with the Coalition of Historic Districts, and all of whom asserted that they had presented Mayor Fenty with the names of much better qualified candidates. These included four proposed re-nominations — Amy Weinstein and Anne Lewis for the two architects positions and Denise Johnson and Kathy Henderson for the two public representative members. Barbara Zartman further complained that the Mayor’s nominees were diminishing diversity on the Board by reducing the number of women and African-American members.

Chairman Gray pursued these objections by first questioning the two HPRB candidates for re-nomination, George Washington University professor of architectural history and anthropology, John Vlach, and US Park Service archaeologist Robert Sonderman. Gray asked both candidates what kind of meetings and recommendations they had received before they were first confirmed for HPRB membership. None, both responded. Vlach, who had served one term on the Board, recounted a luncheon meeting with HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg where he was asked by Boasberg to submit his name for nomination. Sonderman, highly regarded for his long and collegial HPRB service since 1992 and for the continuity he brings to the Board’s deliberations, responded that his National Park Service archaeologist predecessor had recommended him and that he had been mentored in his HPRB service by prior Chair Charles Cassell.

Vlach and Sonderman’s re-nominations were strongly supported by the representatives of all three advocacy groups. Not so for the four new nominees — architects Maria T. Casarella-Cunningham and Joseph E. Taylor and public members Catherine V. Buell and Elinor R. Bacon. Yet these four nominees testified as to a fascinating range of direct and directly related back grounds and experiences, with Casarella-Cunningham having the most specifically historic preservation experience through her advocacy work with the Cleveland Park Historic Society and with such architectural design work on adaptive re-use historic preservation challenges as the successful mixed-use project at the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street where the Duke Ellington and Taft bridges converge.

Nominee Catherine Buell, a real estate lawyer with Patton Boggs, spoke eloquently of her experience as a resident activist in the Anacostia Historic District and of her concerns and sensitivities to the need to rescue and restore the community’s beautiful and decayed Cottage, Italianate, and Queen Anne-style homes and commercial buildings. Much of this is unique to Anacostia, and faces challenges of affordability for low-income resident property owners, she noted.

Public member nominee Elinor Bacon presented a fascinatingly diverse résumé subsuming historic preservation work, affordable housing program administration, and commercial property development. Bacon, the daughter of famed Philadelphia City Planning Commission Executive Director Edmund Bacon, spoke of three successful adaptive re-use historic preservation projects in Baltimore, “service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD during the last four years of the Clinton Administration where [she] administered the $4.2 billion Hope VI [housing] Program,” and development projects she is currently engaged in as a partner with PN Hoffman.

The second architect nominee, Georgetown University’s Associate Architect, Joseph Taylor, spoke of his participation in such AIA continuing education courses as “LEEDing Historic Landmarks: Successfully Applying LEED Systems to Historic Buildings.” Taylor also described a two-hour luncheon meeting with HPRB Chair Boasberg, where workload and monthly scheduled activities were discussed-satisfactorily, he said.

Chairman Gray closely questioned all four nominees for new positions on their knowledge of HPRB statutes and their abilities to act in accordance with their provisions. Appearing satisfied with their answers, Gray urged these Board candidates to meet with the three advocacy groups prior to subsequent DC Council Committee of the Whole proceedings, which can be scheduled for February 19 or March 4.