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Neighbors Fight Rear Garage Roof Deck Plan

By Anthony L. Harvey

After disposing of a lengthy May monthly meeting’s consent calendar, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) heard two cases involving residential garages in two Northwest DC historic districts.

In the first case, the Board denied a request to demolish a rear yard garage in Cleveland Park, which was part of an application to expand the rear of a growing family’s house and gain additional back yard green space.

The second case provided the afternoon’s fireworks. The tightly-knit neighborhood activists of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District presented to the Board — in person and by letter — powerfully articulated opposition to the pending application by Edward and Sandy Shulman, the resident owners of a row house at 2208 Wyoming Avenue to construct a deck over their rear garage.

As detailed in a distinctly even-handed Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff memorandum by Deputy Director Steve Callcott, noting that in the late 1990s HPO was delegated by HPRB the responsibility for approving roof decks using a single consistent standard for historic districts “which is that they [the decks] not be prominently visible from a street,” concluded that the rear garage roof deck “proposal will meet that standard.”

Nonetheless, Callcott called to the attention of the Board the extraordinary opposition to this back yard, garage deck proposal which his office (HPO) has received from neighborhood residents, some of whom live near the applicants; from the two-member Sheridan-Kalorama ANC with both commissioners in opposition; the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic Preservation Association (SKHPA), the Sheridan-Kalorama Neighborhood Council’s President Christopher K. Chapin; and the founder, past president and continuing development chair of the Friends of Mitchell Park, Betsey Santarlasci, who, together with her husband Joe Santarlasci, has lived in the house next door to the Shulman’s house for 25 years. Ms. Santarlasci also conveyed to the Board a five-page treatise — also in opposition — from Emily  Eig of EHT Traceries. Eig noted in her written statement that she was “the author of the [neighborhood’s]  historic district application and National Register documentation.”

Mrs. Shulman appeared before the Board representing, as the applicant, herself and her husband, accompanied by the project’s architect, Bowa’s Vice President James Finn, and read to the Board an equally powerful letter from Wyoming Avenue neighbor Sally Berk, well-known historic preservation consultant, past president of the DC Preservation League, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City’s historic preservation subcommittee, and board member of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic Association’s Project Review Committee since the historic district was established in 1989. Berk offered her professional opinion that since the proposed garage roof deck had no impact on either the street or the row house’s front façade, and was an easily reversible addition to the garage roof “that this [the 2208 application] is not a preservation issue and does not belong before HPRB. Berk disagreed with opponents who raised the loss of green space issue. “In fact,” Berk asserted, “no green space will be lost.”

Traceries’ Emily Eig directly challenged Berk’s questioning of the appropriateness of the garage deck matter even being on the HPRB agenda. Eig asserted that the garages behind the row of six houses in which those of the Shulmans and Santarlasci are a part were built at the same time and thus are “within the historic district’s period of significance and are understood to be contributing resources to the historic district [and] that they are part of the aesthetic heritage of the district.” Eig struck a further note, one that was repeated by other roof deck opponents, that the historic district was developed in the 1920s for residents who could afford to rely on private automobiles for their transportation. Thus, Eig concluded, “adding a roof deck in this situation would be to introduce an activity that belies the historic character of the garage.” Further, she added, “the current and historic relationship of front yard, house, back yard, and garage is a character-defining feature of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District,” and introduced into the debate the concept of solids and voids in the built environment and the fact these six Wyoming Avenue houses all feature elegant “piano nobile” — second — floors. Adding the applicant’s rooftop deck, she asserted, would disturb the rhythm and view of a void/solid/void/solid pattern of architecture.

Betsy Santarlasci’s testimony echoed that of Eig’s and added that “a garage deck elevates the outdoor entertaining function to the same level as the houses’ second floors, which feature the public entertaining spaces including living rooms, kitchens and dining rooms. The goal of the piano nobile,” she further stated, “is to separate the private living space from the street level service space.”

Kindy French, representing the historic district, endorsed Eig and Santalasci’s points and raised issues of precedence, asking, “How will light and green spaces survive? Will trees be lost to make way for more high decks or living spaces? Will garage deck precedents lead to apartments over garages?” And the Neighborhood Council’s Chapin seconded the precedent issue in his written statement, noting that the Council is “concerned about the precedent that the proposed deck would set. Living in townhouses in close quarter means not developing every last foot of space. We need to leave open space around houses, even when the open space is on top of a garage.”

Sheridan-Kalorama ANC Chair David Bender articulated the commission’s opposition, arguing that “the close proximity of this proposed garage roof deck will affect the environs of the neighborhood by having a negative impact upon the rear appearance as well as the light, sound and view of the six adjacent row houses.” He concluded: “In keeping with the SKANC 2-D’s policy to oppose, in general, increased building density which causes the loss of green space within our neighborhood, we once again must oppose this proposal.”

Following the presentations by the applicants, their supporters, and the opponents, discussion among the Board members focused on the fact that decks not visible from the street have been approved throughout the District. Separate design and more detailed historic district guidelines for the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District would be needed before the Board could alter its standing policy with respect to roof deck approvals. After a lively discussion the application was approved with only former Chair Tersh Boasberg, joined by Board member Elinor Bacon, opposed the application.

Further, on the question of whether the applicant could provide the existing side porch deck with a connecting catwalk to the proposed garage roof deck, only Board member Maria Casarella joined Boasberg in opposition; no other member objected to the Board requiring the applicant to provide a setback for the deck from the rear alley side and lowering the deck’s back wall from six to between three and three-and-a-half feet tall and to providing an open, see-through design for the wall, leaving these items, following this HPRB approval of the application as amended, to be worked out between the applicant and the HPO staff.