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Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Plan Receives Some Highly Critical Yet Constructive Comment from Kalorama and Dupont Representatives

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2013 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Only six witnesses appeared at the conclusion of the April monthly meeting of the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to present testimony on the District’s draft 2016 Historic Preservation Plan, prepared by the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO). Subtitled “Enriching our Heritage,” the fully illustrated and informative draft plan is a call to action by the HPO’s committed and fully professional historic preservation staff.

Four of the assembled six witnesses were from, or reflected, the concerns of the Dupont Circle, Kalorama Heights, and Adams Morgan/Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods where historic preservation has long been a defining characteristic of the work of these communities’ civic associations and advisory neighborhood commissions, and where individual residents have devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to the documentation and creation of historic districts and local and national historic sites.

While profoundly supportive of the goals and objectives of historic preservation, these witnesses called to the Board’s attention asserted gaps, omissions, structural deficiencies, and enforcement failures in the Board’s and the District’s bureaucratic oversight of Washington’s powerful and authoritarian historic preservation regime.

The lead-off witness, Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) President Denis James, submitted a balanced and thoughtful five-page bill of particulars reflecting KCA’s concerns and praised highly the historic preservation planning document’s first three chapters, observing that “even the most uninformed would come away from reading [these] chapters with a clear understanding of the architectural history of our city and how important it is that the fabric that is left be preserved and revitalized as part of the evolving modern culture of Washington, DC.”

James further commended the report’s authors for “clearly noting constituent complaints of the need for better enforcement of guidelines, and better guidelines, better communication, better services, insensitive development, threatened resources, better educational programs.” He singled out for special note “the statement that ‘many complained that the city lacks tools to control matter of right development, leaving communities without a voice when faced with insensitive proposals. Pop-ups and out of place buildings were cited as more common and troublesome.” James further reminded the Board that “once ugly, over scaled, low quality buildings are built, they are not easily if ever removed, and the character of the neighborhood can be ruined.”

James also concluded with specific case details of instances where the KCA found the Historic Preservation Office “as a weak link in helping us preserve our neighborhood character,” blaming HPO’s lack of effectiveness on the Preservation Office’s subordinate location in the District’s Office of Planning (OP) — with OP’s focus being that of economic development and population growth. A continuing theme throughout James’ testimony was the lack of enforcement of District laws, regulations, and permits and the often cross purposes of zoning regulations versus historic preservation rules.

The remarks of Tom Bower, president of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, highlighted the well-recognized need for more HPO inspectors, for the issuance of published standards for public space in historic districts, and for the provision of trained staff to support the work of the District’s transportation department’s public space committee.

Will Stephens, chair of the Dupont Circle ANC, centered his testimony on a detailed, 12-part resolution adopted by the ANC at its April 10th meeting, and opened his remarks with that of the ANC resolution’s “recognition of the effort that went into the draft plan and commends the HPO on its work.”

He immediately, however, launched a quietly spoken but powerfully articulated set of concerns, beginning with that of a more effective enforcement of historic preservation laws, rules, decisions, and orders, with the resolution observing “that frequently violators pay a limited fine, sometimes as little as $500, but are not forced thereafter to actually correct the offending construction or work.” This was followed by a strong complaint over the lack of notice by the HPRB and HPO to ANCs of matters before the Board falling within respective commissions’ purviews, and to the failure of HPRB to explicitly address ANCs’ concerns in their orders and decisions and of HPO in its staff reports and recommendations to the Board.

A fourth major ANC issue revolved around “Transparency and Accessibility.” The resolution states: “We find that the HPRB/HPO decision-making process is difficult to predict and difficult to follow. The HPRB/HPO should develop and share an understandable plan of procedures and guidelines. This should include (1) an HPRB docketing system, (2) published transcripts of all HPRB meetings, (3) final crafted and published HPRB orders, similar to the orders issued by other [DC} Boards.” The resolution also asks that the Board “ensure that staff reports are fair and cite all relevant precedent” and that “the plan should address the process for appealing an HPRB decision, which can be slow and costly.

The resolution’s items 7, 8, and 9 address fundamental issues and in their bold-face headings call for a “Recognition of the Place of Preservation Among Other Important Policies & Values”; the “Consideration of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Concerns”; and a “Recognition of the Supremacy of the Constitution and Federal Law,” noting that “in past cases, the HPRB has refused to consider or discuss the implications of the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) . . . on the basis that the HPRB is limited to considering only the relevant regulatory factors under D.C. law and those Federal questions went beyond that limited scope.”

Item 10 asks the HPO to “Respect Democratic Choices” rather than simply assert, as it does in the plan, that the opposition to historic districts, for example, of neighborhoods in Barney Circle, Chevy Chase, and Lanier Heights was that of a communication and perception failure rather than that of a failure on the part of HPO to respect differing choices or “that the substantive rules of historic districts may need to be revised to address legitimate voter concerns.” Further, resolution item 11 calls for an expansion of the “Economic Hardship” criteria to include non-profits. The ANC resolution concludes with a further clause “that ANC 2B requests that HPO ensure substantial ANC commissioner participation in its ‘steering committee’ that the HPO has convened for the plan.”

Following Stephens’ testimony was that of well-known historic preservationist and urban planner Richard Layman, who countered negative assessments of DC’s historic preservation program with a strenuously expressed assertion that “historic preservation had saved DC.” Layman further observed that the District’s program began when DC was shrinking; it is now growing, and historic preservation planning needs to reflect new conditions and new priorities such as “in-fill development” being of great importance; he also concluded that the District’s master plan was not a masterpiece plan; there are too many gaps in city planning, said Layman, and DC does not do “real area plans.” He also reported that he was working on an 8,000 to 10,000 word statement in response to HPO’s draft plan and would be submitting it shortly.

Long-time Washington resident Kirby Vines, and Traceries’ Emily Hotaling Eig rounded out the six person panel of witnesses. Eig, author of many historic district founding documents, including several in Kalorama, expressed admiration for HPO’s draft plan and pressed HPO and HPRB for “action before it’s too late.” Eig also asked for more emphasis in historic preservation on landscape, open space, and light.

After brief responses from Board members, HPRB Chair Gretchen Pfaehler graciously thanked the witnesses for their testimony, and noted that she and the Board looked forward to considering additional written statements from the public.