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Controversial Mt. Pleasant Small-Scale Plan Design Nixed by Preservation Board

Accompanying images can be viewed in the February 2014 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a dramatic reversal of a carefully crafted nearly five-page report and recommendation prepared by the staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) voted 6-2 to reject an application seeking concept design approval for an addition to a house at 1867 Park Road in the Mt. Pleasant Historic District at its January 23rd monthly meeting.

And in a relatively rare example of the Board arguing a case apparently in full during a public session, the eight (of nine) HPRB members present appeared to genuinely grapple with both the complex issues raised in the staff report and with additional issues raised by Board members during the course of their public deliberations.

The house in question sits on the north side of the 1800 block of Park Road and is part of a series of 10 houses that were designated together as a federal historic landmark prior to the 1978 enactment of DC’s historic preservation act. Upon establishment of the Mt. Pleasant Historic District, 1867 Park Road became a contributing structure to the new historic district as well.

The proposed addition to 1867 for which concept design approval was being sought envisioned the construction of a structure that would mimic the presence of an historic house that once stood next door at 1865 Park Road but subsequently burned and was demolished in the latter part of the 1960s. In addition, the application included significant additional construction in the rear of both the extant house and the house-like addition, with hyphen-like connections to 1867 being proposed for the 1865 replacement and the further expansion.

The overall impact of this expansion, according to Mt. Pleasant ANC Commissioner Jack McKay, who appeared in opposition to the applicant following previously reported Commission votes on the matter, would be a new structure more than three-and-a-half times the size of the existing 1867 house and would represent a six-unit apartment house where once two single family dwellings existed.

Other issues raised before the HPRB included the question of whether or not what had originally been two separate lots for 1867 and 1865 had in fact been combined into a single lot. The project’s architect, Michael Beidler of Trout Design Studio, speaking for the developer/applicant, asserted that they had been combined, adding that DC Office of Tax and Revenue also considered this property to be a single lot.

However, Emily Hotaling Eig of EHT Traceries, testifying for the opponents, asserted that the adjoining lots had never been combined and that for the matter to be properly before HPRB, the applicant should have first applied to the Mayor’s Agent for the two lots to be combined.

HPRB Chair Gretchen Pfaehler settled the matter by ruling that for the purposes of the January 23rd hearing, the matter would be treated as though the two properties had indeed been combined into one.

Eig further asserted that the proposed addition violated four of the Department of the U.S. Interior’s standards for extensions to historic landmarked structures.

While the matter of use was immediately noted by both the Board and witnesses as not being under HPRB’s purview, it nonetheless kept reappearing in testimony and deliberations, as did the size of earlier additions to both houses as shown in the 1927 and 1959 Sanborn Insurance Atlas maps –- for No. 1865 a garage and for No. 1867 a sizable addition to the rear. Introduced into the record by the HPO staff report, both maps showed the same additional structures while the 1959 maps noted “APTS” for No. 1867.

The matter of the historic district’s “period of significance” — 1850 to 1949 — at one point also seemed an issue but then was dropped, while zoning,  another issue said not to be part of HPRB’s mandate, continued to be referenced, especially the existing provision in the area’s R-4 zoning regime that allows single family lots to be converted to apartment lots and have their lot occupancy limit raised from 40 to 60 percent. According to Commissioner McKay, the applicants were seeking to secure a 48 percent lot occupancy for their six-unit apartment project.

Further, the fundamental question of compatibility of the proposed addition to and behind No. 1867 in relation to the houses across Park Road on the north side of the 1800 block (elusive as that concept can be when applied to specific cases), allowed for a wide range of responses, especially in light of the admittedly ingenious design being proposed by Trout Design Studio, several times admiringly characterized as clever by Board members.

Toward the end of the deliberations, however, Board member and practicing architect Joseph Taylor upended the discussion by asserting that the wrong issues were being argued and that the proper issue was the question of whether or not the proposed addition to the historic structure was appropriately subordinate to that of the existing building. Would the 1867 house predominate should the addition be constructed, and how would the hyphens connecting the two parts of the expanded structure read, asked Taylor.

Earlier, following a comprehensive presentation by Beidler of the proposed project — which included slides of plans, drawings, architectural renderings and a dynamic, 3-D streaming video of the proposal — HPO staff architectural historian and preservation planner Tim Dennee expressed general support for the project, recommending “that the Board find the general concept compatible with the character of the historic district contingent on 1) the removal of the one-story piece between 1867 and 1865, and 2) the retention of the floor framing and the east side chimney of the present house.”

Witnesses joining McKay and Eig in testifying in opposition to the project included neighbors on both sides of 1867 Park Road and the previous 1865 house — Rick Swartz, Kelley Callahan, and Stephen Bradley — and two other witnesses, one residing on Monroe Street directly behind the subject address and another nearby in the 1800 block of Park Road.

Citing Interior Department historic preservation standards, errors in maps reflecting structures touching one another at property lines, structural and demolition issues, and emphasizing the size and rear appearance of the proposed structure, the five urged the Board not to allow the project to proceed further.

Mark Simon of 1852 Monroe further urged the Board to envision the project from across the alley, as he would be forced to do were it to be built, characterizing his view as one that would become a scene of simply a parking lot for five vehicles and the rear of an apartment building in place of trees and the open space of 1800 Park Road across a beautiful brick alley. Tom Conway, a leading proponent of the historic district in the 1970s, spoke forcefully of “successful” versus “unsuccessful” projects in this block of Park Road; Conway resides at 1833 Park Road. Should the proposed project be built, he asserted, it would be akin to what he characterized as the unsuccessful project at 1801 Park Road rather than the successful one nearby at 3324 18th Street.

A contrasting opinion was expressed by Tom Kam, a Mt. Pleasant resident since 1987, 22 years of which at 2037 Park Road. He spoke eloquently and concisely in favor of the project, noting its attractive design features when viewed toward the front façade, which he characterized as being distinguishing features in the architecture and design prevalent in Mt. Pleasant. He also noted the pleasant and improved skyline view the project would provide him from Park Road when walking his dog or going to the Metro.

Fay Armstrong, President of Historic Mt. Pleasant, concluded the public testimony. Expressing general support for Tim Dennee’s staff report and recommendation, Armstrong registered her objection to the present allowance of conversion in R-4 zoning districts of single family designation to that of an apartment designation and the consequent raising of the lot occupancy from 40 to 60 percent; she  offered a plea that the applicant respect the 40 percent regardless of existing zoning rules and regulations.

Most, but not all, of the Board members found the proposed addition too large and, further, had objections to one or more of the hyphens connecting the two parts of the proposed new structure. A majority were swayed against the project by the issue initially raised by Board member Taylor that the proposed addition is not subordinate to the existing historic structure. Chair Pfaehler adroitly led members of the Board through a thicket of complex considerations to the somewhat swift conclusion, by a vote of 6-2, that “the totality of the new construction was too large and too prominently placed to avoid detracting from the present house” and thus the concept design was not approved.

Note: As we were completing preparation of the February issue, we learned that Trout Design Studio has prepared a revised proposal for 1867 Park Road; it would eliminate the proposed addition on the lot where 1865 once stood and simply replace the front porch and embellishments on No. 1867 and add an extension to the rear for apartments. (For our previous report on this project, see “Mt. Pleasant Preservation and Zoning Controversies Roil Community and ANC,” January 2014 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/l5anwhw.)