Unpacking the arguments against a traffic-calming plan for Bloomingdale

This post was also published on Greater Greater Washington

After more than six years in waiting, the District Department of Transportation last fall made good on its commitment to bring traffic-calming measures to First St NW in Bloomingdale. The agency completed the first phase of its work in the last few weeks when it finished installing flexible posts in the street at each of the nine planned intersections along the corridor.

The posts form arcs that wrap around the street corners at intersections. They serve as bumpouts, also known as curb extensions, which physically and visually narrow a street, and reclaim roadway space for sidewalks, beautification, or other measures.

It’s important to note that the posts installed so far are just intended as phase one: DDOT confirmed it will also be adding striping to the roadway as a further visual cue to separate the spaces—a process that it expects to complete in March, as weather permits. Following the striping, DDOT expects to install planters and ground murals; it is working with the Bloomingdale Civic Association to finalize the plan for installation and maintenance of these. The agency expects to have the entire project completed by April.

Efforts like this are a common way to address safety issues at intersections because they have many well-documented advantages. They improve pedestrian safety by reducing the distance—and the amount of space shared with cars—from one side of the street to the other. They’re also a visual signal to drivers to reduce speeds and pay full attention at stop signs.

While many in the community have been eagerly awaiting these measures, there has also been some vocal opposition from a few neighbors who are already attempting to have the flexiposts removed. That effort largely has been led by ANC Commissioner Karla Lewis (5E06), who originally opposed the planned installation because they threatened two illegal parking spaces in her single-member-district, then celebrated them as a “win-win” when DDOT compromised to preserve those spaces. But now she’s introducing a resolution at tonight’s ANC 5E meeting requesting reconsideration of the traffic-calming measures.

This opposition has generally included a mix of the following arguments:

  • It’s too hard to turn around the posts while driving
  • A recent crash at 1st and R St NW proves they don’t work
  • Drivers continue to roll through stop signs, proving they don’t work
  • They block parking near the intersections
  • They’re uglyThere are, I think, some key responses to each of these arguments.

Bumpouts are, in fact, supposed to make it harder to turn. Drivers are forced to slow down and stay farther from the curb, using a heightened alertness to safely navigate the reduced space. Since the posts were installed, thousands of drivers have successfully made these turns without hitting anything. The fact that they have to do so in a more controlled way is an argument for, not against, the measures.

As for the recent crash, it’s true that the bumpouts didn’t prevent it, but they shouldn’t have been expected to. In a video of the crash, a driver appears to have blown through a stop sign and collided with an eastbound vehicle, then accelerated further into the front yard of a nearby house. There’s no evidence to support critics’ specious claim that the bumpouts somehow caused the crash, and it’s incorrect to suggest that the incident means they offer no value.

To the same effect, continued stop-sign violations aren’t proof that the bumpouts don’t work either. The metric of success here is not a binary measure of whether or not they eliminate 100% of all problems. Rather, the goal is a relative reduction in dangerous behavior, though at the moment there aren’t statistics to show a trend one way or the other. Even if the rates of stop-sign compliance haven’t changed, that’s just an argument for doing more, not less: You don’t stop brushing your teeth because you got a cavity. In fact, DDOT confirmed that they are investigating adding such additional measures, specifically around stop-sign compliance.

On the question of parking space, there has been some confusion due to recent regulatory changes. To be clear, the bumpouts did not take away any legal parking spaces. DDOT regulation provides that, unless signage says otherwise, 40 feet from each intersection should be a no-parking zone. The confusion stems in part because, until last year, DDOT had allowed an exception to this rule overnight for vehicles with in-zone residential parking permits. As of last January, that exception was removed and all vehicles are prohibited from parking in this space.

Finally, when it comes to the aesthetics of the bumpouts, it’s important to remember that the goal here is safety. While the coming planters and paint will help the situation immensely, people who are still bothered by the visuals could join supporters in advocating to make the bumpouts permanent, replacing the displeasing posts with actual concrete extensions of the curb. The end result would almost certainly be an aesthetic improvement over not just the current flexipost streetscape, but even over what it looked like before.

Big picture, trying to remove the posts after one month is incredibly premature. The current installations are not the end of this process, but the beginning. As DDOT confirmed, it takes time to change driver behavior, and they won’t be able to take full stock of the efficacy until they finish installing the additional elements. Plus, the benefit of flexiposts is that they can easily be adjusted and modified based on real-time data in order to optimize the design before making any more permanent changes.

In fact, that has already happened. After initial feedback, workers re-visited the installations at R Street and Randolph Place to pull the posts closer in to the curb. They then used that information to adjust installations at subsequent intersections. Rather than try to rip them out, community members who have similar feedback can pass it on to the agency so they can review and incorporate it into the next steps.

The community waited 7+ years for action on this street. We can wait at least the few months it will take for them to even be completed before rushing to declare them ineffective.

ANC5E Letter of Opposition to Capital Bikeshare Station and Support For Alternate Location

Below is the letter of opposition that was passed by ANC 5E at their June 18, 2019 meeting. Authored by ANC 5E04 Commissioner Sylvia Pinkney, and passed by a vote of 7-2, the letter outlines concerns about the proposed location at N. Capitol and R St NE and encourages DDOT to choose an alternate location to the South in the median between Lincoln Rd and N. Capitol.

The letter displayed here is the draft presented at the outset of the meeting. A friendly amendment from Commissioner Bertha Holliday (5E07) was accepted, adding “And Support of Alternate Location” to the title. That change has been reflected here in pen.

ANC5E Letter of Opposition to Bikeshare Location

160+ Neighbors Sign Petition Supporting Bikeshare Station at N. Capitol and R St NE

Over 160 neighbors signed a petition in support of a new Capital Bikeshare station in Eckington at the SE corner of North Capitol St and R St NE.

The petition came in response to the announcement of a letter of opposition to the station from ANC 5E04 Commissioner Sylvia Pinkney (but before the text of the letter was public).

The petition includes the following statement of support for the location:

This new station will be a great resource for the neighborhood, filling a gap in the bikeshare network near us, providing more bikes during the high-demand morning commute and a dock close to current and future local businesses on North Capitol. The station will also help with neighborhood safety by activating that empty block and providing more “eyes on the street.”…[it] will not impact on-street parking nor will it impede pedestrian access. The sidewalk is extremely large, and the station would occupy only a third of the available width.

Signatures:

ANC 5E01
Edward Garnett
Christopher Mrstik

ANC 5E03
Matthew Huisman
Ashley Ashworth
Francis McFadden
Aaron Johnson
Katherine Lahnstein
Morgan Van Dunk
Robert Boyer
Lyndsi Sitcov
David Corey
Anja Baum
Zohra Wafi
Matt Haggerty
Ona Florrs
Rich Holcomb
Ryan Miller
William Dick
Andrew Erickson
Mike Burns
Ben Vipond
John Rich
Michael Aiello
Ryan Salmon
Jeffrey Clincy
Sara McGanity
William Reckley
Keith Krosinsky
Peter Krupa
Paulo Couto

ANC 5E04
Ori Scherr
Uzma Wahhab
Benjamin Williams
Shahrzad Grami
Jennifer McKeever
Greg Carter
Hanna Abdalla
Jessica Yurcheshen
Hugh Youngblood
Amanda Stefano
Mahshid Khavari
John Naber
David De La O
Caterina Fava
Marisa Sterling-Abram
Colleen Eubanks
Laura Aragon
Sutton Meagher
Alex Mitchell
Andrea Hart
Scott Yurcheshen
Jeff Miccolis
Thomas Lee
Trey Johnston
David Perkins
Adam Young
Stephanie J. Tatham
Hamiyyet Bilgi
John Mataya
Sandrine Boukerche
Salman Banaei
Philip Tizzani
Crystal Stanford
Rachel Clark
Conor Shaw
Brice Lang
Cynthia Cox
William Gowin
Lindsay Gardner
Hollis Luzecky
Angela Landry
Arvin Ganesan
Adam Duffy
Shelley Vinyard
Andre Sanabia
Victoria Bosselman
Nick Sementelli

ANC 5E05
Gerardo Muskus
Gautier Valognes
Tom Yost
Adam Taylor
Drew Gorman
Nathan Hamme
Matthew Wibbenmeyer
Brian McEntee
Melissa Desai
Patricia Nelson
Nikolaus Schnermann
Lily Roberts

ANC 5E06
David Solomon
Amanda Cowley
David Wolfendale
Patrick Sanders
Cynthia Wesley
Josh Behsudi
Liz Ducey
Jonathan Ayers
Dennis O’Reilly
Kaylee Boalt
Daniel Ranostaj
Sara Melillo
William Kuehnle
Cassandra Many
Ben Levine
Louisa Marion
Moira Mclaughlin
Kristin Frontiera
Jonathan Beam
Andrew Campbell
Stephen Szibler
Joe Sandman
Sam Chavis

ANC 5E07
Stephen Hobson
Josh DeMoss
Timothy Kirby
Stavros Hilaris
Jenna Goins
Daniel Markham
Eric Schultz
Ceridwen Cherry
Jessica McBroom
David Levine
Derik Doughty
Jeffrey Morrow
Preetha Iyengar
Brian Smith
Cyrus Chimento
Wilma Mui

ANC 5E08
Andrew Dupuy
Cat Nguyen
Marti Flacks
Walter Tersch
Rick Bright
Huma Ali
Jennifer Chang
Erica Bickford
Joseph Gersen
Edith Laget
Snorre Wik

ANC 5E09
Richard Maze
Carlos Bell
Kenneth Kriese
Rory Nealon
Michael Mendelson
robert hardison
Mitch Hoban
Jacquelyn Bengfort

ANC 5E10
Michelle Herber
Heidi Obermeyer
Sally Hobaugh
Pablo Lopez

Friends of 5E
David Korkoian
Kei Tolliver
Marcus Moreno
Steven Marcus
Francesca Blanco
Alex Lopez
Mollie Bates
Dana Yanocha
Terry Thiele
David Gooze

150+ Residents Sign Petition Supporting 1st Street Traffic Calming

Over 150 DC residents have signed a petition asking DDOT to fully implement their traffic calming plan for 1st Street NW. The plan calls for curb extensions at each of nine intersections on the street from Florida Ave to Bryant St and is intended to improve stop sign compliance and lower speeds on this important pedestrian and bike corridor.

The petition comes in response to an ANC 5E resolution encouraging implementation on 1st St north of Rhode Island Ave, but asking for an exemption from the measures at the intersections of 1st and R St and 1st and Randolph Pl. The opposition stems from concerns over the loss of two regulation-violating parking spaces at those intersections.

Signers come predominantly from Bloomingdale residents themselves, with support from those in other ANC5E districts and community members broadly who use 1st Street.

Additional residents wishing to join can add their name at the form at the bottom of this page.

The petition text reads:
We want traffic calming on ALL 9 First Street intersections — no exemptions. The safety of thousands of neighbors is more important than two parking spots.

Signatures:

ANC 5E01
Amelia Dougherty
Christopher Mrstik

ANC 5E03
Peter Krupa
William Reckley
Keith Krosinsky

ANC 5E04
David Whitehead
Nick Sementelli
Victoria Bosselman
Aleek Kahramanian
Andre Sanabia
Shelley Vinyard

ANC 5E05
Ariel Tumin
Beth Ferraro
David Casserly
Nikolaus Schnermann
Kyle Thomas
David Bevevino
Lily Roberts
Jennifer Fletcher
Darien Capron

ANC 5E06 (Includes Bloomingdale South of Randolph Pl)
Aidan Quinlan-Walshe
Alex Lopez
Cameron Blake
Caroline Freedman
Dalila Boclin
Jay Hariani
Joe Sandman
Kristin Frontiera
Ben Levine
Leslie Finnan
Cassandra Many
Louisa Marion
Kristen McCarron
Meredith Walsh
Moira Mclaughlin
Luis Morinigo
Peter Gadfort
Stephen Szibler
William Starr
Jennifer Carr
Katharine Stockrahm
Jonathan Beam
Caroline Andrews
Suki Lucier
Christopher Berg
Taylor Fulton
Adam Stempel
Andrew Campbell
Chris Svetlik

ANC 5E07 (Bloomingdale Between Randolph Pl and U St)
Aaron Wagner
Allan Breed
Adam Beebe
Ben Donahue
Benjamin Samson
Brian Smith
Catherine Dorigan
Ceridwen Cherry
Cheri Hoffman
Catherine Giljohann
Caitlin Reid
Cyrus Chimento
Derik Doughty
Gen Gillespie
Jeff Morrow
Jennifer Schuch-Page
Kristi Cobb
Leah Chandler
Nadia Van De Walle
Preetha Iyengar
Ryan Eades
Timothy Kirby
Victoria Burack
Zarko Palankov
Jessica McBroom
Jon Anders
Irfana Noorani
Arif Noorani
Andrea Brudnicki
Keene Kelderman
Sean Meehan
Brian DeMarco
David Levine
Carolyn Giroux

ANC 5E08 (Bloomingdale Between U St and Adams St)
Aaron Posey
Richard Seutter
Ann Schlegelmilch
Antoine Coste
Edith Laget
Erica Bickford
Huma Imtiaz
Jennifer Chang
Joseph Gersen
Martin Amar
Michael Xanthopoulos
Neil Offner
Nik Philipsen
Snorre Wik
Yavar Moghimi
Walter Tersch
Katharine Pena
Jared Hartzman
Joshua Young
Kiersten Rooke
David Zehr
Travis Elliott
Rick Bright
Katie Magnus
Terry Haynes
Molly Scott

ANC 5E09 (Includes Bloomingdale North of Adams St)
Melissa Boudreau
Marcus Holmlund
Jacquelyn Bengfort
Jason Mogavero
Lola Peres
Michael Anderson
Mary Ryan
Mitchel Hoban
Matthew Dickens
Nathan Ringelstetter
Warren Randolph
Rene Wallis
Robert Hardison

ANC 5E10
C Chang

Friends of Bloomingdale
Jenn Pierson
Adrienne Rose
Pamela Nelson
Brian Cipperly
Sam C
Dana Yanocha
Donya Rahimi
Jeanne Verrier
John Maleri
Kyle Bishop
Mansi Talwar
Nicholas Myroniuk
Paulo C
Patrick McMahon
Patrick Reilly
Ryan Keefe
Teresa Thiele
Ben Varquez
Joshua Flood
Juliana Crump
Kelly Waud
Elliot Seibert
David Ramos
Karyn Schwartz
David Gooze
James Hauser

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Bloomingdale ANC Commissioner Trying to Water Down 1st Street Traffic Calming Plan

This post originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

First Street NW in Bloomingdale is a residential street, but many drivers use it as a commuting thoroughfare, making it dangerous to people walking in the neighborhood. Residents have complained about it for years, but happily there’s a plan to add better pedestrian infrastructure and to slow drivers down. There’s just one catch.

The plan requires the removal of six to seven illegal parking spaces, but one local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) is stridently opposed to losing any parking at all. She’s so opposed that she got the city to exempt key intersections on her block from a plan, even though the two parking spaces she’s trying to protect may ultimately be removed anyway.

A long-awaited change

Conversations about calming traffic on First Street go back many years, and have picked up steam in the last few. The District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) original recommendation in the 2013 Mid-East Liveability study was to install mini roundabouts, but agency officials told neighbors in 2018 the best they could do was digital signage. Backlash to that announcement sent planners back to the drawing board, and they came back to the community last month to introduce their latest plan.

The updated proposal would install curb extensions (also called bulbouts) to each of the nine all-way stop intersections between Florida Avenue and Bryant Street NW. The extensions and accompanying large planters would visually and physically narrow the road, cueing drivers to slow down and giving pedestrians a shorter crossing.

Example of painted curb extensions from DDOT’s First Street Traffic Calming Proposal.

The plan’s scope is rather modest, and it would not radically affect parking on the street. The extensions use the existing no-parking zone of 25 feet in front of each crosswalk required by DC municipal regulations. However, in assessing the area, DDOT found that some of the intersection corners are currently in violation of that rule. So as part of this implementation, DDOT would be removing six or seven illegal parking spots.

This stretch of First Street alone has over 200 spots, and hundreds more on cross- and neighboring streets. Just this past month the neighborhood gained new spots when DDOT recategorized 38 spaces on North Capitol Street from rush-hour-restricted to permanent residential parking. That’s six times the number of spots being removed for the calming project, and a net gain of more than 30 spots.

So while the plan falls short of the more interruptive mini-roundabouts or speed bumps many residents preferred and does nothing to address the gaping hole of safer biking infrastructure in this section of the city, it still represents an improvement on the status quo. The plan earned the support of the Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) at its February meeting.

A bad bargain

However, Bloomingdale ANC5E06 commissioner Karla Lewis did not share the views of the BCA. At the March ANC meeting, she opposed the plan (starts at 2:14:14) because some residents in her single-member district already complain about a lack of parking and are unwilling to sacrifice the six or seven spots in question.

As a “compromise,” Lewis offered a motion to support implementation along the northern section of First Street north of Rhode Island Avenue, but exempt the streets in her district on the south side. That motion initially failed in March, but passed at the April meeting this week. The final form exempted the intersections at R and Randolph streets.

In exchange for hobbling nearly 25% of the traffic calming plan, Lewis preserved two parking spots.

One of the two illegal parking spots that is too close to the crosswalk and scheduled for removal.

Except, not even. While DDOT Vision Zero Traffic Engineer Emily Dalphy immediately offered to shave off intersections in response to Lewis’s concerns, she later confirmed that she could not guarantee those parking spots would remain either way.

“If the commission doesn’t want to move forward with specific locations, we won’t [touch the parking], but if another resident brings up a safety concern at the intersection specifically related to something like sight-distance, our typical remedy is to pull that parking back to the 25 feet,” Dalphy said. “So I can’t say it will stay that way forever, but because that is the law it will most likely be moved at some point.”

DDOT is free to ignore the ANC’s viewpoint and proceed with the traffic safety plan, but it seems like they’re choosing not to. So the likeliest result of this resolution is that the illegal parking at R and Randolph is removed anyway, without adding any traffic calming measures in return.

Disappointing leadership

The math on this tradeoff should be non-controversial. The traffic calming measures would benefit thousands of neighbors and visitors who walk and bike on First Street to get to their homes, take their kids to the park, grab a meal or cup of coffee, shop at the farmers market, or otherwise just safely enjoy being outside in their neighborhood.

Opposing it would maybe, temporarily save two marginal car owners a slightly longer walk to their car. Lewis’s reflexive dismissal of any solution that even lightly threatens a single parking space would be comical if it weren’t so shameful.

Bloomingdale residents have been clamoring for action for over five years, and now that it’s finally here, it’s in danger of being hamstrung from the very start. At a time when the city’s failure to meaningfully address mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths on our streets is at the center of our local political conversation, it’s more than frustrating to see local leaders object to even the mildest of improvements. It’s equally frustrating to see DDOT’s Vision Zero team so quickly discard their plans at the first sign of a single point of pushback.

Real change is going to require much bigger decisions with much bigger tradeoffs and much more entrenched opposition. If we’re going to see any progress in making our built environment safer, we need to start by changing the political culture that prioritizes the convenience of drivers over the protection of the whole community.

DC preservation officials: You don’t want a historic district? Too bad.

This post was originally published at Greater Greater Washington

At their confirmation hearing last month, four Historic Preservation Review Board Commissioners confirmed that community opposition to a historic nomination does not play a role in their decision, and that they only evaluate applications based on whether or not a nominated building or district is historic.

That stands in stark contrast to other city agencies that are mandated to incorporate community feedback. The fact that historic preservation is excluded from the same standards gives a green light for abuse of the system.

A recently-exposed loophole in the system

Neighborhood debates around historic designation in Bloomingdale and Kingman Park this year have revealed this unresolved tension in the District’s historic preservation guidelines about the role of community input. While neighborhood opinion is listed as “essential” and prioritized at all steps of the application process, legal language about the centrality of the written historic criteria in the final decision instead suggests a less critical role.

The Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) recent decision to designate Kingman Park over the objections of many local residents sent a strong signal about how current commissioners seem to weigh this tension. At their re-confirmation hearing last month, four of the board’s nine commissioners, including the chair, affirmed that interpretation by formally testifying that they believe community input should have no role in determining whether to designate a landmark or district.

Prompted by Chairman Phil Mendelson’s question about the role community input should play in the designation process, Commissioners Marnique Heath, Brian Crane, Andrew Aurbach, and Gretchen Pfaehler all declaratively agreed that community opposition should not affect designation decisions.

Chairman Mendelson: “What should be the role of community input? So if a majority of the district says yes or no, should that be determinative?”

Chairwoman Heath: “No. Unless the community’s feedback to us is telling us why they think it doesn’t meet the criteria.”

While it’s nice to get some resolution to this critical question, it may come as a surprise to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staffers who have spent years telling neighbors the exact opposite.

Here’s what State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney said about an unpopular application to designate Chevy Chase in 2008:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that [Chevy Chase] has a good chance of meeting the designation criteria. The sense I get is that most people are not contesting that, they agree it’s a wonderful suburb. What they are contesting is whether it’s something they want to deal with in their daily lives. And that is an issue for us.

And again about a failed historic district application in Barney Circle from 2010:

“As was clear in,for instance, the situation in Barney circle, if there’s not enough community support for an application, then it really doesn’t move through the system”

This messaging was unchanged up through at least last fall, when HPO’s Kim Williams told a meeting of neighbors in Bloomingdale that the one thing that could stop the designation process was a strong show of community opposition. That type of guidance spurred the Bloomingdale Civic Association to conduct a comprehensive survey of neighborhood opinion, at the cost of $2,000 of the organization’s own funds.

What does this mean for the future of historic preservation in DC?

This clear rejection of community input has strong ramifications for neighborhoods across the city. Under the prior paradigm, the number of applications and historic districts was, in part, managed by the explicit and implicit hard work of making a persuasive case to bring neighbors on board.

In Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, well-organized coalitions failed when met with community opposition. Those applicants followed the HPO-recommended, months-long community engagement process, made the case to their neighbors, and then withdrew when they did not have enough support. But now it seems that being responsive to the opinions of their neighbors was their big mistake. If they had just persisted past the opposition, apparently their applications would have faced no penalty.

Combined with the District’s broad designation criterion, under which a lot seems to qualify, the path is clear: if you want a historic district, do the research (which is no small feat, but as was the case with Kingman Park, HPO will help you with it if it’s not sufficient the first time), file the application, and sit back.

When I presented this loophole to Chairman Phil Mendelson while testifying at the HPRB commissioners’ confirmation hearing, he expressed skepticism — outlining the disincentives he believes would keep abuse in check:

“So if I were to file an application to make a historic district out of my street and I don’t talk to my neighbors and they get angry at me, my life’s going to be pretty miserable. And maybe I can win on the application, on the other hand, maybe my next-door neighbor will sue me and sue the Historic Preservation Review Board and sue the mayor’s agent and all the council members start weighing in and saying what’s going on. There’s a lot that can happen with the turbulence that’s not so good.”

As a matter of governance, relying on ex post facto outrage and litigation in place of legislative action to produce good policy outcomes seems like a dangerous tactic. But we don’t even need to imagine a hypothetical to see the flaws in this system. In Kingman Park we have an example of applicants (the Kingman Park Civic Association) with an already contentious relationship with their neighbors, made only worse by an incredibly divisive historic designation debate. That divisiveness prolonged the process but ultimately had little effect on the outcome.

An even more obvious workaround to those disincentives is not to be a neighbor at all. DC regulations do not require that applicants live in the nominated district; historic preservation organizations can nominate any building or district in the city on their own.

Whether neighbors or not, it’s clear social norms aren’t preventing motivated individuals and organizations from taking advantage of the law as written. So Mendelson is right about one thing — we need councilmembers like himself to ask what’s going on, and get behind serious legislative reforms to this broken process, reforms like the ones many of us in the GGWash community have suggested.

To vote or not to vote

Throughout the hearing, Mendelson kept returning to a rhetorical question that he felt captured this debate: if the Washington Monument were nominated, should residents be polled on whether to approve the designation?

This is a straw man exercise for a number of reasons, most obviously because nobody lives in the Washington Monument. The problem isn’t the designation of obviously historic individual landmarks. No one is trying to lower the ceiling of designation criteria; we’re trying to add a floor.

Because the reality is that, contrary to Mendelson’s characterization, our current process is already democratic, it’s just not very representative. Residents with strong opinions are heard— so long as they are in favor of historic designation. It’s only people who disagree who currently get shut out.

Should the whole city vote on designating the Washington Monument? Of course not. Should a couple thousand neighbors have a say before an unelected board designates their homes? That seems like a question at least worth asking.

Mendelson’s concern is that a direct popular vote may be an over-correction that could sometimes negate the city’s historic preservation goals. That’s fair; a future in which a few strident opponents could stop almost any preservation nomination would be as undemocratic as the status quo.

The ultimate answer is probably somewhere in the middle. At the least we should expect the same standard other agencies like DDOT and DC Water are held to when they’re considering projects that will affect the lives of residents.

HPRB should have to weigh the public benefits of preserving certain areas with any costs and concerns and then justify their decision. (And applications to nominate districts affecting thousands of residents’ homes should have to clear a higher bar of scrutiny than individual landmark nominations). That would be a fairer version of democratic governance than we have now.

Without reform, the path we’re on will just continue to add more and more neighborhoods to our city’s already sizable stock of historic buildings without any consideration of the spillover impact that might have on the city’s other goals of adding housing, improving environmental sustainability, combating unaffordability or others.

Stepping back to balance all of these goals in a comprehensive way is the real solution here, but closing this runaway train loophole seems like a good immediate first step.

The Costs of Historic Districts: More Than Just Property Values

This past week, Bloomingdale resident and real estate agent JC Blount and Bloomingdale Civic Association board member and ANC representative Dr. Bertha Holliday published an analysis purporting to show that designating Bloomingdale a historic district will not lead to a rise in housing prices in the neighborhood.

I’m very appreciative that Dr. Holliday and Ms. Blount are engaged in this analysis. I agree that trying to answer the question of how designation will impact our neighborhood’s already pressing affordability crisis is central to this debate. Unfortunately, I disagree that this particular analysis and data set are sufficient to answer this major question, or that it’s the right question to ask in the first place.

Chart from the Holliday-Blount analysis

The first issue is that the sample size considered here is exceedingly small. The LeDroit data set contains only 14 sales. At that small of a number, a couple of outliers one way or another can greatly impact the results.

Second, the analysis does not attempt to control for some of the obvious variables that could lead to said outliers — variables like condition of the property, amenities, lot size, relative location on the block (corner lot vs. mid-row), etc.

But most importantly, this analysis is looking at the wrong time period. If ultimately we’re trying to measure the impact of designation, we need to look at the changes that took place at the time of designation. In this case, LeDroit earned its designation in 1974, so I don’t think prices from the last six months are particularly applicable to answering that question.

More broadly though, I think it’s important to address the genesis of this analysis in the first place. The authors make clear that they feel like opponents of historic designation such as myself are misleading neighbors by claiming HD will “cause the cost of houses to soar.” (A similar concern was expressed last month by former BCA president Pat Mitchell when she  described my initial post and our flyer as fearmongering akin to a zombie apocalypse.)

Both of these critiques seem overly concerned with an argument I’m not particularly making (property values) and somewhat silent on the one I’m highly focused on (repair and renovation costs).

The reality is that trying to find an academic consensus on the impact of historic designation on property values is notoriously difficult This search of scholarly literature, for example, brings up 3,500 results.  A large number of those studies do find an upward pressure on prices, while others don’t. I think it’s safe to say that the housing market is a complicated dynamic and none of us know for certain what will happen if designation goes through. To that end, I’m also perfectly comfortable conceding that it is unlikely the impact of this singular change alone will lead to “soaring” prices or that “lots of people will lose their homes.” The reality is the answer to that argument is not central to the case against historic designation.

Because while we don’t know exactly what will happen with home prices, we do know with 100% certainty that more neighbors will face more costs (both monetary and in terms of time) when trying to repair or renovate their homes. Depending on the scope of work, that may be a few hundred dollars more or it may be tens of thousands of dollars more. As long as the rules limit options and require additional layers of approval, there will be some increased hardship on some people.

That’s obviously true of all regulations, though, and I’m not attempting to argue for laissez-faire homeowner rights. We don’t let homeowners use lead paint because we’ve collectively decided children’s health is more important. We require buildings conform to certain energy efficiency standards to limit our collective impact on our environment. And I’m sure builders could make houses cheaper if they didn’t have to follow proper fire code standards, but we rightly value the safety of the whole neighborhood more.

My point is that the question is not whether there will be a burden, but whether the benefit is worth that burden. To me, ensuring that the houses on my block look a certain way just doesn’t rise to the same level of something like the health and safety of our citizens and environment. In this case, I’d rather prioritize helping keep the costs of home-ownership as affordable as possible for everyone in Bloomingdale, particularly our low-income neighbors.

I think reasonable people can disagree on that, but I think we should be honest that’s the debate we’re having.

BCA Survey Results Show Majority Oppose Historic Designation

At last month’s Bloomingdale Civic Association meeting, BCA President Teri Janine Quinn revealed the results from the organization’s survey weighing community opinion about the pending historic district application for the neighborhood. With 516 votes counted, the respondents were opposed to designation 282 to 234*, a 55-45 percent margin.

The survey was conducted over two weeks in January via a postcard mailed to each of 3,107 property owners in the neighborhood (as determined by DC tax records). It presented recipients with two response options:

  • I would like to pursue historic designation of Bloomingdale
  • I do not support historic designation for Bloomingdale
This is the survey sent out to Bloomingdale residents. Image by Bloomingdale Civic Association.

On the backside, the postcard informed neighbors that an application had been filed and that the results of the survey would be used to inform the BCA’s vote on it, and directed them to the BCA and Historic Preservation Office websites for more information.

The BCA paid for the production and mailing of the survey, though recipients were required to affix their own postage to send it back.

*An additional 48 votes were received, but postmarked after the voting deadline. BCA members voted to exclude those votes from the total (prior to hearing any survey results) by a vote of 21 to 10.

Bloomingdale Historic District Survey Hits Mailboxes

The Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) survey is arriving in neighborhood property owners’ mailboxes this week, and residents who want to make their voice heard on this issue should make sure to fill out the survey and return it.

Bloomingdale Civic Association Survey Card
Bloomingdale Civic Association Survey Postcard

Unfortunately, as I’ve laid out before, this survey has some weaknesses that make it hard to feel like it will do an adequate job  assessing the opinion of the neighborhood.

The biggest weakness, however, is that it’s coming much too late. Though the survey asks neighbors if they “would like to pursue historic designation,” the reality is that choice has already been made by a small group of neighbors who filed the application this summer before surveying the community or soliciting the support of the BCA and ANC. That decision went against both the recommendation of the BCA Historic Preservation Committee and the Office of Planning themselves.

Slide from Office of Planning presentation on Kingman Park Historic District
Slide from Office of Planning presentation on Kingman Park Historic District

Worse, it may have eliminated the possibility for community input at all. The Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) which is scheduled to rule on this application in the next couple of months specifically states that — while community support is “beneficial,” — “by law, [the board] makes its decision on the basis of the written designation criteria.” That means it may not matter anymore whether the community supports it or not.

There’s enough ambiguity in the law that hopefully that’s not the way they’ll choose to interpret it.  If they do decide to weigh community input, it’s important to make sure large numbers of neighbors are on record with their opinions both through the survey, but also through the broader tools of petitions and letters to the ANC and HPRB.

Quick List: Downsides to Historic Designation for Bloomingdale

Downsides to Historic Designation

  • Homeowners lose freedom to modify their homes to fit their family’s needs or match their personal taste.
  • Homeowners will face higher costs in the form of more expensive allowable materials, higher architect fees, and extra time needed to prepare for and receive approvals
  • Limitations on owners attempting to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by installing solar panels – if they are visible from the street they may not be approved.
  • All of these added expenses would be particularly harmful to low-income neighbors who may already be feeling the pressure of rising property taxes and other costs in our neighborhood.
  • There is risk that rents could be impacted upwards as well if landlords pass-on the added costs to tenants.

Concerns About the Process of this Application

  • The application was filed before a survey could be administered to gauge community input. As such, there is no current information on whether the neighborhood at large supports this designation, or even if they know about it at all.
  • A survey is only now being sent to the community, but the rushed timeline means it will only be in homes for a couple weeks over the holidays before the deadline to return it.
  • The survey only contains a yes or no “do you support historic designation” box and the url of a site with information in favor of designation. It does not provide a summary of the arguments on both sides.
  • Because of those two elements, neighbors who may not even have been aware this is happening will have very little time to receive the survey, search for information to develop an informed opinion, and cast their vote.
  • The survey is not going to all ~6,000 residents this change will affect, but just the ~2,000-3,000 property owners in the neighborhood.

Extra Context

  • Even without designation, the community will continue to have the ability to nominate individual buildings of particular historic or architectural significance for protection.
  • Changes to zoning commission policy in 2015 already curtailed the ability for property owners to add “pop-ups” in rowhouse neighborhoods including Bloomingdale. Ie, some of the egregious offenders many are concerned about are already restricted.