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.

Why I Oppose Historic Designation for Bloomingdale

This summer, a group of Bloomingdale residents applied to designate our neighborhood as a historic district under DC law.

If the application is accepted by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), new construction and exterior alterations to all properties in Bloomingdale will be subject to a historic preservation review to determine if they are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, this effort may sound like a good one. With a policy proposal of this magnitude, however, we need to weigh the impact it will have on the community at large. I’m in favor of celebrating and preserving DC’s history, but attempting to do so by creating a historic district will come at a cost.

A historic district will inevitably add costs

Bloomingdale homeowners who want to make changes to the exterior of their homes could see that process become more (potentially much more) expensive and time-consuming. That in turn could lead to higher prices for renters as well.

The cost starts in the design phase. One neighborhood architect testified at a recent meeting that he charges multiple thousands of dollars more when he works on projects in historic districts, in anticipation of the extra meetings and revisions he has learned to expect.

Then comes the cost of the materials. All revisions must be made using approved lists of materials – many of which are significantly more expensive than similar alternatives.

The final cost is time and hassle. Not only do building permits require an extra level of review for historic compatibility (requiring an in-person trip on a weekday), preparing for that review necessitates more research, often including consulting with Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff in advance of the actual application. If the alterations are of significant enough scope, that escalates into a full hearing in front of the HPRB, which only meets monthly. Any rounds of revisions, therefore, can mean a multi-month delay.

The impact of these added costs — particularly on lower income residents — is one of the main reasons our next-door neighbors in Eckington decided against applying for historic designation last year. As one neighbor testified at the Eckington Civic Association meeting where residents voted against moving forward with the process:

My conclusion is that [historic designation is] overtly anti-poor. Anything that increases cost even slightly, pushes them out of neighborhood. [I] understand [the] need to preserve heritage, but part of what makes neighborhood is diversity of ethnicity and income. [I] want to see that stay, that’s part of why we love the neighborhood.

Proponents of preservation spend a lot of time assuring residents that most alterations are minor and get approved quickly. They also emphasize that the Historic Preservation Office is making an effort to add less-expensive materials to the approved lists. Those are good steps, but they don’t cover all use cases. It’s the more complex cases that present the greatest potential for homeowners to get stuck with significant hassle and costs.

Proponents also enthusiastically draw attention to a city-sponsored fund (the Historic Homeowner Grant Program) that helps subsidize the costs for low- and moderate-income residents. However, this competitive fund only helps 10-15 people citywide per year, and is only available to residents in some of the historic districts. Bloomingdale would not automatically be added to this list; the neighborhood would have to go through a separate legislative process after historic designation to attempt to qualify.

This isn’t the only way to preserve history

History is important — who doesn’t want to preserve it? I certainly do. As the research in the application highlights, Bloomingdale has an extensive, interesting history that makes me appreciate living here even more. The application tracks the neighborhood’s significant people, places and events — like the lawsuits against racial covenants on Bloomingdale houses that eventually became a part of the landmark Supreme Court case finding such covenants unenforceable. With stories like these, the document makes an excellent case that Bloomingdale has an invaluable history that should be appreciated and preserved.

However, historic designation is a very clunky tool to try to achieve this goal. Architectural facades are one visual reminder of history, but they’re far from the only or most important aspect. Research and scholarship, markers and monuments, tours and lectures — all of these help us appreciate and learn from the past. The self-guided walking tour recently installed in the neighborhood is a fantastic example of the ways we can preserve and promote our local history.

And yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t protect buildings too! The great news is, there’s already a process for doing so. Preservation advocates will continue to be free to nominate buildings of special historic and architectural significance. We don’t need a neighborhood-wide historic district to preserve important locations and great examples of what makes this neighborhood notable.

If preserving history is your goal, we’re pretty well covered. Insisting that we actually need a blanket rule covering 1,692 properties in the neighborhood is something of a drastic measure — one, it seems to me, that offers little added gain.  

This is more about looks than history

The key to understanding why advocates believe they need such a blunt tool is to look past the nominal talk about history. From the arguments I’ve seen put forward by supporters of the application, most are motivated — at least in part — by a desire to stop the dreaded “pop-ups” (houses with additions that raise them higher than the roofline of their neighbors). Pointing to some of the infamous examples around the city, they suggest the choice is historic designation or a proliferation of these egregious eyesores.

However, that ignores the fact that anti-pop-up advocates already won a major victory in the city two years ago when they persuaded the Zoning Commission to adopt stricter rules in rowhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale. The allowed height was lowered from 40ft to 35ft, the number of residential stories limited to three, and the number of allowable units a home can be converted into limited to two. The scope of pop-ups allowable without needing special permission has already been significantly curtailed.

Other proponents of designation go even further to say they are aiming to protect the streetscapes of the neighborhood. They assert that visually uniform blocks are a collective good  for which homeowners should be required to sacrifice their rights to make the changes they want to their own houses.

I don’t mean to be glib. Based on the seriousness of the testimonies given by some of the application sponsors at a recent neighborhood forum, I can tell that they are genuinely and deeply upset about visual changes in the neighborhood. They described how Bloomingdale has become “unrecognizable” because of the “desecration” that’s happened to some houses that have been renovated; one went so far as to say it’s nothing short of “architectural rape.”

Hearing their experiences helped me understand why they feel so passionately about supporting this application. But it hasn’t yet persuaded me that those concerns from a handful of neighbors are worth burdening everyone in the neighborhood with more hassle and cost.

Asking neighbors to sacrifice their right to fit their homes to their own families’ needs and preferences is a big request in its own right. But asking them to incur extra cost, time and hassle as well is a particularly severe one — especially when so many neighbors are already feeling the pinch of rising costs.

The whole community should be able to weigh in on this, and they’re not being given the chance

The more troubling problem is that supporters of this application aren’t even really asking at all. We’re a few short weeks away from passing a massive change to our neighborhood, and we don’t even know if most of the neighborhood knows about it — let alone if they support it.

According to HPRB’s own guidelines, community opinion is an important factor in whether the board will approve this nomination. Historic district applications in the past that have not been accompanied by a clear sense of community support have not always succeeded. Most prominently, a nomination for Chevy Chase was preemptively withdrawn after a neighborhood survey showed broad opposition.

Importantly, there was a plan in place to gauge the community’s opinion in advance of an application ever being submitted. The Bloomingdale Civic Association’s (BCA) Historic Preservation committee organized initial outreach and recommended that a representative community survey be administered to understand whether or not support existed for the historic designation application.

Before that survey could be conducted, however, an independent group of neighbors who didn’t want to wait for community input jumped the gun and filed an application anyway — creating the rushed process we’re having to react to right now.

This rush (the review hearing could happen as early as February) is straining the normal democratic process. An important step in historic designation is having the relevant ANC pass a resolution either in favor or opposed to the change. Last year, when Eckington considered this process, some ANC commissioners laid out an expectation that historic designation would need to garner the support of 51 percent of neighborhood homeowners in order to earn their endorsement.

With no completed representative survey to point to, supporters of the Bloomingdale application have come nowhere close to determining if that level of consensus exists. And they have only a handful of weeks left if they’re going to attempt to answer that question.

Even if they get the survey done, as designed it won’t tell us much.

The application filers seem to be hoping that the still-in-production BCA survey (remember, which was supposed to precede the application) will check the community input box for them, but their hastiness has significantly crippled the value of this survey. As of last week, the survey was still not ready to be mailed. With a response deadline of mid-January, that means the survey will only be in households for a couple weeks at best. That’s a very short period of time for neighbors to get up to speed on the debate, form an opinion, and return their ballots.

What’s more, that narrow window will fall over the holiday break. All told, the chance that this survey will generate a sufficient volume of responses — let alone consensus among 51 percent of the neighborhood — seems incredibly unlikely.

Additionally, the text on the survey is going to be limited to an up-or-down question asking property owners whether they support or oppose historical designation. No information is set to be included on the postcard outlining the impacts of the decision or a breakdown of pros and cons. A url directing users to visit the BCA website’s historic preservation page is supposed to be included, but that page only represents the viewpoints of neighbors who support the application. A fair summary of the opinions of neighbors who are not supportive of the application won’t be reflected at all.

Finally, the survey is not being sent to all residents, only to property owners — which means renters (something north of 50 percent of residents) are being excluded off the bat. While property owners may face the most immediate impacts of historic designation, the potential for increased renovation costs of rental properties to be passed onto tenants is something we (and the ANC members who represent all residents) shouldn’t dismiss lightly.

Not to mention, if supporters of the application are going to cite a desire to regulate visual streetscapes as motivation, there’s no reason renters’ opinions on neighborhood aesthetics should matter any less.

Mismatched buildings aren’t the biggest threat facing Bloomingdale. Affordability is.

The reality is that while some neighbors are focused on pop-ups, Bloomingdale is facing a more acute threat: affordability.

As an attractive, centrally-located neighborhood with beloved local businesses, demand for housing in Bloomingdale continues to climb – pushing prices higher and higher each year. Median home prices in the neighborhood crossed $800,000 this year, that’s a 73% rise from even just 4 years ago. The subsequent higher property taxes and rents put us on a clear path towards becoming a neighborhood exclusively available to residents with higher incomes. What good is it to keep the building facades of the neighborhood if we’re not keeping the neighbors inside them?

To be fair, there are bigger market forces at play in this specific conversation. The impact of historic designation on affordability one way or the other will be moderate at best. But given the scope of the challenge, I think we should be doing everything we can to avoid making it worse at the least. How much historic designation would raise costs for residents remains to be seen, but it’s certainly far more than the $0 increase rejecting this application would cost.

If you’re a Bloomingdale resident who feels similarly, I invite you to sign this petition put together by some of your neighbors expressing ours concerns and looking to bring more community voices to this process.