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.

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