by Jane Solomon
In an Opinion piece published by the Connection on February 21, Julia and Andrew Stevenson assert that historic preservation (both individual landmarks as well as historic districts) is too often used as a tool to fight change, stifling both growth and innovation and trampling the rights of property owners along the way. Despite a nod to the law’s goals, they believe that landmarking private property is rarely, if ever, justified, particularly for private homes. They focus on the work of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to historic preservation and education.
Over the past 16 years, the Alliance has sponsored three landmark applications, two successfully, with the third (3101 Albemarle) pending an April hearing. As the current President of the Alliance, I believe these properties are all fine examples of how noteworthy historic properties add valuable character to our community. Moreover, the development project taking shape at 3101 Albemarle provides a striking illustration of what can be accomplished when the community works together with the property owner and city planners to serve the values of historic preservation, smart growth and environmental sensitivity, while minimizing negative impact on the neighborhood. I’ll return to this project at the end.
The Stevensons aren’t alone in their particular objection to historic preservation applications that arise in the face of development. Yet development and historic preservation are inextricably linked. It was the phenomenal speed and magnitude of demolition during the post-war development boom that led to the passage of the National Preservation Act of 1966, though many state and local laws preceded it.
Section 1 of the Act recognizes that development pressure will pose an ongoing challenge as the nation continues to grow: “[I]n the face of ever-increasing extensions of urban centers, highways, and residential, commercial, and industrial developments, the present governmental and nongovernmental historic preservation programs and activities are inadequate to insure future generations a genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.” As communities evolve to meet future needs, the law itself compels us to consider what might be lost in the process.
In the District of Columbia, regardless of the motives that get the process started, pursuing landmark designation is futile unless the property has merit. For all the loose talk one hears about using preservation to oppose “undesirable” new development, that talk seldom turns into a viable landmark application. Landmark criteria are specific and difficult to meet. There’s no easy path to securing a designation. Properties are first considered by Historic Preservation Office staff—architectural historians who discourage applications that don’t meet the criteria. Staff provide their recommendations in a report to the Historic Preservation Review Board and a hearing is scheduled with 45-day public notice. The ANC is notified and if they vote in support or opposition, that decision is given “great weight.” Any resident who wishes to submit an opinion or testify before HPRB may do so.
With respect to the Owl’s Nest at 3031 Gates Road, the Alliance was founded in response to the Jewish Primary Day School’s (JPDS) campus proposal, which included razing one of the oldest and most prominent houses in Forest Hills. The Alliance hired an historic preservation firm to research the house and develop the application, which was successful. JPDS ultimately sold the property and found a very suitable location on 16th Street where it has thrived. I’m sure the landmark contributed to the School’s decision to sell and look elsewhere, but it couldn’t have been the only factor because JPDS developed a revised plan that would have incorporated preserving the house. Community opinion was mixed about the school, but there was certainly strong opposition among the closest neighbors.
3020 Albemarle is probably less familiar to most readers. It’s a tall stucco house that borders the footpath into Soapstone Valley. Designed by architect Horace Peaslee, who also designed Meridian Hill Park, it received landmark designation in 2015. The HPO staff report was strongly in favor of approval, and other architectural authorities appeared at the hearing to support the nomination. The owners opposed the application and hired their own architectural historian to argue against it, though unsuccessfully. Decisions by HPRB can be appealed to the Mayor’s Agent, an option the owners may or may not have pursued.
The Stevensons argue that the designation of landmarks would be more “fair” if HPRB were required to consider neighborhood opinion and/or owner’s consent. Landmark designation should only be about historic merit as measured according to relevant and objective criteria. (Read more about DC Landmark criteria (PDF).) Public opinion, by definition, is subjective. The wishes and goals of property owners are also subjective. Think about it this way: If a Frank Lloyd Wright house were nominated as a landmark, should HPRB consider the owner’s plan to subdivide and build new houses or the neighbors’ worries about more cars in the neighborhood?
It’s worth examining how and why the law allows for a landmark even if the owner is opposed and why it’s not considered a “taking” (which in this context would mean a regulatory devaluation requiring owner compensation). Many of the legal precedents concerning historic preservation stem from a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 1978. In Penn Central v. New York City, the railroad sued the city, arguing that denying it permission to build a proposed skyscraper on top of Grand Central Station, which it owned, constituted a taking. The court ruled in favor of New York. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan first affirmed that to preserve buildings of architectural and historical significance is to “enhance the quality of life for all.” His opinion addresses a number of points the Stevensons raise:
It’s equally important to consider why requiring an owner’s approval, or some specified measure of community support, may not pass legal muster. Courts frequently strike down owner-consent provisions when deciding land-use cases, including historic preservation. Owner-consent provisions are often found to run contrary to what’s known as the “delegation-of-power doctrine,” the idea being that property owners don’t get to decide whether or not a law applies to themselves. Moreover, the delegation-of-power doctrine requires that objective standards and uniform procedures be developed for administering laws specifically to prevent arbitrary decision making. Allowing owners to opt out of historic preservation by withholding their consent could be deemed a “standardless” delegation.
The landmark application for 3101 Albemarle, the former residence of the Polish Ambassador is part of an exciting larger project on the property. The proposed plan: The stone house, with a compelling Cold War history, will remain on a large lot facing Soapstone Valley. Rock Creek Conservancy will have a generous lease/purchase agreement for the house so that it can locate its office opposite the park it serves. To make it all financially viable, higher density housing designed by architect Christian Zapatka will be built along 32nd Street, creating a streetscape including the addition of a sidewalk, just a block away from the urban amenities on Connecticut Ave. Moreover, the houses will be designed for “aging in place.” It will be a win-win-win for Forest Hills, the developer, and the city.
3101 Albemarle was a hair’s breadth away from purchase by a developer who proposed to tear down the house and build six new matter-of-right houses to the maximum size that zoning allows, forever changing the look and feel of our neighborhood at a prominent point of entry. Most large trees would have been lost and construction on the steep slope would have required substantial retaining walls. This type of development is inimical to Forest Hills and the entire community would have been poorer for it.
Forest Hills Connection is a project of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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