Historic board stands up to mid-rise opposition
DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved concept plans for the Hine project on Capitol Hill last month, making a clear statement that while they'll push to improve the quality of development, they're not going to bow to neighbors' demands to substantially shrink it down.
8th Street elevation. Image from the Stanton/EastBanc.
Historic review can greatly improve many development projects. Property owners sometimes want to do things cheaply or just use visual styles that clash with a surrounding neighborhood. Clever design can making a building look less large and imposing without actually shrinking its size very much.
But some people, especially those who show up to HPRB meetings, tend to focus most on the overall height of a building. Their house is 2 stories, and therefore no building should be more than 3 stories. Something more than 4 will "destroy the neighborhood."
Developers often try to accommodate resident objections and make their projects smaller. In Brookland, the Colonel' Brooks Tavern project lost 9 residences but opponents are still opposed. Hine lost 13 between March and April. There's a constant drumbeat of news of projects being scaled back.
Each time, that means fewer people can live in our great city.
Everyone else loses when this happens. We have fewer taxpaying residents to shore up the budget. We have fewer people to patronize shops and restaurants. Fewer people can ride the bus to justify more frequent service. Housing is more expensive because of limited supply.
And when resistance is too great, projects simply don't get built and lots stay vacant, or end up with less desirable uses. Because a zoning board limited a bed and breakfast at 16th and Riggs to 6 rooms instead of 10 in 2001, it couldn't stay profitable and will become a chancery instead, which adds less to the neighborhood than a stream of visitors who will eat in restaurants and go to museums and shows.
Fortunately, many of our current HPRB members recognize this. They tweaked Hine and pushed for a better design but ultimately didn't try to substantially shrink the project. The inclusionary zoning law provides a development bonus to create affordable housing, and HPRB chair Catherine Buell said that the current board recognizes the importance of allowing properties to use this density. Their role isn't to lop off several floors entirely.
HPRB isn't the zoning board, as former chair Tersh Boasberg was fond of saying. If zoning says a 5-story building is appropriate, it's not the role of HPRB to say that they think 3 stories should be the maximum. It is their role to make sure it fits into the historic district. Some, though, argue that "fitting in" means "being no taller than some of the shorter buildings in."
Mayor Gray was about to make 4 appointments to HPRB, but received strong pushback against some of his nominees. Now, he still has to fill those spots and has to find even more as another wave of members' terms are ending.
It's critically important to find people who respect this balance, who want to make projects look better and feel more compatible but who also recognize the importance of actually getting vacant sites developed, accommodating more residents in DC, and taking advantage of the very limited heights that our zoning and federal laws allow.
These decisions don't just affect surrounding neighbors or architects. They determine the very direction of DC, its budget, its housing affordability, and its ability to become more self-sufficient.
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