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Historic Preservation Review Board vacancies go unfilled

On July 28th, for the first time in nearly two decades, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board failed to achieve a quorum, and couldn't hear several cases during its afternoon session.

Current and former DC Theaters. Photo by the author.

The board had to postpone two cases to another meeting for the following week. Preservationists feel the administration has been inattentive to the importance of making appointments to HPRB. There are a great many vacancies in DC boards and commissions, but while most are advisory, HPRB is one of the few with direct influence over policy.

In January, 16-year board veteran Jim Kane resigned, leaving the 9-member board with only 8 members. 6 of the remaining members' terms have already expired without being renominated or replaced.

The terms of 3 members expired in July 2010 (Elinor Bacon, Maria Casarella, and Robert Sonderman) and another 3 expired last month (Tersh Boasberg, Christopher Landis, and Joseph Eugene Taylor). Furthermore, some say Pamela Scott, due to health reasons, will resign as soon as the current vacancies are filled.

"This is a big deal," said a former HPRB member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Everyone in the preservation community is asking themselves the same question; Why are these nominations languishing?"

Rule changes during previous mayoral administrations allow members of city boards and commissions to continue to serve and cast binding votes up to 180 days after their terms expire. However, HPRB currently has members whose terms expired more than 380 days ago and who are still serving.

If HPRB can't reach a quorum during forthcoming meetings, it will impair city business. On average, the Historic Preservation Office approves 4,000 cases each year. Roughly 150 make their way to the HPRB for additional review. A delay in HPRB approval for commercial and residential projects is an effective stop-work order. Costs quickly accrue from additional interest payments to higher labor costs. Additionally, delays in HPRB approval can threaten contractual timelines.

In response to a letter from preservationist Mary Rowse, Ronald Collins, Director of the Office of Board and Commissions (OBC) in the Executive office of the Mayor, wrote, "We will be sending nominations to the Council for the HPRB when the Council returns from its Summer Recess on September 15th."

According to Rowse:

[The OBC] interviewed between 10 and 20 people for the HPRB earlier this spring, that four names were mentioned as possible nominees (two current members of the Board—[Maria] Casarella and [Elinor] Bacon and two new names: Nancy Metzger and Niani Kilkenny) but that the nomination process was put on hold and no names were sent to the Council.
Multiple sources report that due to considerable pushback against the leak of potential nominees, members of the preservation and business communities worried the HPRB could potentially become transcendent in their opposition to development rather than serving as a guiding force to make development compatible. Because of the resistance to the nominees, their names were not advanced.

"We would like to have the current vacancies filled by highly qualified professionals and committed active citizens," said Buell, Chair of the HPRB, "who can help with the increasing volume of our workload. The size and scope of projects along 14th Street NW, the redevelopment of Hine Junior High School, and others have required our additional attention and oversight."

The DC Preservation League, the Committee of 100, the District of Columbia Building Industry Association, community organizations, and private citizens have all suggested names for consideration.

Thanks to the delay, at least seven vacancies will have to be filled at once. That could mean a significant and sudden shift in the board, increasing the uncertainty for preservation and development stakeholders.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Why is the Mayor’s office letting this go on for so long? The Historic Preservation Review Board has a major impact on development in the City. I can’t imagine having a multi-million dollar project delayed simply because the City couldn’t get its act together.

It seems like HPRB is finally comprised of a varying mix of professionals who work to make sure that projects are compatible, without stunting the City’s growth. I hope the Mayor pushes for more diversity (Wards 7 or 5 anyone?) and also successful professionals who can add a lot to the review process.

I hope that this situation will be positively resolved soon.

by Hopeful on Aug 15, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

Beware of the politrix that are behind everything. This problem started under Fenty's watch but Gray hasn't done anything to address it. Shame on both of them. There's got to be a loophole somewhere so the city can just shut down this board which looks like what they are trying to do and want to do. Double shame on Gray. No difference from judicial filibusters in the US Senate. This isn't 1990 but things in city politrix seem to be going more and more backward. Bring back Mayor Williams!

by Ward1Rez on Aug 15, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

Mos recent meeting docs showing the absent members.

Is VP Joe Biden the anonymous former HPRB member?

"This is a big [*%$!in'] deal," said a former HPRB member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

by FlyOnTheWall on Aug 15, 2011 1:22 pm • linkreport

Why does an inability to meet mean a stop work order? Shouldn't it mean that if the HPRB can't rule, the property owner gets it approved automatically?

That's the way it it with our homeowner's board. Board has to act within a certain amount of time or else it's considered approved.

by Michael Perkins on Aug 15, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

In the great words of Lydia DePillis:

The case against boards and commissions is that......
You have to fill them!

What is OBC doing? Its August already.

by Preservation101 on Aug 15, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

this from the wonderful administration of "do nothing Grey". Taking as long as possible to fill vacancies and provide city services to all taxpayers

by DC Line on Aug 15, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Vincent Grey should never have been elected. He appears to be incapable of making decisions...too old and too incompetent.

by DC Quilter on Aug 16, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport

I have deleted a comment by Consuelo Vanderbilt for violation of our comment policy. Please review the policy before commenting again.

Thanks for understanding.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 16, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

Bad correlation between a Board being unable to fulfill its obligations for review and a stop work order. Most projects going to the HPRB are still in the permitting process.

by SDinDC on Aug 16, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

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