Greater Greater Washington

HPRB might prohibit my rocking horse!

The battle is heating up over establishing a new historic district in Chevy Chase, DC. Residents opposed to the designation have been distributing "No Historic District" lawn signs and emailing neighborhood lists. The ANC is about to conduct a survey of residents to gauge support, and Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced legislation to require a resident vote, instead of merely HPRB action, to designate a historic district.


American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue. Photo by katmere on Flickr.

Fox 5 interviewed people both for and against the district. One woman wonders if historic preservation would stop her from having a rocking horse on her front porch (it wouldn't). A pro-district organizer defends the need for permits for windows and doors, citing today's cheaper windows which are lower-quality than the historic windows on Chevy Chase's houses.

For many people, though, imposing rules on even small elements like windows is a scary implication of a historic district. Proponents primarily cite a proliferation of McMansions as the reason for the district; if the vote fails, it may be because residents don't want McMansions but also don't want fenestration regulation. Residents ought to have a wider range of choices beyond simply historic or unregulated; I'd certainly vote to keep the full regulation, windows and all, in Dupont Circle, but what's good for Dupont might not be right for Chevy Chase (or maybe it is).

People have many very different reasons for supporting a historic district. One resident told me that he originally endorsed the designation when it appeared denser development in Friendship Heights might stretch toward Chevy Chase, but now that market conditions have slowed development, he doesn't think it's necessary. Many historic districts exist because urbanists and historians found common cause with anti-development neighbors; in Chevy Chase, that alliance may not be strong or urgent enough to designate this neighborhood.

If the vote goes against a district, Chevy Chase could suffer some very incongruent renovations and lose much of the neighborhood's coherence. While not all DC neighborhoods may want the highest level of historic scrutiny, every neighborhood, designated or not, ought to receive some basic design review to at least ensure that a bungalow like the one at left doesn't turn into the building on the right without some discussion and community input.

The architecture of that building is kind of interesting, and I'd enjoy looking at that house on a hillside in Seattle, but a street full of bungalows has value in its architectural harmony. Drastic, visible changes affect the value for everyone, and whether they're ultimately allowed or not, ought to involve the wider community.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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every neighborhood, designated or not, ought to receive some basic design review to at least ensure that a bungalow like the one at left doesn't turn into the building on the right without some discussion and community input.

to what end? if the building on the left meets applicable zoning ordinances, the community can get stuffed. "discussion and community input" may be justified in areas covered by meddlesome homeowners' associations, but where HOA's don't exist, "discussion and community input" amounts to treading on owners' property rights.

i lived just south of chevy chase heights for nearly five years, and think the area under discussion could benefit from more architectural variety. brick colonial after brick colonial, bungalow after bungalow, gets tedious.

by jenny on Sep 9, 2008 12:05 pm • linkreport

hear hear! (on the design review...)

by DG-rad on Sep 9, 2008 12:19 pm • linkreport

(and that "hear hear" was to Alpert)

by DG-rad on Sep 9, 2008 12:21 pm • linkreport

Jenny, I like variety too. The house on the right above though is still a bungalow. It's just a really ugly modification of what was probably a classic bungalow (American Arts & Crafts style) like on the left. There are good ways and bad ways of making extensions/enlargements to standing structures. Maybe one's neighbors or historic achitectural advice can help a person improve on one's plans - The house on the right loses some monetary value because of it's badly performed modification. A better plan would have enhanced it's value, thus adding to the owners financial freedom.

by Bianchi on Sep 9, 2008 12:54 pm • linkreport

"The house on the right loses some monetary value because of it's badly performed modification. A better plan would have enhanced it's value, thus adding to the owners financial freedom."

I think the bigger issue here though is that the house on the right causes the entire neighborhood to loose monetary value because it affects the quality of life in at least a visual way ... and perhaps other ways.

by Lance on Sep 9, 2008 1:04 pm • linkreport

Bianchi, that bungalow on the left still exists, and the decision to redesign the building (in what I see as a very innovative fashion) does not remove it. Neither does the design itself detract from the neighborhood - the problem with that building seems largely to be one of maintenance and/or construction quality.

Washington needs more high-quality contemporary design, not less. What would have happened to that arts-and-crafts bungalow if the neighborhood had been hit by prior historic regulation that only allowed Georgian homes?

by Daniel M. Laenker on Sep 9, 2008 1:09 pm • linkreport

Historic designation does nothing to limit or stifle architectural creativity. This is evidenced by the copper house on Newark Street in Cleveland Park. The test is compatibility, not, "is it the same as everything else".

The broader question is the precedent that the Chevy Chase ANC is creating by polling residents on this question and the impact, or lack thereof, such polling has on historic preservation or more broadly, planning decisions in the future.

by William on Sep 9, 2008 1:18 pm • linkreport

You have to wonder if a historic status is the final refuge of the NIMBY...

Nationwide, we need more dense walkable environments that are well served by transit. We will sink into economic ruination if we don't build them because low density environments will be part of the cause of an upcoming depression.

I hope this historic district designation for a district that was simply spillover from the 19th Century development on MD side is not just so a bunch of old people can keep a bunch of young people out of their neighborhood. There's plenty of that going on already. Just go to Brookland or Takoma Park. They'll tell you all about keeping people out of your little hamlet.

Chevy Chase DC is so much more low profile and so much more of an afterthought in the city and the region compared to DuPont. It's not even in the same league. If it gets a historic designation, it will come back and bite us all. No one will be allowed to build any new walkable urbanism in that section. Residents of that neighborhood will remain slaves to their cars and property values will collapse in the not too distant future when gasoline is prohibitively expensive, even for the six figure types of the neighborhood.

by Cavan on Sep 9, 2008 1:23 pm • linkreport

William, I don't see how the copper house (if it's the one I'm thinking of) is fundamentally different in terms of design from the house in Chevy Chase. Yes, there are significant differences in construction quality, but not necessarily in design.

Cavan: I agree wholeheartedly, at least in the case of Chevy Chase. This is very little different from their "passive resistance" to the Purple Line.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Sep 9, 2008 1:34 pm • linkreport

"Nationwide, we need more dense walkable environments that are well served by transit. We will sink into economic ruination if we don't build them because low density environments will be part of the cause of an upcoming depression."

Yeah, let's build some Soviet-style highrise apartment buildings ... stuff as many people into our cities in the smallest footprint possible ... That's the "environmentally sensitive" thing to do. Not! Environmentally sensitive includes being sensitive to the individuals living in such spaces.

by Lance on Sep 9, 2008 1:37 pm • linkreport

Lance: Soviet-style highrises (i.e. international-style modernist superblocks) have absolutely not been healthy in terms of overall footprint, regardless of anyone's particular taste. After all, this is exactly the same sort of highrise design that we see in Tysons Corner and that we saw in the World Trade Center in New York. But you know that.

I think the sort of density that people have in mind is something more like that of London or Boston.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Sep 9, 2008 1:42 pm • linkreport

@Daniel...I do not know what house you are referring to in Chevy Chase as compared to the "copper house".

@Cavan, I believe the part of Chevy Chase DC under consideration is generally walkable to the Friendship Heights metro, but is mostly zoned and built out as a residential (streetcar) neighborhood.

Other than density at the top of Connecticut Avenue just below Chevy Chase Circle, what additional TOD or density would you consider? The area along Western Ave is residential and a city park, so there isn't really a development opportunity there.

The rhythm of Connecticut Avenue from Woodley out to Chevy Chase is high density between low density commercial Districts. Unless you redevelop the Chevy Chase commercial area, where is the lost opportunity?

by William on Sep 9, 2008 1:44 pm • linkreport

The thing about walkable/repatterning/TOD is a false argument, although I don't think it is offered up to be misleading. Whether or not you have historic preservation laws, you aren't going to raze neighborhoods like this and rebuild them to be denser.

I agree that I wish things could have been denser in various places in the city, but for the most part, once you build housing, the nature of the density can't be changed too easily, when it comes to single family homes (as well as condo buildings).

(I favor surgical density increases where it can be reasonably accommodated, especially on commercial corridors, and in places like the RFK parking lots...)

Historic designation in a situation like this is about maintaining neighborhood character in the face of some people wanting to change their houses significantly either in place or through teardowns and reconstruction.

This impacts the value of other people's property, as well as how people enjoy and experience their neighborhood. Because you can't count on properties owners to make decisions that positively impact all, you have building regulations.

by Richard Layman on Sep 9, 2008 2:18 pm • linkreport

Daniel,

To be fair to Chevy Chase DC, they have nothing to do with the Purple Line. As you know Chevy Chase is an area comprised of the section in DC and seven (correct me if I'm wrong) incorporated small towns along Connecticut Ave (mostly) inside the Beltway in Maryland.

The Chevy Chase that is playing NIMBY ball on the Purple Line in alliance with the Columbia Country Club is the Town of Chevy Chase. For more information, here is a link: http://www.innerpurpleline.org/townofChevyChase.htm

by Cavan on Sep 9, 2008 2:51 pm • linkreport

Lance, you know that's not what I meant when I said density. By density, I meant walkability. I'm a Washingtonian. By dense neighborhood, I think DuPont or Bethesda or Columbia Heights. I'm not thinking L'Enfant Plaza.

You know that density if done right can improve the quality of life. Just ask someone who lives in Clarendon or on U St. NW. Low density can also be a quality of life drain. Just ask someone who lives in Tysons Corner.

by Cavan on Sep 9, 2008 2:55 pm • linkreport

@Cavan

Most of the area associated with this is residential, both in zoning and character. A change in zoning would simply mean that new development would be subject to review by the Historic Preservation Office, just as most downtown structures already are.

by William on Sep 9, 2008 3:05 pm • linkreport

Daniel, I guess we have very different methods for evaluating a successful enlargement to an existing structure. I agree the example is innovative. I dispute that is it a good example of contemporary design - and I don't mean contemporary in the sense of the mcmansion with a bunch of styles thrown anachronistically together. I mean truly contempororay -not some anachronistic fake, and using current materials and methods (green roof, solar panels, hay bails?). This example on the left above in your admission fails because of the quality of the material/craftsmanship if for no other reason. There were many ways to enlarge the bungalow without destroying its nature -even with making contempory design enlargements. This isn't a good example of that, in my evaluation.

And Lance - I agree with you! it affects the value of the whole street. I was responding to the notion of the individual owners freedom to make the enlargment- a better design would have served that freedom better.

by Bianchi on Sep 9, 2008 3:09 pm • linkreport

William, I learn something new every day. The Historic Preservation Office hasn't seemed to block much of the redevelopment and revitalization of the downtown. Would they block a future transit oriented project if its character fits in?

by Cavan on Sep 9, 2008 3:11 pm • linkreport

Cavan, I do not know, you will have to ask the HPO. But what would be the impetus for blocking a function which was the original reason the neighborhood was created?

by William on Sep 9, 2008 3:24 pm • linkreport

David,

While your desire to tinker with and improve regulation on development is noble, ultimately the goal you're seeking is impossible to reach. Discretionary review processes of the sort required by historic designations (even of lower intensity, as you propose) are, by their nature, discretionary. They are therefore captive to the political process. You cannot create a review process that doesn't scare residents, because there is always risk that the reviewers will meddle in ways the residents don't like. And you can't get rid of those who would use a discretionary process to prevent density, either. Even if you are right about what's "good" for Chevy Chase (transit oriented density good, McMansions bad) there is no way to guarantee that the reviewers will share your views.

The key advantage of zoning over discretionary "designations" is that it is predictable-- when you buy a property or a piece of land, you know what you are allowed to do with it; you don't have to predict the actions of a board. If, as you suggest, we created intermediate restrictive designations, one likely outcome would be to greatly increase the percentage of Washington that is covered by such designations, to include areas like Chevy Chase. This would increase the uncertainty associated with development, drive up prices for existing improved properties, and place designated neighborhoods ever farther out of reach for most buyers.

From your writing generally, I think it's fair to say that you don't think a free market produces ideal development outcomes. However, it's important not to compare the market outcome to your desired outcome; you need to compare the market outcome to the outcome that is possible through regulation. Sometimes that may still cut in favor of regulation. However, if you're going to advocate for more regulations of this sort, those that put discretion in the hands of bureaucrats and elected officials and introduce uncertainty, you should show examples where doing so has worked well-- instead of resulting in fiascos like the landmarking of the Washington Hilton. And you should also acknowledge the ancillary results of such policies, including making housing less affordable.

by Josh Barro on Sep 9, 2008 6:16 pm • linkreport

Residents of [Chevy Chase] will remain slaves to their cars and property values will collapse in the not too distant future when gasoline is prohibitively expensive, even for the six figure types of the neighborhood.

@Cavan - er... have you ever been through the area covered by the proposal? it's hardly a slave-to-the-car neighborhood. it's walkable to 3 metro stations, several grocery stores, at least 3 movie theaters, a myriad of restaurants, book stores, and convenience stores.

i highly doubt property values will collapse in menopause manor anytime soon.

by jenny on Sep 9, 2008 6:23 pm • linkreport

Also, the idea of "gasoline becoming prohibitely expsensive" and dooming the current way people live is one "future scare scenario" we've lived through before only some 30 years ago. I know we've discussed this before, so I won't rehash ... but suffice it to say it is about as likely to happen as the world was likely to end when the calendar turned to the year 2000.

by Lance on Sep 10, 2008 7:59 am • linkreport

Saying that market conditions will dictate obvious changes in land use and development is not the same thing as saying the world is likely to end, Lance.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Sep 10, 2008 9:20 am • linkreport

Daniel, what I'm saying is that give it time and gas prices on average won't be anymore expensive in the future than they've been in the past ... in real dollar terms. Yes, we've gone through a 10 - 15 year period of extremely gas prices but if you think $3.50 a gallon (and dropping) is high, then compare it to the price of gas in something like 1970 when it was 50 cents a gallon ... and a new house could be bought for $25,000 and you're average person was maybe making $10,000 per year. I.e., Don't count on "market conditions" caused by the see-sawing price of gasoline to do much long term in the way of changing land use development. It can't because supply and demand (which affect the price) are so interwoven that longterm the market will supply just the right amount of gasoline that is needed to support whatever development patterns the consumer demands.

It's technology that would/could be the limiting factor. And technology has already freed us from the bounds of us all living in one small village huddled together. That's not going to change.

by Lance on Sep 10, 2008 10:29 am • linkreport



*10 - 15 year period of extremely low gas prices

by Lance on Sep 10, 2008 10:31 am • linkreport

Lance: Yah, I was going to say. The low prices of the '90s were pretty anomalous.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Sep 10, 2008 10:50 am • linkreport

Lance, it's wishful thinking to believe that we're not in the beginning of the beginning of an energy crisis. This is not the same as the '70s. I wasn't there for it since I wasn't born yet but we're now hitting a global physical limit as to how much oil can be extracted in a day. There is also far more demand for oil today. With fundamentals of flatlining extraction and ever increasing long term demand... well you can figure out the rest.

@Jenny,

Yes I'm familiar with the area. It is a nice streetcar suburb layout. I said what I said to make a point. I'm aware that it's currently decently walkable. However, the experience at the Hilton in Kalorama has really turned me off to historic landmarking in general. We have plenty of NIMBYs around and I'm concerned this one tool will be abused by them. The area is decent but in time, could be even more walkable. If you give it a historical zone, you run the risk of letting the area evolve with future market trends towards walkability.

by Cavan on Sep 10, 2008 11:07 am • linkreport

Cavan, Did you mean to write, "if you give it a historical zone you run the risk of [NOT] letting the area evolve with future market trends"?

by Bianchi on Sep 10, 2008 12:20 pm • linkreport

yes I did. Thank you for correcting my typo.

by Cavan on Sep 10, 2008 1:27 pm • linkreport

Josh -- I would say that if you know even a wee bit about architecture and urban design, and what the period of architectural and historical significance of a neighborhood, and the prevalent mass and height and lot coverage within a neighborhood, it's hard to argue that HP related design review is discretionary and political.

I do think we could provide better materials to explain it though. But as particularly good examples, Historic Mt. Pleasant Historic District (http://www.historicmtp.citymax.com/f/HMPGuide.pdf) and the CHRS printed materials (http://www.chrs.org/Pages/6_Pubs1.html) do a reasonable job.

One of the many projects on the long list of things I would like to do is a master guide like this for the entire city, based on tomes like the _Old House Manual_ or _Rehab Rochester_ (http://www.landmarksociety.org/section.html?id=1&uid=1) from the Landmark Society of Western New York.

by Richard Layman on Sep 11, 2008 9:27 am • linkreport

I live in Chevy Chase DC and I get sooooo tired of seeing bungalow after Federalist brick after fake-Tudor after Dutch Colonial. I feel no sentimental attachment to the mishmash of historic styles in our neighborhood. Some of those postwar houses are downright ugly. I love the house pictured here on the right and I think we could use more like it in our neighborhood. The last thing we need is to enforce conformity with the dreary styles of the past.

by Flora on Sep 17, 2008 1:39 pm • linkreport

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