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ANC opposes landmarking Western Bus Garage

Should the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights be a landmark? The Tenleytown Historical Society is trying to get it designated as one, and a hearing will take place next week. But the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) says it's just not a significant building.

Photo from Google Street View.

This mostly unremarkable building is most significant for its location. It's right near the Friendship Heights Metro, and backs onto Wisconsin Avenue. Therefore, many believe that residents opposed to growth in the neighborhood have sought to use the historic preservation process to keep any redevelopment away from this site.

ANC 3E's resolution notes that the Tenleytown Historical Society never sought to landmark the building until WMATA issued an RFP in 2005 to redevelop it; suddenly, they filed the application. The ANC writes, "There is thus at least an appearance that the application in this case may in part be motivated by a desire to forestall the mixed use development of a site that sits on the same block as a Metro Stop."

Is the building historic at all? The first section talks about the history of streetcars in DC, dating back to 1862. The Wisconsin Avenue side of this site held a streetcar car barn starting in 1888. But this building isn't the car barn; that was demolished in the mid-1960s. The ANC writes,

It is hard to see the relevance of the fact that it was used as a streetcar barn when nothing remains of the street car barn that predates the current bus garage. In the meantime, the block itself and surrounding area will remain central to transportation uses regardless of what is done with the garage itself as there is a Metro stop there and it is a central area used by many buses serving both Maryland and the District.

Moreover, while the application goes to great lengths in describing the evolution of transportation uses at this site and in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor dating back to 1862, if approved this application could end or severely limit that evolution.

As for the architect, Arthur Berthrong Heaton, Jr., he had an impressive resume and designed over 100 buildings in DC, including the National Geographic building. But many of those buildings still remain, and are far more architecturally meaningful than this garage. The ANC writes, "It is clear that this project does not reflect his finest work."

Finally, the application talks at great length about the brick work. There is indeed a somewhat interesting brick pattern on the 44th Street side. The other walls are not very interesting, and in fact were mostly party walls this building shared with other buildings at the time.

The ANC's resolution says, "At base a simple brick façade is still just a brick façade. There is nothing about the brick used that is particularly noteworthy." They do suggest that any future development incorporate these particular elements, and that they would not object to a historic designation that preserves just this façade while leaving flexibility to actually build something better on the site.

Should DC landmark on such tenuous grounds?

A landmark application must state why the property in question should be designated as a landmark. This application says:

The Western Bus Garage meets criteria for designation in the D.C. Inventory (section 201.1 (b), (d) and (f), 201.2 and 201.3) It is the site of transportation activities that contributed significantly to the development of the District of Columbia. It is associated with patterns of growth and change that resulted in significant development of the residential areas along the routes served by the buses, and it is the work of an architect of recognized achievement.
This seems quite tenuous. We have a mostly unremarkable building that happens to have housed transportation activities that were important to DC. The most historically important transportation activities, however, were associated with a different building that is no longer there.

Should we really consider landmarking buildings simply because they contained an activity that affected other parts of the District? Should the headquarters of every developer in the District be a landmark because people in those offices worked on projects which shaped the District? Every government building because people made policy that affected the District?

This architect built a lot of buildings in DC. This may be one of the least remarkable, yet the application argues it qualifies for designation simply because such an architect designed it. Is every building by every architect of any significant merit a landmark?

The bricks are interesting, but does one interesting architectural feature merit a landmark? All of these questions point to the same larger question: should we landmark virtually everything, or just a small minority of buildings which are truly remarkable or historically important?

There are other policy objectives besides architecture

WMATA needs to modernize this bus garage or replace it with a different facility. They hoped to build a new garage in the interior of the Walter Reed site, but opposition from residents and Councilmember Muriel Bowser made that impossible. If they rebuild on this site, a new garage could be mostly underground, possibly as part of a mixed-use building that contributes more to the neighborhood.

That may be exactly what some proponents of the landmark want to stop. The ANC resolution explains that there are many non-architectural goals, such as reducing pollution and noise from the garage, which landmarking could block.

[T]he kind of aboveground bus garages built in much of the 20th Century, like this one, can create health hazards with diesel fumes spreading into nearby neighborhoods. Underground bus garages with air filtration systems are safer and healthier. Similarly, the noise from public address systems can be contained in an underground garage, but can be a nuisance in above ground ones as it has been for neighbors of the Western Bus Garage for years.

Yet we have heard from individuals with knowledge about the designation process and WMATA's construction needs that designation could make it impossible or cost-prohibitive to convert the current garage to an underground facility if the site is designated. It would be a shame if in an effort to preserve a purportedly historic façade we took a step that could make it harder to achieve a healthier transportation configuration based on what we know today compared to what we knew when the Western Bus Garage was built.

We share the goal of preserving key elements of the historic fabric of our community. We are concerned, however, that the process of doing so sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally can stifle the goal of meeting the needs of future generations and can be a vehicle used to promote an agenda that is hostile to meaningful development of an area that we believe could benefit from such development.

This Western Bus Garage sits adjacent to an important commercial corridor (and effectively on top of a Metro stop) and in an area in which, in recent years, significantly greater development has occurred just north of the District border in Maryland than within the District. This site should be the subject of significant development to serve the community and City. Indeed, its current limited use makes no sense and creating impediments to the evolution of the site and surrounding area makes less.

Is preservation about real significance or just an anti-development tool?

The preservation movement has many adherents who value architectural variety and historic treasures based on their intrinsic merit. But since preservation has the power to stop change, it also has accreted many people who just want to stop a building, and who learn that if they slap the "historic" adjective on every sentence, they can add this tool to their arsenal.

There is very little meritorious justification for a landmark here, but an intense desire by some (though not the ANC) to stop any growth in the neighborhood. The preservation staff and Historic Preservation Review Board members will have a chance to keep preservation focused on actual history by postponing or rejecting the landmark application, possibly excepting the 44th Street façade. They should take the opportunity to do just that next week.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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In this case it definatley seems like preservation is a tool to block development. That being said, it woul d be dead easy to add a building on top of this facade. Look at the Landsburg building where Jaleo is in downtown. They plopped an apartment building on a 5&10 terra cotta facade.

OHP really need to develope a intermediary level of preservation to scoop up more of these marginal properties which, by them selves don't add much, but in the aggregate, contribute a lot of character.

by Thayer-D on Sep 19, 2012 3:09 pm • linkreport

Why is the Tenley Historical Society attempting to landmark a building in Friendship Heights?

by William on Sep 19, 2012 3:25 pm • linkreport

I'm having trouble seeing why any 1 story brick warehouse could ever be granted a historic designation based solely on its architecture.

If it's where Edison invented the light bulb, sure. If its a place that has only housed transportation vehicles then you should be laughed out of the committee room.

by drumz on Sep 19, 2012 3:58 pm • linkreport

Ahhh...the "preservation as a weapon to stop development" move. See it all the time here in DC. Similar goobers tried the same ploy to preserve the Cleveland Park Giant from being redone, a building that looks almost the same and had zero to preserve.

Folks who go this route, should have to pay the costs associated with the time lost waiting for it to fail.

What a joke

by Cleveland Park on Sep 19, 2012 4:34 pm • linkreport

Old - without question. "Historic" or "landmark" - not so much.

Beautiful or best use of land - most definitely not.

by Frank IBC on Sep 19, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

This is my old neighborhood. I have to say, if even the ANC says it's not historically significant, it has no historical significance. This is a classic case of NIMBYism, the kind of thing that gives historic preservation a bad name, and nobody does it better than the Tenleytown Historical Society. They've won a lot of fights lately, but here's hoping they lose this battle in the larger war to keep their leafy suburban enclave, lavishly served by transit, from ever merging with the rest of the city.

by Flora on Sep 19, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

This building, while perfectly pleasant, does not serve any particular value as an artifact.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 19, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

Look at the Western Division structure vs., say a true former but still operational "car barn" such as WMATA's Northern Division building along 14th at Buchanan. Anyone who does this would probably further question this landmarking.

by Transport. on Sep 19, 2012 8:17 pm • linkreport

Western Division garage is just that, a bus garage. If Metro wants to get rid of it and have someone redevelop it into TAX PRODUCING properties, then let them.

The only Metro garage that needs a "Historical Landmark" is Northern since that garage still has its original architecture from its days as a carbarn and has a link to DC's transit history.

by Mark DeLatch on Sep 19, 2012 8:50 pm • linkreport

I was at the ANC meeting, and specifically asked the individual representing the THS if she would withdraw this application until such time as a new development plan was being pursued by WMATA after hiring a developer. The logic being that if the precious brick wall was the thing that needed to be preserved, wouldn't it make the most sense to wait and work with the developer to preserve it, rather than have a chilling effect on any future development that would need to work around this potential designation. An approach like this would bring a good name back to historical organizations like hers, and forestall the criticism TNS is rightly receiving.

As you might expect, she had no desire to do so. It's the combination of the all or nothing attitude of these organizations, combined with a sometime overbearing Historic Preservation Office that actually gets in the way of rational historic preservation. Imagine the increased number of historic district there might be in residential neighborhoods (Chevy Chase DC comes to mind) if the process was more flexible so that residents did not have a visceral and negative reaction. Alas, this may not be meant to be.

by fongfong on Sep 20, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

Isn't this the garage that's mostly unusable anyway because the CNG or hybrid or whichever new series of bus is too tall to fit inside?

by Matthew on Sep 20, 2012 12:29 am • linkreport

Not the same structure. The bus terminal (in MD on the NE corner of Wisconsin and Western) had the clearance issue --largely resolved, I think, by the combination of yet a newer series of buses and some reconstruction work on both the ceiling and the floor. The bus garage is in DC just south of Jenifer St and the facade in question faces 44th, I think. That area is a storage and repair facility in active use.

FWIW, the NW Current quoted a WMATA spokesperson who said that the agency recognizes the historical significance of the garage and does not oppose the landmark nomination.

It's pretty typical that HP nominations only get filed and/or heard when the owner is about to do something to or with the property (e.g. renovate, sell). It's a kind of triage system both for HPRB and for the volunteer-run historical societies that typically put together the case for designation. HPRB is taking up this application now because WMATA is about to do a $9 million upgrade of the facility.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 8:23 am • linkreport

ANC 3E has made quite a reputation for itself by not listening or dismissing any issues that don't involve smart growth, more height and more density in the Tenleytown/Friendship Heights area. They distinguished themselves in the AU Campus Plan hearings by suggesting students should be allowed to have alcohol in their rooms. They don't play well with others and this is just another example of their inability to work with their comstituents. Mary Cheh hand picked one member and actively campaigned on his behalf. It's very telling that not one of the members of the outstanding previous commission remains. No one even considered running against this group of bullies.

Of course the bus garage should be landmarked.

by karl on Sep 20, 2012 9:05 am • linkreport

THS give historic preservation a bad name. This building has zero historical value (it was built in the 60s and doesn't reflect any architectural trends/styles of the time).
WMATA please repurpose this single use site into a multi-use sight and perhaps spend a bit more on architecture to reflect the sites previous use as a car barn. It'd be nice if the Wisconsin facade reflected that history with large arched-windowed openings that look like old car barn doors.

THS - please focus on preserving what is actually historic and valuable.

by andy2 on Sep 20, 2012 9:07 am • linkreport

@karl Seems to me that if no-one is running against this group of bullies in a free and open election, the populace must be pretty happy with their actions. Democratic votes are the ultimate "anti-bullying" tactic. I believe the flip side is fascism, which I think most would consider bullying.

by fongfong on Sep 20, 2012 9:26 am • linkreport


If I understood the ANC correctly, they suggested that AU become a "wet" campus again so as to remove the issues of loud, post bar noise and off-campus parties from the residential neighborhood.

Further, if we as a city cannot encourage and focus new development, housing and retail opportunities around the metro stations, there where exactly should they go (and please don't answer "over there" because it is already happening "over there").

by William on Sep 20, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

1. From a strict historic preservation standpoint and the history of transit in the city, a landmark designation is reasonable.

2. Yes, it's likely being used as a way to ward off development.

3. It's hard to say how HPO/HPRB would respond. They aren't concerned about saving every example of particular forms of buildings, but more like a representative sample. They probably believe that the 14th St. now bus garage (formerly streetcar barn) is the best example and the only one worth saving.

4. That being said, there is a process for consideration of redevelopment or changes to designated buildings, called the "special merit" process. Basically the "good" from a new project has to _significantly_ outweigh the "bad" that arises from the loss of the building.

I would be shocked if a special merit application for redevelopment of this site were to be rejected.

by Richard Layman on Sep 20, 2012 10:22 am • linkreport

@andy2 -- the building proposed for landmarking was constructed in 1934.

@Richard Layman -- the application was originally made about 15 years ago by EHT Traceries as part of a multi-property designation of transit facilities citywide.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 10:29 am • linkreport

Aside from the brick wall I don't see any aesthetic historical value to the building. I would like to know where the bus depot would go. It serves NW and is part of the community.

by Quilter on Sep 20, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

Quilter: It will probably stay there, but be underneath a new development. Or, possibly, it would go underneath some other nearby parcel if one of the large stores there is redeveloped.

by David Alpert on Sep 20, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Over a hundred buses parking nightly and others being repaired in an underground facility with upscale housing or retail on top seems highly unlikely.

And all of the shopping centers (Chevy Chase Plaza, Wisconsin Place, Mazza Gallerie, and the Shops at Chevy Chase) in that area have recently had major redevelopment or renovation projects (CCP's is in progress now), so that option doesn't seem like a realistic prospect any time soon. Unless you're thinking Lord and Taylor, but it'd make more sense to just put a residential or mixed use development there.

At any rate, relocation of the bus repair/storage facility is probably the key to redevelopment at that site. Subdivision might also be a possibility -- not sure how attractive that would be, though.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

Why would it be unlikely? A modernized garage with proper environmental remediation would have minimal impact on the community (much less than today). You might not want to live there, but I am sure there is a developer who would be willing to bet a few million dollars that there are plenty of people who would.

by Luke on Sep 20, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

It's not unlikely at all. Columbia University, for example, is burying a much larger bus depot in New York. They're even paying for it to be converted to serve a CNG fleet, eliminating the need for diesel fuel storage tanks.

The issue is cost, and it's no more expensive than putting in two floors of underground parking. But who needs that when there's a bus depot and a subway station literally underneath the building?

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 20, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

Because getting that many buses in and out of a multi-story underground garage in a relatively short window would be a real PITA -- ramps and turning radii in the garage would be an issue and an expense (lots of wasted space) and entry/exit to the garage would be onto relatively narrow streets (Jenifer/44th). Lots of potential for bottlenecks, especially if you picture a significant intensification of use at the site which, presumably, would be required if you wanted mixed-use on a scale that would subsidize reconstruction of the garage.

And a few million is a gross underestimate of development costs. Remember that WMATA's spending $9 million just to upgrade the existing above-ground facilities.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

The buses all already use 44th/Jennifer. There is no Wisconsin Avenue egress on site. As such, the issues you are claiming are strawmen. This is a completely viable site for an extensive rebuild featuring an underground/at grade in the rear facility.

Intensification of the site would not necessarily mean more vehicular traffic. After all, it is the epitome of a transit center.

by Luke on Sep 20, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

Underground garage vs. surface lot changes the porousness of the site and internal circulation in a multi-story garage is also more constrained. Those are new elements. As is intensification. And even in this epitome of a transit center, the majority of residents still own cars and the majority of employees drive to work (according to the TDM surveys in FH, MD).

As to viability, the NYC project Neil Flanagan referenced involves 6.8 million SF of development (in Manhattan) as the incentive for redeveloping a 318,000 SF bus depot. It's hard to imagine 3.4 million SF at the Western Bus Garage site (that would require a 20+ story building with 100% lot occupancy) to support a facility half that size. Much less such a project of that magnitude having no impact on vehicular traffic in and out of the site.

That's before we get to a host of other questions such as whether any developer would believe that there's demand for that much space (on top of a bus repair/maintenance/storage facility) in this particular neighborhood; whether development at Wisconsin & Jenifer in DC is as lucrative as development at Broadway and 132nd in NYC; whether what a university in Manhattan is willing to do to create a new satellite campus at a particular location bears any relationship to what a developer is willing to do to build a generic mixed-use TOD project in metro DC.

At any rate, time will tell who's right on this one.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

Sure, time will tell, but why not consider the possibilities of what can make the neighborhood better while also bringing in more revenues for the city, rather than landmarking a brick wall and playing the doom and gloom game with the negatives?

by Luke on Sep 20, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

Well, I'm no expert on what developers want, but perhaps we should let one propose a solution, rather than frightening them off with a landmarking.

BTW - a building would likely make the site less porous, because currently there is an asphalt parking lot on the site, and a green roof could be installed.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 20, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

I don't have a position on landmarking. I'm just questioning the assumption that but for historic designation this site would no doubt be a mixed-use development with the bus facility undergrounded.

I think both economics and logistics argue against that particular scenario.

@Neil Flanagan. Do you know the status of the NYC project you linked to? The document you provided appears to be 5 years old and the depot is still in operation AFAICT. Columbia has started work on the Manhattanville campus but its project map shows that block as a MTA-owned bus garage ( Do you know if Columbia and MTA ever reached an agreement on that project? (It was only hypothetical at the time of the environmental impact statement.)

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

I was talking about the porousness of the site in terms of vehicular ingress and egress -- not stormwater runoff. Sorry, I thought that was clear from context.

by BTDT on Sep 20, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

Yes, the bus garage is in a later phase, but I do know that it is going ahead.

I don't see how burying the bus garage makes the site less porous to any mode other than buses.

Can we at least agree that the site is a less-than optimal use of the space?

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 20, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

BTDT -- I skimmed through the streetcar/transpo infra. studies about 10 years ago, although I was focused on the Near Northeast area, when I was leading a study of that neighborhood back then.

It's customary when doing a multiproperty/thematic study to do preliminary applications for all the buildings/sites deemed potentially contributing. But just because a preliminary determination of eligibility is made doesn't mean that an application will be filed.

And I don't think back then and I even wonder now, that the city/HPO/planning has a systematic procedure for "taking in" the info on these studies and acting on it in a systematic way. E.g., the studies for the Amtrak Maglev project found lots of parts of northeast DC as potentially eligible for designation as part of the Sec. 106 review in conjunction with a federal undertaking. But while the info was filed with DC HPO I don't think they ever acted on it in a formal manner, e.g., suggestions for landmarking the Florida Market, and for the housing around Parker St. NE, among other places.

by Richard Layman on Sep 20, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

wrt optimality, all I can say is without alternative options for new space, and for new space to be created that doesn't cost WMATA more money than they will get for selling, that people hot to trot for new development ought to be more judicious.

While--and granted I don't live by there--I thought it was reasonable to put a bus garage at Walter Reed, residents successfully--at least thus far--have fought that off.

Then DCOP suggests in the Central 14th Street Plan that the 14th St. bus garage can be redeveloped into housing.

In both instances--Western Ave. and 14th St.--I ask, where the f* are you going to put the buses?

by Richard Layman on Sep 20, 2012 5:42 pm • linkreport

Latest news is that this application has been postponed from the September meeting until the next HPO meeting on October 25. Speculate away.

by fongfong on Sep 21, 2012 10:19 am • linkreport

I will speculate that the HPO staff is still working on some "rational" discussion about how to justify supporting the nomination to the HPRB.

by William on Sep 21, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

According to the application on the preservation office website, it was filed in 2005, and the building was built in 1934.

by Jim on Sep 21, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

This is why we have gatekeepers. What is worth preserving is largely an opinion. One man's junk is another man's treasure, as they say.

So we have people who are chosen to make these "value" judgements. People are welcome to propose any building and the hope is that the process works.

Still, I can't see how the recently demolished car barn on Georgia Avenue didn't pass muster, but this will.

by David C on Sep 21, 2012 11:11 pm • linkreport

David C -- the issue with the GA Car Barn was "integrity" -- how the structure had been changed so much over the decades that the historicity of the original structure/use had become so muddled that "saving" it through designation would ignore the lack of historicity.

Now generally, this question of integrity is the first thing that preservation consultants working for the land use bar will base their counter-arguments on.

But in many of the cases, it is a legitimate argument. (FWIW, I got info to the Brightwood people where I said it was extremely unlikely that a landmark application would be approved, for that and other reasons, and that they needed a back up plan if they wanted to continue to oppose the Walmart project.)

I just don't know enough about the building in Friendship Heights to offer a considered but only semi-professional opinion on the historicity and to make a semi-educated guess about how HPO/HPRB would act, based on my own experiences on similar matters over the years.

As far as WMATA operation goes, again, I say the residents can't have it both ways. If you want to have transit service, you have to have a way to store buses.

I agree with BTDT that an underground facility isn't likely given the FAR capacity of the land (yes, NYC land values are significantly greater because of this, and they will do things like underground bus garages as a result).

You can't get rid of bus garages there and on 14th St. (eventually) and not already have a good alternative for accommodating the buses.

by Richard Layman on Sep 22, 2012 8:07 am • linkreport

Isn't this what the opponents of the Cathedral Commons tried to do in their more than decade-long quest to stop the new Giant from being built? So are we now going to have to suffer through years of court battles to get something developed there because of a few neighbors who want nothing to change?

by Rain17 on Sep 22, 2012 8:42 am • linkreport

Update: The final agenda and staff reports are out for this month's meetings, and this building is not on it. That means that HPO postponed the hearing, perhaps because the ANC requested it, or maybe for other reasons as well.

by David Alpert on Sep 22, 2012 8:48 am • linkreport

Which of National Geographic's buildings did this architect design? I'm assuming the "M Street Building" (the one that is supposed to emulate a Mayan temple) since the 16th Street building is much older, and the 17th Street building was designed by the same person who designed the Kennedy Center.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 23, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

Rain17 -- yes, but there is a very big difference. What is proposed to happen to the buses?

by Richard Layman on Sep 23, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

The WRECO bus garage is much the same - and in the same line of up for nomination as a historical landmark. Perhaps a slight bit more interesting architecturally. Very slightly. These laws were created to preserve architecture like Union Station. These bus garages have interesting facades, but that's about all that's worth preserving.

by Steve Watkins on Mar 12, 2013 6:08 pm • linkreport

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