Greater Greater Washington

Preservation


Park View community battles over preserving church

The latest historic preservation fight is in the Park View neighborhood, where a newer resident wants to landmark a church on Georgia Avenue, but the church's leaders and many longtime residents oppose the idea.


The partially-removed fascia. Photo by Kent Boese.

Kent Boese, librarian, ANC commissioner, Park View history expert, and former contributor to Greater Greater Washington nominated the Fishermen of Men Church as a landmark, Hamil Harris reports in the Post. The 1919 building was originally a silent movie theater.

The church removed the tin fascia on the church last year, to Boese's dismay, replacing it with foam and stucco, which Boese says probably was more expensive than just fixing the historic tin. Boese filed a landmark application in the spring to preserve what's left of the building.

Given the extent of changes, Boese may face a tough road. The Historic Preservation Office and Historic Preservation Review Board have been more reluctant to nominate buildings where much of the historic character is already lost. A designation based on the physical building relies on what exists, not what once did.

They've also been reluctant to designate buildings against the owner's wishes in most situations, and this time, the owner and many other residents are strongly opposed.

"There is no historic value to this building," Groover said during a sidewalk rally he held Thursday to protest the ANC's action. The rally looked more like a curbside revival service complete with singing, people tapping on tambourines and several other ministers who spoke about how their congregations have been hampered by historic designations.

Behind Groover's corner rally, the skyline was filled with new apartments, and young adults strolled on sidewalks lined with new storefronts. Groover, who is also the leader of a 21-church organization in the city, said he staged the protest because he thinks his church's struggle is emblematic of a larger battle taking place in the District between longtime residents and new ones in gentrifying neighborhoods. At stake, he asserts, is the ability of churches to continue to exist in parts of the city.

There is indeed some conflict between longtime churches, many of whose congregants now live in Prince George's County, and new residents in many changing neighborhoods. The disparate members want to drive into the District to park, but the influx of cars interferes with local quality of life.

This fight doesn't really seem to be about that, though. Boese said he's not trying to displace the church and there's no real evidence he is. Nor is it really about churches at all. It does point out how the historic preservation system, generally popular in many existing historic districts, has a very different reputation outside.

Different neighborhoods may need different preservation rules

DC's preservation laws arose in an era when cities were on the decline and the trend was to tear down large numbers of buildings for new freeways, suburban-style shopping centers, and other offenses to the walkable neighborhood. Most residents, especially in affluent areas, eagerly sought out preservation protection to keep this from disrupting their neighborhoods.

Inside most historic neighborhoods, there's general consensus to keep the rules that exist. Many other neighborhoods could benefit from some design review and protection for existing structures, but the strict rules in place for current historic districts often don't work for the residents of other areas. That's why they turned down designation in Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, and preservation staff said that there wasn't support for a district in Southwest Waterfront.

Chevy Chase residents were interested in rules that might prohibit "McMansions," but they didn't want to have to get approval for every change, such as the types of windows in a house or whether a small addition is visible from a street.

However, former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg consistently opposed a "preservation lite" set of less-restrictive rules for other neighborhoods. His hard line disregarded the value of listening to communities and crafting rules that meet residents' wishes. Maybe there are historic protections that the longtime residents of Park View actually want, but which aren't the same as what Cleveland Park wants.

Preservation often seems to teeter on the verge of just being a wall around a few parts of the city, mostly in Northwest, Capitol Hill, and Anacostia. If it does, people like Boese will find themselves lone voices in other neighborhoods. The preservation movement needs to think about how to win the hearts and minds of Boese's neighbors, rather than just how to win a specific designation battle for a particular building.

Pending designation can freeze any work

The article notes that with the historic designation application on file, the church can't get any permits to renovate. There's some logic behind that, because otherwise a property owner would have an incentive to quickly destroy any historic elements in order to confound the preservation application, but it's also very unfair to the owner when these applications drag on for months or years.

This application was submitted in March. The Historic Preservation Review Board now has a hearing scheduled in November, but when cases are controversial, the staff often pulls them from the agenda until there is more of a consensus.

The Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th and I had a landmark application filed in 1991, but wasn't designated until 2007. The application for the Western Bus Garage in Friendship Heights has been pending since 2005. In its resolution opposing the landmark designation, ANC 3E wrote,

We have on several occasions observed that the mere fact of application appeared to be treated as de facto designation, resulting in deference to the preservation as a value overriding all other values in the planning process. ...

ANC 3E urges generally that for future projects the HPRB should make clear to the SHPO and its staff, as well as relevant agencies, that a mere application for designation should not be equated with designation nor does it mean that all elements of that application are of equal merit or supportable.

It's phenomenally unfair to deny a property owner the ability to make changes to a property which is not actually designated historic, and at the same time let it languish in possibly-historic limbo for years.

Government power usually does not work this way. Zoning changes might be on the horizon, but the Zoning Administrator does not deny all zoning permits until a zoning amendment is finished; instead, you can file plans under the current zoning rules until and unless they change.

It's convenient for the Historic Preservation Office to have the power to put change on hold until it is ready to deal with an issue, but that further impairs preservation's reputation among those affected.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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I think it's really telling that in the two quotes from pastors about what problems a historic designation would bring they mention parking. In other words, they won't let us tear down our building to add surface parking.

That seems to be a separate problem than the loss of historic properties. Buildings that literally face a metro station shouldn't be adding any surface parking regardless of the historic merit of the property. It certainly is a larger loss if a genuinely historic building is torn down for parking, but the bigger problem is that any building would be torn down for that.

I think Boese was wrong to not even give the church a say before filing the application. It plays right into the worst newcomer stereotype. But that doesn't mean he's wrong on the merits necessarily. This should be a question the SHPO should be able to answer even without consensus. Is this building worth saving? Yes or no. Any peripheral issues should not come into that decision.

But in the meantime, OP should make it very difficult for any building owner to construct surface parking within blocks of a metro, regardless of the age or merit of the building.

by TM on Oct 2, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

I am posting on behalf of the DC Office of Planning and the Historic Preservation Office. This post states that the landmark nomination prevents the church from obtaining any permits for work until a decision is made by HPRB. Only new permit applications are affected by a nomination; existing permits are not affected. In this particular instance, the church has done and continues to do a substantial amount of exterior work on the building, all under existing permits they have in hand. We have not been told about any additional permits needed for the planned work. Please note that this case is still scheduled for an HPRB hearing on Nov. 29th.

by Tanya Washington-Stern, DC Office of Planning on Oct 2, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

I think the point is that a pending landmark nomination, no matter how old, can out a stay on any new permits for exterior work, demolition and the like.

by William on Oct 2, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

@TM--otoh, preservation might not be the best way to prevent an unsightly and inefficient parking lot from being built on the land. After all, that would lock the parcel into its current pattern, and discourage new building in a densifying area.

by Dan Miller on Oct 2, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

Existing permits or not I'd be appalled if someone could tear down, in whole or part, a building while it's being considered for historic nomination.

Neither would I have any sympathy for anyone who would rush to do so because they are aware of potential nomination. We've seen bulldozers-at-midnight all too often in the past.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 2, 2012 6:10 pm • linkreport

@dan

That's precisely my point. Land use should be governed by OP and the Zoning Com. not HPO.

by TM on Oct 2, 2012 6:52 pm • linkreport

BTW- More than a little mau-mauing going on here. The pastor is from Georgia and his wife is from South Carolina. A majority of the congregation lives in the suburbs. Retaining the tin cornice would have been cheaper than the foam and stucco replacement. We've heard the old "tear down the More a matter of personal taste than additional financial burden.

chutzpah

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 2, 2012 11:39 pm • linkreport

sorry, The "Tear it down because it was originally white" argument almost disposed of the Tivoli Theater and did take down the magnificent old 2nd Church of Christ building at 15th & S NW.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 2, 2012 11:44 pm • linkreport

This is why the Office of Preservation needs a lesser catagory of preservation. A designation that would protect facades without the prohibitive standards on replacement windows or where nothing can be done when visible from a public right of way, especially when we have alleys everywhere. Think of the century's of rehabilitation in Rome whereby all sorts of historic shells where rehabilitated and added to in a sympathetic way. This would also entail changing the way some architects and preservationists go on about how any additions need to be clearly differentiated from the original structure. Why add this layer of ideological nonsence to how best to re-use this fabric? This building could actually accept another 5 stories easily, at least from the perspective of an architect who loves to build sympathetically, something which many residents would probably welcome, if it gave them flexability on choices they'd have with their property. As the city's evolution speeds up, it's all the more imperative they act now before we loose a lot of fabric in areas like Georgia Avenue.

As for the racial/gentrification angle...
"Groover... said he staged the protest because he thinks his church's struggle is emblematic of a larger battle taking place in the District between longtime residents and new ones in gentrifying neighborhoods. At stake, he asserts, is the ability of churches to continue to exist in parts of the city."
First, how is designating this church threatening it's ability to exist? The only negative I can see is they would loose the potential profit from not being able to re-build the site with a bigger building like the concrete bunker at 16th and I street, but that's true of all designated sites (in theory at least). Secondly, there is no struggle between the new residents and older ones, at least there shouldn't be. It's a free country, and anybody's allowed to move in where they like, even though some old timers feel threatened. How many times have old city neighborhoods turned over differing populations?

by Thayer-D on Oct 3, 2012 5:21 am • linkreport

Nice article, Mr Alpert.

It seems to me that HPRB has enough information to come to a decision: (1) most of the facade has been changed and (2) the owner is against it.

It is scary that any non-owning, johnny-come-lately can submit an application to HPRB and hold up renovations for a given property for YEARS. Presume that a given property is for sale: a losing bidder (with bad intent) could submit an application, and then use that as leverage in the price negotiations. Such as situation could quickly get very twisted, with lawyers and the HPRB and bidders, great expense, lost time and uncertainty, and a lot of evil gaming.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 8:19 am • linkreport

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