Greater Greater Washington

Preservation


"Perception" is not preservation's primary problem

The DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has released a new plan for preservation through 2016. From conversations with preservationists and the public, HPO concluded that "preservation has a perception problem," which it wants to combat. However, perception isn't the only problem.


Photo from the report.

Most of the challenges the preservation office says they heard are about communication:

  • "Preservation has a perception problem"
  • "Many residents have no understanding or misperceptions of preservation"
  • "There is a perception problem with historic district designationwe need to address it"
  • "The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?"
  • "We're not communicating well about what preservation is, especially to the younger generation"
The participants, and HPO, appear to assume or conclude that the problem with preservation is that people don't understand it and all of the wonderful things it does.

And preservation has had a valuable impact on DC in a number of ways. Many proposals gain better architectural harmony with surrounding neighborhoods, more interesting ground-level detailing, and more interesting rooflines as a result of the design review from the preservation process.

But there's a deeper issue than just perception. Preservation is often addressing the wrong problems for today. As Richard Layman often says, the preservation system arose during the era of the shrinking city, when people wanted to tear down beautifully detailed apartment buildings to create parking lots. Then, it was inherently a good thing to place more of the city under historic protection.

Today, the city is growing, and the challenge is to shape that growth. It should concentrate in areas with good transit. New buildings need to engage the street as old buildings do, and include some interesting architectural details to avoid a monotony of glass boxes. Designs should avoid leaving large dead spaces at the pedestrian level.

In many cases, design review is helpful. And the preservation office is right when it says in the plan that they could do more to communicate the ways projects get better through the process. However, the preservation movement is also full of people who just plain don't want change.

With housing prices rising rapidly, the fact that there isn't enough housing is a bigger problem than the fact that some residents have to look at new buildings that might be a little taller than some other buildings nearby. But when preservation is beholden to the anti-height set, it's not solving the problem that many younger (and many older) residents see with development.

There's one quotation on the list that gets at the real issue:

  • "Anti-development preservation gives preservation a bad name"
Unfortunately, the rest of the document doesn't really follow up on this issue.


Graphic from the report.

Individual goals focus more on salesmanship than fixing problems

The plan seems to assume, but not directly argue, that giving the preservation office control over more of what happens in the city is the ideal goal.

The chapter on "why preservation works in DC," for instance, almost entirely focuses on the numbers of historic districts and numbers of landmarked properties, as well as extolling the support for preservation from the federal government, DC's local laws, advocacy organizations, and developers.

In several recent cases, people have opposed historic districts. That's not because they don't understand what preservation means. Rather, residents are often very concerned that preservation staff and the Historic Preservation Review Board will arbitrarily allow or block elements simply based on personal whim, subjective, aesthetic judgment, or an agenda to repel growth. That's not imaginary; that is indeed what often happens.

The office needs to find ways to design the preservation process so residents can get the positive effects of historic designation and fewer of the negative ones. This report, however, doesn't explore that. Instead, it focuses on how to convince people to support preservation as is.

For example, one of the specific goals seems tailor-made to address the concerns of urbanist critics, goal D1, "Practice sustainable urbanism." It even has a picture of Capital Bikeshare. Aha! Here, HPO can clearly state that it should try to make preservation decisions that also support sustainable urbanism.

It does not take the opportunity. Instead, the goal is:

Make a stronger case for the connection between preservation, sustainability, and economic growth, and adopt supportive public incentives.
In other words, instead of actually practicing more sustainable urbanism, the office's approach is to try to convince people that it's already practicing it. None of the supporting goals call for any change to the "take off a floor" default stance from many preservation groups. Two of the supporting goals are:
Develop sustainability guidelines to educate residents about the resource investment in historic buildings, and ways to adapt them as energy-efficient, renewable resources.

Publicize the sustainability benefits of preservation on websites and through award presentations, publications, educational programs, and professional networks.

Once again, the approach to sustainable urbanism is to convince people to support what's already going on. It doesn't call for developing guidelines to better align actual preservation decisions with sustainability, but rather guidelines "to educate residents."

Goal B2, "Speak out about preservation," basically outlines a plan to try to sell more preservation to communities. The objective is:

Strengthen mutual support systems needed for an effective community voice for preservation, and use that voice to advocate for preservation in all modes of public dialogue.
Supporting actions include "revitalize the Historic Districts Coalition" to encourage new local preservation groups and "establish and develop an advocacy group for DC Modernism," a phase of building that was particularly destructive to our city's livable neighborhoods. Mismatches between preservation and good urbanism often come most of the surface when dealing with modernist buildings.

While the plan doesn't call for the preservation office itself to take these steps, it's astounding to see an official document from an office call for people to form advocacy groups to lobby for more influence for that office.

The preservation system has a tremendous amount of power over DC's growth, more than in most cities. Preservation staff must be sure they are using that power wisely, not just put out plans which call for increasing their power and convincing residents to like it.

Instead of going into sales mode, the preservation movement, both inside and outside the government, needs to better confront the substantive critiques of its decisions. Next, I'll look at some steps that the preservation office could prioritize that would both educate residents and also make the process better address the needs of today.

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. 

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However, the preservation movement is also full of people who just plain don't want change.

I'd take it a step further. It's full of people that think change is something that should happen elsewhere and to other people.

by Alan B. on Mar 13, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

"Today, the city is growing, and the challenge is to shape that growth. It should concentrate in areas with good transit. New buildings need to engage the street as old buildings do, and include some interesting architectural details to avoid a monotony of glass boxes. Designs should avoid leaving large dead spaces at the pedestrian level."

I agree 1000%. Architecturally, we have to do better in this city.

by Jacksom on Mar 13, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

It is a good sign that they recognize that nobody understands them. Acceptance that the status quo makes no sense is a step towards change.

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

a monotony of glass boxes

Why the swipe at modernism? There are beautiful cities that perfectly manage old and new. Kyoto is an example.

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

Glass boxes can be okay in moderation; it's "a monotony of" them that's the problem.

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

"The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?"

Is there an example in DC today of the same sort of large scale clearing that inspired the first preservation movement? Most preservation fights today are over single projects and relatively ad hoc.

Moreover, I think there are some great examples of modernism around the DC area and those should be preserved and re-used (while fitting in an urban fabric that makes sense) but we're still building in those styles and its foolish to assume that the burden of proof should rest on those who say it isn't worth preserving or not.

by drumz on Mar 13, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

It shouldn't be surprising that groups are concerned about their own power and how to increase it rather than being satisfied at having the "right" amount of power or doing the "right" amount of work. They will always want to do more.

by JustMe on Mar 13, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

Compatibility is key. Things like the ridiculous pop-up happening on the 1100 block of V Street NW or the garish one on the unit block of P Street NE would drive many to believe that we need stronger historic preservation rules.

Personally, I don't have a problem with new denser construction in many neighborhoods, but I think that many with a solid fabric are worth preserving to some extent. That might mean that pop-ups are OK, but there has to be a better way to make them fit into the neighborhoods where they're located. Materials, finishes, etc., should at least be compatible. Two stories of vinyl siding on top of a two-story brick building that has had its turret sheared off is not the way to add density to a rowhouse neighborhood.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 13, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

It's interesting you should reference Richard Layman's statement that the preservation system arose during the era of the shrinking city, when people wanted to tear down beautifully detailed apartment buildings to create parking lots. Then, it was inherently a good thing." So why is it a problem when the preservation wants to save beautifully detailed buildings against banal ones? I completely agree that the city needs to grow not only where transit exists, but where additional transit could and should exist, but if beautifully detailed buildings are a necessary element of good urbanism, let's elaborate that point.

Maybe one way they could change is to have a preservation lite category which would allow a lot more flexibility for property owners and allow DC to grow while keeping the essential elements of a neighborhood's character. This in conjunction with some stricter form based zoning could ensure we preserve what people love about certain neighborhoods while allowing for the growth we need. They go off on what materials a window is when everyone knows that can be switched out in a heart beat, while large swaths of rundown unprotected neighborhoods are vunrable. Maybe when they want to take out a historic building, the replacement one (at greater density) has to match the level of detail and character of the one being removed. This strategy is what kept many of our current historic neighborhoods coherent through out their pre-WWII history, allowing for a mix of townhomes and apartment buildings.

I also wish we'd stop pretending the sky is falling with regard to room to grow. Look at our city figure ground compared to just about any city's plan in Europe for example, and we still have way too much open space wasted that could be reconfigured. Just look at the highway like clover leaf around Irving Street and North Capitol or Brentwood for example. There are countless infill sights that while not apparent, if the city employed some design talent, a lot of potential buildable land could be brought on line, especially in conjunction with a new street car plan.

There are many things we can do to alleviate the housing shortage that don't entail destroying what's best of our historic neighborhoods, and I'm glad you've opened up this conversation, but if one of the reason's preservation rose up in the first place was to preserve beauty, let's not loose sight of that in patterning solutions to our growth.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

The only reason I ever wanted to stay in DC was the amazing urban fabric, which was primarily created during the 1860-1930 period. That fabric is itself an historical asset, one that continues to drive the desirability of our neighborhoods. The fabric consists of certain key elements: interesting, varied architecture, tree-lined streets, 2-3 story rowhouses, etc. I'm afraid that the "growth at any cost" perspective (seemingly endorsed by Mr Alpert) doesn't really value that fabric. Crystal City has all the density that you could want... but who really wants to live there?

by Pworth on Mar 13, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

@ Geoff H:there has to be a better way to make them fit into the neighborhoods where they're located. Materials, finishes, etc., should at least be compatible.

Why? Why is it accepted as normal that we have a monotony of whatever is around? What about new styles? What about change?

This infinity of negotiations leads to boring, featureless, cookie-cutter architecture.

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D: I have no quibble with preservation wanting to save beautifully detailed buildings.

My problem is largely when preservation discusses new construction, like on U Street. There, the board is often much more concerned about the height of a building than the ground floor detailing.

Since they believe new construction should be "of its time," "compatible with the historic district" generally means "looking totally different in design and materials, but not taller than other buildings" because for some inexplicable reason you can have totally different materials and be "compatible" but not be taller, or for some reason "of its time" doesn't also include "being a height of its time."

I've suggested a "preservation lite" district before and think that's probably the direction to pursue. A lot of people in preservation don't want to consider it, perhaps because they don't want to open up the issue of discussing when they should have less power. Plus, it's hard to write the rules to exclude the right things and not the wrong ones.

The sky's not falling with room but room right around Metro and near downtown is indeed very constrained. When they're asking to lop a floor off a building a block from a Green Line station, I don't buy the argument that "there's space elsewhere."

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

The greenest brick is the one that's already there.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 13, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

The only reason I ever wanted to stay in DC was the amazing urban fabric, which was primarily created during the 1860-1930 period. That fabric is itself an historical asset, one that continues to drive the desirability of our neighborhoods. The fabric consists of certain key elements: interesting, varied architecture, tree-lined streets, 2-3 story rowhouses, etc.

That fabric exists in some neighborhoods but not in all neighborhoods. And piece of neighborhoods should be allowed to change. I don't think anyone endorses "growth at any cost" or tearing down huge swaths of Petworth row houses to replace them with Crystal City. That's a strawman.

Neighborhoods that are near transit need to be able to add density in the same way that Dupont Circle has added density - some rowhouses may be removed to put in bigger apartment buildings.

by MLD on Mar 13, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

"I'm afraid that the "growth at any cost" perspective (seemingly endorsed by Mr Alpert) doesn't really value that fabric. Crystal City has all the density that you could want... but who really wants to live there? "

A. judging by the rents, lots of people want to live in Crystal City
B. what makes CC unappealing, IMO, is the pedestrian unfriendly layout mostly. To a lesser extent the styles of the buildings (not only modernist buildings without details, but not particularly good examples of that genre) - not the density. There are sections of Boston and NYC with 4 and 5 story row houses that have plenty of character and charm. I'm not sure how an 11 story buiding on U Street instead of a 10 story building, say, reduces charm - the town house blocks will still be there (I don't think DA has ever called for replacing the rowhouse blocks with hi rises, which would be calling for growth at any cost)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 13, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

@MLD: I think Dupont is an excellent example. Look at the 1970's boxes on the south side of the Circle versus the historic architecture on the north side. Which do you think represents a more interesting, attractive urban environment?

I suppose if I had any confidence in current developers to replace 1920's rowhouses with attractive, interactive buildings, I'd feel differently. But looking at Columbia Heights, 14th Street, and NOMA don't inspire that confidence. Until then I'll vote for more, not less, historic preservation.

by Pworth on Mar 13, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

I think this article basically precisely addresses Pworth's argument:

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/11274/more-residents-wont-make-wallach-or-u-street-like-ballston/

We have 6-story buildings that come right up to the cross streets in Dupont, on blocks that people would absolutely say has an "amazing urban fabric." Yet when someone proposes a similar size building elsewhere, people say it will "destroy the neighborhood."

A building like that can have a better impact or a worse one based on its design in many small ways. It's not just about the number of floors. And that building in that example isn't even the most amazingly-designed building in the first place.

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

David, no need to quibble isnce I was referencing your use of Layman's point, that preservation arose to save beauty from needless destriction. With what it has arissen today, I think you and I are in agreement. I personally had no problem with the height issue on U street as my comments indicated, rather I commended the designers in their ability to make is seem like a smaller building rather than having to take a floor off. I've repeatedly defended the Cairo building on design terms, which is taller than the structure, my only point was should't se drill down on the design issue as a solution for dealing with this thorny height issue? I think many people share Pworth's attitude about our city like it or not, so why not use design to handle growth, of whatever height limit we set to both ensure developers don't burn needless recourses while protecting the interests of people like Pworth.

As for the lopping off argument, like I've just said, we're in agreement, but if you're looking for another 5 stories, maybe you should consider buying the adjacent property, as has been done for centuries, in the mean time, the city ought to be planning for areas like Carnary Warf, La Defence, and the like.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport


Thank you, thank you for this great piece. May I draw particular attention to this point that you made?

"Supporting actions include "revitalize the Historic Districts Coalition" to encourage new local preservation groups and "establish and develop an advocacy group for DC Modernism," a phase of building that was particularly destructive to our city's livable neighborhoods. Mismatches between preservation and good urbanism often come most of the surface when dealing with modernist buildings.

While the plan doesn't call for the preservation office itself to take these steps, it's astounding to see an official document from an office call for people to form advocacy groups to lobby for more influence for that office."

The collusion between the HPO and the local preservationist groups is astounding and disgraceful --and until you start interacting with them you don't realize how deep in the DNA of the HPO / HPRB it is.

Thank you for calling them out on it!

H.R.

by Hill Resident on Mar 13, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

Jasper: I have no problem with differentiated infill (perhaps I didn't make that clear enough, if so, I humbly apologize for being confusing, unclear, and causing consternation. I will endeavor to be a better commenter from here on out, I promise!).

I was just talking about additions to buildings when it comes to compatibility. Sometimes, contrast works. Sometimes, it looks like a fly-by-night property flipper was just trying to make a buck. I want to remove the latter from the equation.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 13, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

I love older buildings that are well maintained. Parts of Georgetown and eastern Dupont are some of my favorite parts of the city. But I don't see how density necessarily destroys them. I love The Cairo, but I'm sure the "Preservationists" would be up in arms if it were proposed today. 16th is full of large apartment buildings but it's one of the handsomest stretches of the city. I think the point is that style and character are important - I'm not a huge fan of glass boxes myself - but it should not be allowed for groups to completely quash any new development in the city that doesn't completely coincide with their vision.

by Alan B. on Mar 13, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

A couple things to point out - Many design decisions (regarding compatibility, massing, materials) are based on the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation - which are commonly used by local preservation authorities to guide preservation efforts across the country and are in fact required by projects using federal historic preservation tax credits. You may quibble with elements looking new and "out of time" but those are federal standards that are common across the country and loosening those standards locally would result in a reduction in the amount of developers able to use that critical federal tax credit to find new uses for old buildings.

Second, at the same time folks decry the supposed arbitrariness of design reviews, it's important to remember that preservation as a field is largely agnostic about specific architectural eras. While one might personally find all modernist buildings ugly, preservationists argue that each building should be considered on its own merits and that our opinions about architectural merit may also evolve over time (just look at how Art Deco buildings were once considered gaudy & tacky before becoming considered historic gems). It's important, preservationists would argue, to take the long view about what's pretty or important and not be Robert Moses-esque in our certainty that new is always best.

by anon_sense on Mar 13, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Pworth
I think Dupont is an excellent example. Look at the 1970's boxes on the south side of the Circle versus the historic architecture on the north side. Which do you think represents a more interesting, attractive urban environment?

1. What David said - there are lots of places in North Dupont where there are apartment buildings that are both bigger and newer than the surrounding rowhouses. And people commend that as part of the charm of the urban fabric but ignore it when they criticize newer similar projects for not "fitting in" with what's there.

2. South Dupont has a few differences. First, it is part of the CBD so the main concern is office space, which has different goals from residential space. Secondly, it is not uniform 1970s office boxes, there are blocks with 70s office buildings, there are blocks with newer and older office buildings, there a blocks with rowhouses, and there are blocks with a mix of new, old, large, small, good, and bad buildings.

by MLD on Mar 13, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

I think many people share Pworth's attitude about our city like it or not, so why not use design to handle growth, of whatever height limit we set to both ensure developers don't burn needless recourses while protecting the interests of people like Pworth.

This is a great strategy, but this is not what our preservation programs and laws are set up for. That's the point - instead of addressing this shortcoming of preservation's role in the broader process of city building.

Preservation may involve design review, but it is not a broad design review process. It deals with urban design, but only in a reactive way (is this 'compatible') rather than planning out what we think this place should look like.

You see it in this thread: Geoff is making perfectly valid complaints about pop-up rowhouses that have a lot to do with growth, urban design, and zoning, but are not strictly HP issues and HP rules are not going to be the best tool to address the problem. And when that's the case, it shouldn't be a surprise that people push back over what they see as encroachment on their property rights (via the rejection of new historic districts).

The flip side also presents problems, as development opponents will abuse the HP process in order to achieve their goals - HP then becomes a means to an end rather than an end itself.

by Alex B. on Mar 13, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

The only reason I ever wanted to stay in DC was the amazing urban fabric, which was primarily created during the 1860-1930 period.

Serious question, is anything from that period in the district in danger of wholesale destruction at the moment? Maybe on a piece by piece basis but a lot of that stuff is protected already.

Crystal City has all the density that you could want... but who really wants to live there?

Repeat after me: height and density are not the problems with Crystal City. Height and density are not the problems with Crystal City. Height and density are not the problems with Crystal City.

by drumz on Mar 13, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

Lest David need to repeat himself, one of the main problems with the current process is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I agree it is true there will need to be a great deal of discretion afforded HPO in making its determinations. There is no way around that. But the perception of many, including myself, is that there is no talking to HPO once they have made a decision, and this has become part of the narrative.

I'm not sure if it is this or a lack of creativity results in HPRB continually lopping a story off each building proposed, but there is some gap in the process that needs to be addressed.

The results of this perception actually creates perverse results that cause there to be less historic properties to be preserved. In Chevy Chase, a place where many would concede there ought to be a historic district, this perception permitted the group that wanted nobody to tell them what to do to convince the rest of the population that submitting themselves to HPO for design reviews would be costly and time-consuming. When the local ANC decided it would not vote on the matter itself and submit the matter to a referendum, the referendum lost. Result: no historic district.

In my own experience, HPO tends to want to over-reach and does happen to act in cahoots with anti-growth organizations. This happened with the AU Tenley campus where, rather than accepting there were one or two historic buildings worthy of preservation, the local historical group was urged to apply the entire campus for such status.

Once that status was granted, HPO decided it would be in the position of opining on each and every design element of the campus, include the shape and layout of the front lawn facing Wisconsin Avenue, an area it turns out had been changed many time over the years. Their position, if maintained, would succeed in having a design that continued to detach the campus from the rest of the neighborhood, in a place that is in need of a more engaging streetscape that can enlivened and activate the entire block. Instead, HPO wants to keep it walled off.

Sorry about the rant, but the perception problem, at least from my view, is warranted.

by fongfong on Mar 13, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

@ Geoff H:Sometimes, contrast works. Sometimes, it looks like a fly-by-night property flipper was just trying to make a buck. I want to remove the latter from the equation.

And I keep wondering why you (people in general) think they have a say on the looks of property of others. I understand and agree that some general rules are necessary. We don't want a nuclear power plant on Dupont Circle. And that's what zoning is for. It should end there.

The problem is that the historic preservation people are abusing their powers to mingle with every little detail on way too many buildings. There are too few cases where they admit that there is no historic preservation needed. They are basically a super HOA. Give them a little power for a good cause, and they usurp all and everything.

Also, let's not forget that DC as a relatively young city, barely has any history to maintain. Yet Washingtonians cling to the past as if that all they have. If the Roman historic preservation board worked like the DC one, Rome would look like it did 1500 years ago. Historic preservation is important, but only for truly historic things. Not for every old building.

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

"This is a great strategy, but this is not what our preservation programs and laws are set up for."

I think David and others are looking for strategies that would make the preservation programs work better, so if you think that's a good stratgy, why not see if we can develope it in to something workable, like the preservation lite stragegy?

The main problem from the archtiectural side is the education archtiects recieve that place a value on specific design styles and approaches, completely divorced with the way they are percieved by the people who will live around them. Instead of trying to blend into a street or a building with a strong character, architects are taught to contrast with the existing building and design in a harch modernist aesthetic that proclaims "our time".

The problem with this approach is that it's an insiders game that has no relevance to people like Pworth, or for that matter me, a trained archtiect. The issue is for whom should architects build for primarily and how. I'm pleased when others are pleased. Even if it's not my favorite style, it might be right for the site. At a minimum, the client wants to make their money, and at most leave a legacy. Both can be done with the right effort, but an architect has to leave their personal agendas at the door. The public want's a nice street, and though styles differ, it's clear their are certain broad preferences, which are made all the more appealing with in a contracting context. I might like Italianate, but in a street full of them, I might gravitate to a queen ann, and modernism never looked so good as when surrounded by dirty brooding victorians.

I'm rambling a bit, but the point is that for preservation to be less of an issue, when proposing more height in a lower scaled historic context, aesthetics are paramount. The Venice charter of 1963 sets out that additions should be "of their time" which in the context when it was written, the high mark of modernism, meant additions should stand out as much as possible. This whole issue is laid out in an excellent way by a professor of Architecture Steven Semes in a book entitled, "The future of the Past". Die-hard modernists will hate it, but then again, die hard modernists are taught to look down on any historicism, with out acknowledging that modernism has now become historic iteself.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

"Also, let's not forget that DC as a relatively young city, barely has any history to maintain. Yet Washingtonians cling to the past as if that all they have."

Washingtonians cling to the past, becasue they've deemed the out-put of the past vastly superior to the out-put of the present. I'm not sure you can claim i-phone loving upper-income liberals to be retrograde conservatives becasuse they appreciate beauty and our thin greul of history.

"If the Roman historic preservation board worked like the DC one, Rome would look like it did 1500 years ago."

Bad example. Walk through the heart of Rome and tell me which buildings are from the 1600's, 1700's, 1800, and early 1900's. Many times you can't becasue there existed a culture of blending in and realizing that the whole is more important than the individual. Now clearly we are a different culture, and I for one love our heterogeneous streets, but there's being unique and there's being obnoxious.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

I think David and others are looking for strategies that would make the preservation programs work better, so if you think that's a good stratgy, why not see if we can develope it in to something workable, like the preservation lite stragegy?

Because strategy isn't the problem. Regulation is. How does that strategy fit into regulations and plans? If it involves current HP activists giving up power, will they play along? Will they stop suing over minor changes?

I'm rambling a bit, but the point is that for preservation to be less of an issue, when proposing more height in a lower scaled historic context, aesthetics are paramount.

And I think that's fine - but codify that into the regulations, and we can talk.

All of which gets back to the original point of David's critique. HP activists can dismiss that as a 'perception problem' if they like, but the real problem is not with the perception but with the actual mechanisms of HP.

by Alex B. on Mar 13, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

But are those mechanisms a result of the Secretary of Interior standards, or the interpretation of those standards by DC HPO?

by William on Mar 13, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

It's a "perception" problem in that lots of people are starting to perceive HP as a bunch of bunk because HPRB's only suggestion ever seems to be "oooh if only it were shorter!" and HP activists try to designate even worthless buildings just to avoid new development.

by MLD on Mar 13, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

Preservation's plan for 2016: keep everything the same.

by Scoot on Mar 13, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

judging by the rents, lots of people want to live in Crystal City

Crystal City apartments are larger than in many other areas, so the rent per square footage is actually lower than in many other areas. There are also a lot of Class A rentals (i.e. newer buildings with lots of amenities) relative to the number of Class B rentals, driving up the average rent in the area. And the rental vacancy rate is a higher than the regional average.

by Scoot on Mar 13, 2013 4:55 pm • linkreport

"Because strategy isn't the problem. Regulation is. How does that strategy fit into regulations and plans? If it involves current HP activists giving up power, will they play along?"

I don't know if they'll go along but that isn't the question. It's what strategies should their regulations persue to best rationalize and execute them, which is why David's highlighting their origins is useful.

The basis for current regulations are the 1964 Venice Charter and the 1977 Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation which have institutionalized the idea that new additions/buildings in historic fabric must be "of our time". As commonly interpreted by most architects trained within current modernist ideology, this usually means additions will be as discordant as possible. Plenty of architects have broken out of this mold without succumbing to sensless partisanship, but ideological intransience and combatitiveness with the general public's desires create needless suspision and cost for all parties involved.

Rectifying this problem won't satisfy the people who would like to make historic districts museums nor will it molify those objecting to any increase of density through either height or foot print, but it will go a long way towards eliminating a lot of friction and confusion. I think most people would like additions to be sensitive to their context and even contrasting on occasion like the Pyramid in the Louvre, but it's the whole mind set of contrasting for the sake of building "of our time" that generates a lot of hostility towards new development. Why should our time be defined by only one aesthetic anyway?

"but codify that into the regulations, and we can talk."

I believe we are talking, but it's a bit of a stretch for you to command me to codify all this before you'll talk. This is part of the conversation that should go on for a while before anyone codifies anything. To David's point about mechanics, re-consider the mission of preservationists to see history as a living thing rather than something stuck in time never to be repeated again. Create a preservation lite category that most homeowners could sign on to like all of Petworth where by the facades should be preserved, but you could attach a big old booty out the back. Stop fussing over windows, colors, and slight alterations, and stick to by-right zoning. Any cursory look at European cities or ours pre-WWII shows ample evidence of living cities evolving through time in a harmoneous way. As modern people, we should be able to choose which way we'll grow outside arbitrary ideological parameters.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2013 8:17 pm • linkreport

Thayer, my apologies - I didn't mean for that to be a personal note, just one to 'preservationists' in the abstract.

I do share the same general mindset. Cities are living organisms, they need to grow and evolve. The kind of preservation that aims to freeze the city in amber is a logical reaction to cities in decay, but that framework does indeed seem fundamentally at odds with the nature of a living city.

The problem, I think, is that the older mindset is not just a mindset, but also codified into our regulations. In the NCPC height limit presentations from Europe, one comment from one of the European presenters hit a note with me: he noted how the legal and regulatory framework in American cities were far more ingrained than in Europe. That's why I ask about codifying this - the battles over the zoning re-write are illustrative, as the baseline established by the rules.

by Alex B. on Mar 13, 2013 9:31 pm • linkreport

@Pworth -

"The only reason I ever wanted to stay in DC was the amazing urban fabric, which was primarily created during the 1860-1930 period. That fabric is itself an historical asset, one that continues to drive the desirability of our neighborhoods. The fabric consists of certain key elements: interesting, varied architecture, tree-lined streets, 2-3 story rowhouses, etc. I'm afraid that the "growth at any cost" perspective (seemingly endorsed by Mr Alpert) doesn't really value that fabric. Crystal City has all the density that you could want... but who really wants to live there?"

Preach it brother! Well, there's certainly been some cool stuff built since the 30s, and probably here and there will continue to be, but the more of the classic architecture we can keep around the better.

Crystal City seems like a nice place to work, but not exactly full of personality or historic charm on the main drag, no. However, the Americana Hotel and the restaurants along 23rd are pretty cool.

by Chris S. on Mar 14, 2013 12:35 am • linkreport

DC's historic preservation law specifically allows for "alterations" of structures in historic districts, requiring only that alterations be "compatible with the character of the historic district". But the members of the HPRB are rabid preservationists, insisting that no visible changes be allowed, locking homes and buildings forever into whatever was their pre-1950 shape, however homely and impractical that might be, and at whatever expense to the property owner.

by Jack on Mar 14, 2013 9:40 am • linkreport

Part I

David, you didn't fully capture my point about preservation and the shrinking city. It wasn't just about parking lots.

CHRS also was a response to the freeway movement. And in DC, because it was one of the original demonstration locations (New Haven being the other) for urban renewal--in Southwest--urban renewal drove the movement as well, especially in the post-riot environment when proposals for neighborhood improvement in places like Adams-Morgan and H Street (and most of the proposed projects did get built on H Street, which is why the area languished mostly until recently).

But wrt that point and drumz' question, the preservaiton movement in the city--Capitol Hill, Anacostia, and Le Droit Park being some of the first modern historic districts created in the City (Georgetown's district was created in 1950 by federal action, and this was more a growth of the 1920s and beyond preservation neighborhood/historic district movement that started in Charleston)--was equally about neighborhood stabilization and preservation of small buildings.

The local law grew out of how the Capitol Hill Baptist Church was acquiring most of its block and making parking lots, and the realization that federal law and designation did not protect properties-communities from local and private actions, only federal undertakings (like urban renewal, freeways, and transit).

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 9:54 am • linkreport

Part II

That being said you've written a great post, even if I don't agree fully with your characterization of the problem. I think the "truth" is somewhere in the middle.

Perception is the problem.

But in three ways. 1. in terms of as you write about and others comment about, fully understanding the roots of the movement

2. its relevance to the city in changed conditions and

3. in the city's preservation community's failure to understand the roots and how it shapes the community, how it is organized, and how it responds, AND HOW IT NEEDS TO UPDATE ITSELF AND MARKET BETTER IN RESPONSE TO NEW CONDITIONS.

I think (and I haven't read the plan yet) your piece likely accurately captures the city's and the preservation movement's recognition of only the first point.

So then it's seen as a battle of "marketing" when you are absolutely right to point out it is much more complicated.

It's funny because I've been meaning to blog about the upcoming Landmark Society of Western New York's conference, and one of the sessions is on reaching younger audiences and segments.

This is interesting to me, because it's been discussed in the pres. movement for at least 10 years (I haven't been to a National Trust national meeting since 2007). I commented at a meeting maybe 7 or more years ago that I found very interesting the difference in age of volunteers involved in urban Main Street programs (a kind of more focused and practical preservation program) and traditional preservation groups. MS programs had volunteers an average of 10-18 years younger.

DC has never been successful in creating a "Young Preservationists" affinity group. The HSW had a young members group for awhile. And the neighborhood groups don't get enough technical and capacity building support to think more broadly, share resources across what we might consider a network of neighborhood groups, etc.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport

wrt my first comment, I meant to include a link to one of the history trail signs for Adams Morgan, which includes some renderings of urban renewal projects proposed for that neighborhood.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/151547934/

Similarly, while I would argue that it's good to build more intensely at subway stations, Takoma residents fought the plans to do so at their station, and they were right to do so, not because intensity (at least of a certain level) was bad, but because given the times--the 1970s--what was proposed was very anti-human, and verymuch urban renewal like.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/3788734291/

So they learned the wrong lesson, that "density is bad" not the right lesson, "that crap design shouldn't be countenanced but better designed density isn't a bad thing"

After all--e.g., look at the 5 story apartment buildings around the intersection of 14th and Colorado NW which was for a time a key terminus for the old streetcar system--that's what happened around streetcars and railroad stations for a long time (e.g., Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, Forest Hills, streetcar termini in DC, etc.).

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 10:13 am • linkreport

@scoot

My sense is that Crystal City rents, specifically for class A buildings, of comparable size, are still fairly high - higher than those in Alexandria, and almost comparable to those in the RB corridor. They are not as high as those in the established areas of DC, or the hippest areas in DC, but then they are less conveniently located, especially for walking to jobs in the CBD, and their transit access to the west side of the CBD is on the Blue line, which is now the least favored metro line under Rush Plus.

Do CC's layout and architecture work against it - sure (and Arlco has recognized that and is trying to transform it to something more urbanist). But its still one of the most sought after residential locations in NoVa, and fares well even vs DC. The idea that its density has somehow made it a slum is absurd.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 14, 2013 10:14 am • linkreport

not that people care, but the city preservation movement is two pronged, the citywide movement (C100 and DCPL) and the neighborhood movement. DCPL grew out of a response ("Don't Tear it Down") to prevent the demolition of the Old Post Office Building.

The neighborhood movement tends to be pretty parochial, although I've argued that CHRS is more outward looking (obviously many people disagree) because their interest area includes undesignated areas outside of the core historic district so they've been clued into a wider variety of issues, many of which have citywide ramifications.

Historic Takoma too is a little more interesting, because it bridges DC and Montgomery County, so they deal with two different regulatory regimes, different programs, different funding streams (e.g., Maryland facade programs from the state vs. occasional programs offered by DC) etc.

And Georgetown, because it's covered by a completely different level of protection based on a special federal law, is different too.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 10:19 am • linkreport

Once more, with feeling.

The problem with Cyrstal City isn't the height or density. It's a bad analogy to what's going on in DC no matter what.

Moreover, Crystal City didn't really replace anything except industrial uses or cheap motels along route 1.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 10:19 am • linkreport

I do hope people more than gut-check their sensibilities before enacting laws that try to regulate other people's tastes.

And Thayer, I think you do need to codify certain rules, to make a proposal, before arguing for more design regulation. Otherwise, I can't judge whether better than prioritizing the freedom of property owners.

Either way, I don't think we should overturn the consensus opinion on preservation, that it is about maintaining the evidence of history, with scenographic cohesion. I don't think you have to eschew traditional architecture to have a critical attitude towards history.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 14, 2013 10:21 am • linkreport

WRT Thayer-D's comments: umm, yes.

There are (at least three big conflicts in preservation generally:

1. what you choose to preserve: amber vs. living; and the recognition that some of the choices of what to annoint are political, class, and economic based

2. preserving national memory, historic sites etc. (White House, Mount Vernon, Monticello, etc.) vs. vernacular preservation of neighborhoods, key architecture, etc.

3. the point that Thayer-D made about the Venice Biennial and the Sec. of Interior Standards.

4. how architecture as a profession has become more about art--sticking out--than context-fitting in and in the case of urbanism, strengthening and extending urbanity rather than saying F.U. to it. (This is really just a side point of #3).

All are problems that we usually inadequately discuss.

wrt his point (#3), I've been meaning and never get around to running a bunch of reviews of important books related to HP theory during National Preservation Month in May, and on Thayer-D's point, the best counter to the architectural philosophy of discordance is the book by Stephen Semes _The Future of the Past_.

http://www.amazon.com/Future-Past-Conservation-Architecture-Preservation/dp/0393732444

Thayer-D, maybe you want to write that review?

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

sorry.... I guess there is a fifth problem.

5. DC zoning laws provide little opportunity for citizen input on projects in their communities UNLESS the area or building or nearby is designated historic/or a landmark.

This provides people with a structured process for weighing in, and design review among others. (And Neil F. I am really intrigued by how libertarian you are in support of architects and not design review.)

And it also provides for a manipulation of the process, its use to fight development of all sorts, and can paint HP as rote against development, when really it's being misused as a tactic and tool to do so. (Peoples' complaints about "loping off a floor" as the key point of design review is an element of this.)

I don't think that helps HP's general reputation. E.g., the Wisconsin Avenue Giant issue, but many others.

Some of the stuff has to do with legitimate differences of opinion (e.g., the hotel proposal in Adams Morgan).

But the issues aren't easy.

It's too bad that city planning agencies like HPO don't seek out deeper and alternative perspectives for interpretation of the problems, which are likely more complex than that rendered in the plan.

But in any case, I argued that HP in DC has been wildly successful in the past few years, because the city has lots of old buildings and neighborhoods that are (re)newly attractive to people who now see living in the city as a good thing, rather than as something to be avoided.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

"I do hope people more than gut-check their sensibilities before enacting laws that try to regulate other people's tastes."

That's what's happening now with historic review anyway, so what's the problem with looking for a more equitable system that's less arbitrary with clearer rules? We've already decided that some areas are special to the community at large(historic) and a property owner can't just rob the community of its shared asset becasue they'd like to build a condo tower in Georgetown. Historically, there are an infinate number of design guidelines that have producced great results and have still allowed for a large variety of design options.

If a client decides they really would like a tudor styled house, as an architect, I get my tudor books and plan some sunday drives to go study the style, same if they really wanted a glassy box perched on the edge of a sloping property. So how has my personal "taste" been dictated then? Come on, the real world is a lot different than the academia without a client or budget. Anyway, how come you look at just about any student body of work and you'll find them cranking out similar modernist dross because that's what "taste" is legitemized in most schools. Freedom!!!

"And Thayer, I think you do need to codify certain rules, to make a proposal, before arguing for more design regulation. Otherwise, I can't judge whether better than prioritizing the freedom of property owners."

Actually I don't, unless your willing to subsidize it. You're going to have to judge without my proposal and simply rely on your imagination. David is asking for ideas on how to improve the Historic review process, not written manuals, and if you're asking for the cart before the horse, I'll have to call bullpuckey!

"preservation is about maintaining the evidence of history, with scenographic cohesion" Do you know how you ensure 'scenographic cohesion'? You "enacting laws that try to regulate other people's tastes."

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 7:48 am • linkreport

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