Greater Greater Washington

Preservation board members regret ever allowing roof decks

DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved a roof deck for a row house near 15th and T last month, but not before a few members lamented ever setting a precedent of allowing them in the first place.


Left: The rear of the house on T Street requesting a deck. Right: A less attractive deck across the alley. Photos from the DC Historic Preservation Office.

In the Dupont, Logan, and U Street historic districts, many alleys have a wide variety of decks on the backs and tops of row houses. The practice for many years has been to deny additions to row houses which are visible from in front of the house, but to be much more permissive about changes on the alley side.

Following that precedent, Historic Preservation Office staff reviewer Kim Elliott recommended the board approve the deck.

However, Elliott also noted that unlike on some blocks, all of the 2-story row houses here have the same, uninterrupted roof line from the back (as well as the front). The 3-foot high railing for this deck would create a pop-up effect from the rear. Elliott pointed out that the board started allowing roof decks some years ago, setting a precedent.

The Historic Preservation Review Board ultimately agreed with Elliott and approved the deck, though Bob Sonderman suggested making the owner shrink the deck a few more feet by pushing the railing back away from the rear of the house.

Members Graham Davidson, an architect at Hartman-Cox, and Nancy Metzger, formerly with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, both wondered if the board might have made a mistake allowing roof decks in the first place. The pair have been fairly consistently the most skeptical of buildings and have pushed hardest for changes like removing floors from new buildings.

Here are the comments from Davidson and Metzger on this case during the board's meeting:

Still allow decks, but insist on quality?

Davidson noted that many of these decks are fairly "poorly built" and "clunky," because people are trying to get them done at low cost. He'd like to "improve the quality of alleys" throughout the city. That's a worthy impulse, but why do many preservationists thus feel that the solution is to reject the decks or shrink them toward invisibility?

The preservation board also has power over the materials people use for additions, decks, and other projects. It can demand a higher quality of design and construction.

As with the pop-up across from Geoff Hatchard's house in Trinidad, which he just wrote about, he doesn't seem to object so much to the house getting a 3rd story as to the cheap vinyl siding design. In that case, we might wish a preservation board had the power, and willingness, to let the 3rd story go through but demand better quality.

The DC Comprehensive Plan calls for exploring "conservation districts," a less restrictive form of historic preservation. Preservation can control, or not control, 2 categories of changes: where and how large to build, on the one hand, and its materials and quality, on the other.

Some might want a conservation district to be the equivalent of lower zoning, where the board gets to veto anything that builds up in any way, but it would make far more sense for such a district to permit additions that meet zoning rules, but ensure that their appearance be compatible with surrounding buildings.

Of course, "compatible" is always tricky to define, as is "higher quality." Most neighbors would want an addition like the one on Geoff's street to simply make the building look like it had always had 3 stories. But many preservationists think that any new construction should stand out from the old, and might push instead for something of modern appearance. This is a question the neighborhood should discuss if such a district came into being for Trinidad, and written guidelines should codify those choices.

Preservation, even a limited form, would potentially raise the cost of building. Certainly it might make the pop-up across from Geoff more expensive. In some neighborhoods, that can limit new supply and/or make new housing more costly. In an area like Trinidad today, though, prices are rising so fast that rules to push for higher quality would likely affect profit margins more than the growth of supply.

On T Street and other areas with historic protection, the city could indeed "improve the quality of alleys" as Davidson wishes. But let's not define "higher quality" as "bereft of decks." Instead, it can mean "filled with attractive decks that don't look cheap."

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

Comments

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How about the HPRB just stay the F out of alleys altogether. If the decks are "poorly built" that's a building code issue, not an issue for design review and intervention.

by spookiness on Jul 12, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

DC people want roof top decks so they can be like Baltimore. It's just sad.

by Richard B on Jul 12, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Uh what do roof top decks have to do with Baltimore? I thought it had to do with enjoying being outdoors, some of us like a little sun and breeze and having limited space...

In general, my feelings align with spookiness on this one.

by Alan B. on Jul 12, 2013 10:36 am • linkreport

How about the HPRB just stay the F out of alleys altogether.

Exactly. Alleys are not a core concern of the HPRB.

by JustMe on Jul 12, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

They look fine anyway. Roofdecks are fun unless they are unstable. Lighten up.

by SamH on Jul 12, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

spookiness summed it up nicely.

by aaa on Jul 12, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

I've been accused of being dense, and I understand the issues the Geoff noted on building materials, but isn't the question at hand whether the HPRB has any jurisdiction over alleys? I do wonder how it came about the decision was "no," putting aside my opinion that they are already too deeply into people's design decisions in the first place.

How come the rules developed this way?

Wouldn't it have been equally logical for the rules to encompass ANY building improvements?

Is this something that is common to historic districts in other jurisdictions?

Just wondering how we got here.

by fongfong on Jul 12, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

The adjacent house with the ell deck in the pictures is mine. It's not properly labeled in the post or the deck application. 1531 is the house that applied for the deck, and currently has none on either level. 1529 is the house (mine) which has a lower level deck currently.

Anyway, the deck issue in question is part of a larger debate about what home owners can do with their properties in terms of renovations and additions on the rear, and over the rear, of the existing buildings. Various preservation groups are moving in the direction of limiting alterations that have impact on adjacent homes. (For the record, my partner and I have voiced zero opposition to the 1531 deck project.)

I'm having a hard time coming up with a grounded rationale for historic preservation intervention in the alleys. At least any intervention that meshes with the application of historic preservation principals that we currently use for the front facades of these homes. Alleys are largely unregulated, and are a hodge podge of security gates, privacy fences, rear additions, decks, trash collection, overgrown yards, or parking. If historic preservation is aesthetic, what is its insertion point in that streetscape?

For instance, that "pristine" rear roof line on T street has at least 7 direct TV dishes marring it, and they are as permanent as a roof deck. Photo voltaic panels on those houses would have to be slanted southward (toward the front of the house), and would be viewable from the alley.

I haven't heard a reasonable justification for historic review intervention in the alley yet. I'd be interested to know if anyone here has one.

by CJ on Jul 12, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

Is this a joke? We're worried about preserving historic back alleys now? What a bunch of clowns.

by Jacob on Jul 12, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

A while back when Lance was still here, he had an argument that alley's should be considered by HRPB because they were there back in 18-whatever and if the intent is to preserve the block then that should consider the alleys as well.

And that's apparently what HRPB is struggling with now.

by drumz on Jul 12, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

@JustMe
Baltimore has a longer history of rooftop decks than DC and they cover just about all the rowhouses in the city.

by Richard B on Jul 12, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

The cacophony of alley additions is what makes them so picturesque. I'd agree with spookiness on this one. Leave the alleys out of HPRB perview.

by Thayer-D on Jul 12, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

Baltimore has a longer history of rooftop decks than DC and they cover just about all the rowhouses in the city.

Your point?

If the HRPB is really concerned about historical preservation of alleys, then they should disallow cars or permanent installation of car ports.

by JustMe on Jul 12, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

Just another example of white gentrifiers trying to impose their bourgeois values on authentic black residents.

by Pigbath on Jul 12, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

I believe the Historic Preservation law outlines consideration from "public space", not just the front facade. If an alley is public space, then it falls under historic preservation review.

Some historic districts consider real alley impacts as less important than others.

Ultimately, the Board approved the case. I would think it would be a bigger outcry if it had arbitrarily rejected the proposal.

by William on Jul 12, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

I believe the Historic Preservation law outlines consideration from "public space", not just the front facade. If an alley is public space, then it falls under historic preservation review.

Well, they're wrong, and it's offensive that the development and renovation of the alley areas for the personal enjoyment of the property is being interfered with by the HPRB in this instance. Such renovations should be given the presumption of approval by HPRBs.

by JustMe on Jul 12, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Then change the law.

by William on Jul 12, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

Then change the law.

Working on that. Meanwhile, we need to ramp up the social opprobium and consequence faced by HPRB members for their embarrassing and inappropriate railing again roofdecks and (nonsensical) obsession about alleys. People probably don't know that the law is as ridiculous as it is, and the problem that HPRB members have with roofdecks exposes a cultural isolation from their constituents that the public needs to know about.

by JustMe on Jul 12, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

Seriously? If you really want historical verisimilitude, then you should welcome cheap & shoddy construction. The majority of the buildings historically built in this city and in this country were unremarkable, jerry-rigged, and built on the cheap. Just look at old photos of middle-class and poor neighborhoods; you'll find all sorts of stuff that would make a modern contractor blanch in horror. And yes, you can even find old photos of people relaxing on their ugly, unsafe, drafty roof decks.
In sum: If you have a problem with something being ugly, that's fine, but don't ever think that's a problem that the government should let the HPRB solve.

by Tom Veil on Jul 12, 2013 12:02 pm • linkreport

I strongly suspect trash cans, bad pavment, and the verizon/comcast wiring is far far worse than 90% of roof decks.

by charlie on Jul 12, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

years ago, c. 1992, i lived at 1531 T St NW with 5 other people, when it only had 1 bathroom --- !!! A roof deck would be a great addition to the house -presuming a 2nd bathroom has already been added. It was a lovely alley back then.

(memory from 1531 T: one night the carriage house was broken into and a thief made off w/ FIVE bicycles belonging to 5 diff. ppl.)

by memory lane tripper on Jul 12, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

Is HPRB funded by tax dollars in any way? If so, how much time/money was spent considering this matter? I ask because I think if this info were transparent we might eventually see a reallocation of government resources to higher priority tasks.

by Dno on Jul 12, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Tom.

It's quite clear to me that these people seem interested in little more than maintaining a neighborhood look that they approve of at all cost. I had an old landlord that couldn't put in energy efficient windows because it would alter a historic facade. I've heard other places outside of DC that outlawed solar panels because they're ugly presumably. It's hard to accept these people are acting in anyone's best interest but their own when they push such retrograde policies.

Maybe they should just move to caves somewhere, I can't think of anything more historical than that.

by Alan B. on Jul 12, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

What is it that makes people think they have a say on how other people deal with their personal property? Mind your own business!

Sure that deck is ugly, but it's not like the other picture of the alley without a desk is a shining example of beauty.

by Jasper on Jul 12, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

i lived at 1531 T St NW with 5 other people, when it only had 1 bathroom --- !!! A roof deck would be a great addition to the house

So you could piss off the roof?

by Beau on Jul 12, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

I had an old landlord that couldn't put in energy efficient windows because it would alter a historic facade.

That's odd, my old landlord put energy efficient windows on a historic apartment building.

by Bob See on Jul 12, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

And Baltimore wants roof decks so they can be like Cincinnati. Wha? One of the nice things about a height limit (a la Paris) is that everyone's roof deck has an equally good view of the city.

The HPRB does seem to be on a "no buildings, rather than good buildings" kick lately. With other cities' historic review processes, only changes visible from the street are even subject to review.

13th & U wasn't even the most egregious example of chopping off perfectly valid buildings. A building proposed behind what's now the Walgreens at 7th & H was rejected, even though every other corner of the intersection has a tower behind a historic facade, the coach house it was replacing was structurally unsound, and the structure would have been unnoticeable from the street.

by Payton on Jul 12, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

HPRB is too often like one of the worst Homeowners Association you find the suburbs. And ALMOST equally fun to deal with..... What a f*#@(ing waste.

by Tom M on Jul 12, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

Unmentioned here is that overly restrictive zoning in rowhouse neighborhoods makes roof decks the most sensible way to add exterior space. If I build a deck that enlarges the building footprint, I'm going to get whacked for exceeding lot occupancy. If it's over 60%, off to BZA you go for a special exception to raise it up to 70%. Above 70% you're better off not even trying: that requires a variance. A months-long process with no guarantee of success. Add it to the roof and you're much less likely to run afoul of zoning restrictions.

by Paul on Jul 12, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

@Alan B., your old landlord was probably scamming you about the windows. The Historic folks regularly approve new energy efficient window replacements. Your landlord probably just didn't want to spend more than $75 per window, so he blamed the Historic Board so you would leave him alone.

by crin on Jul 12, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

It's possible but he was a nice guy who was giving us a really good deal on the house. And he brought it up not us. Obviously, there is likely more to the story. This converstaion was also 7 years ago so maybe things have changed.

by Alan B. on Jul 12, 2013 2:22 pm • linkreport

Careful with "energy efficient" windows. New windows, especially cheap vinyl, can be less energy efficient than properly restored original wood windows with storms, and won't last anywhere near as long. Not to mention the energy spent on manufacturing, shipping, and trashing the old ones. Don't believe everything you read from the new window sales industry.

by Boris on Jul 12, 2013 6:00 pm • linkreport

So many decks, so few people ever seen using them. They seem like huge ugly wastes to me.

by crin on Jul 13, 2013 7:52 am • linkreport

In the case of rear additions like this, the HPRB is usually concerned with what is visible from the street. Preserving the consistency of the roof line is a priority for HPRB's review process.

If other residents have to look at these roof decks, that presents a question of aesthetics. Saying that the HPRB should just "stay out of the alley" seems to imply that whatever passersby see from the street should be subject to a higher aesthetic standard than what people who actually live in these neighborhoods have to look at each and every day.

But on the other hand, alleys are typically not that aesthetically pleasing (as noted by another commenter, and shown in the pics, many allies today are a jumble of electrical cables, A/C units, fences, satellite dishes, etc).

And there is some merit to the argument that they should be regulated by the people who live there and not by a city-wide governing body.

That being said, the HPRB can and regularly does engage with developers about aesthetic additions or changes that are not directly visible from the street.

by Scoot on Jul 13, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

If a black person moved to the (99.5% white) town I left to move to DC I would certainly hope none of the "authentic" residents would complain that they didn't belong. Being born in DC doesn't make you "authentic" and doesn't grant you special consideration, either. Sorry you can't be more welcoming of others because we're coming whether you can get along with us or not.

by Pennsy on Jul 13, 2013 7:59 pm • linkreport

The roofdecks visible from the fronts of the 1500 block of Swann are pretty horrible. I think they were pre-historic district.

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 14, 2013 12:36 am • linkreport

Oh for god's sake, let the people have their roof decks! smh

by Ray B on Jul 14, 2013 1:03 am • linkreport

I don't think these people should have any say whatsoever about what people do to modify their own property. The goal of historic preservation should be to preserve singular unique examples of a particular architectural style of buildings with specific historical significance. Not to make the whole city stay looking like it did a hundred years ago, this isn't colonial Williamburg, it's a working city. What I'd really like to know is how can we revoke whatever authority these people are operating under?

by Doug on Jul 14, 2013 10:17 pm • linkreport

@Doug

The preservation movement evolved a long time ago from what you suggest to maintaining vernacular of neighborhoods and the sense of "place". While many would agree that things need not be frozen in time, others would submit that front facades and impact of rear/roof additions should be subject to review for such impacts.

One can agree to disagree.

by William on Jul 14, 2013 11:18 pm • linkreport

If the "vernacular of neighborhoods" let alone any architectural integrity wasn't destroyed by towering blights like 1816 New Hampshire Ave, the HPRB really aught to back off from their regulation of roof decks not visible from the street.

It's ironic that protecting the view from a hideous building like Concorde Condos is a reason to restrict this kind of quality of life improvement. It used to be that cities had to institute laws to increase ventilation and natural lighting - it's a shame that in order to preserve an arbitrarily frozen history, they make such a valuable quality of life improvement so difficult.

by Janson on Jul 15, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

i can sympathize with those proposing material restrictions, but would prefer HPO focus on issues more pressing than alleyway views. roof decks are a HUGE improvement and will be even more important as density increases and natural light is compromised by new construction towering over adjacent row houses. save our roof decks!

by natetron on Jul 16, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

Regarding Davison's comment, He'd like to "improve the quality of alleys" throughout the city. If you would like to do this, then why not start from the ground up. Most public alley pavements in this neighborhood are in horrible condition; holes, valleys, lakes of water, never plowed in the winter. Focus on this first if you want to improve their quality. A few alleys nearby have been re-bricked and looked awesome, why did that not continue?

by JB on Jul 16, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

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