Greater Greater Washington

They're not historic, but shouldn't be a parking lot

The first post on Greater Greater Washington about historic preservation that didn't deal with Third Church dates to March 10, 2008, and bears the title, "Historic preservation: a blunt instrument for design review." Today, the historic preservation process remains a very blunt instrument for design review, and an even more blunt instrument for use regulation. Yet it also remains the only real tool for most properties. When a set of buildings aren't really that historic, like Meads Row on H Street, there is no public policy recourse against seeing old row houses replaced with a surface parking lot.

The City Paper runs down the story. Three old townhouses remain on the 1300 block of H Street, NE, along with a one-story structure where a fourth once stood. Retailers don't want to rent space in the dilapidated buildings, and one of the houses has a huge storefront gate marring most of its facade and that of the missing house.


Image from Google Street View. Click for interactive version.

The owner of the properties wants to tear down one, along with the one-story structure that replaced the fourth. In its place, he plans a surface parking lot. Critics charge that he just wants to avoid DC's vacant property taxes. ANC 6A and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society sought to landmark the row, but Historic Preservation Office staff concluded that the buildings aren't landmark-worthy on their own. They're so significantly altered from their original appearance that little remains to preserve, and arguments that the builder, Charles Meads, was himself significant are thin at best. The staff report does leave open the possibility of creating a historic district for the entire H Street area.

HPRB agreed with their staff and declined to landmark the properties. The owner can now apply for a demolition permit, and surface parking will surely soon cover this site. Perhaps, as H Street's revitalization continues and the economy recovers, the owner will eventually build a new structure here, maybe even better than the old. Still, that could be many years. Fixing up those old buildings would surely have contributed more to the area than tearing them down in the meantime.

From Google Maps images, it appears that vehicles can access the site from the rear, via a space that's either alley or just a paved rear yard for the adjacent church. If so, DDOT ought to prohibit any curb cuts right off H Street, requiring cars to access the parking lot from 13th. Even if rear access isn't feasible, DDOT could prohibit the curb cut anyway, effectively disallowing a parking lot use.

The revised zoning code isn't yet complete and might not be for two years, but if it were, it would require the property owner to screen the lot from the street with somewhat attractive fences and greenery. Zoning could even require property owners to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a "special exception" to make a property into a parking lot.

Meanwhile, H Street will be a little bit diminished, and residents are left with few tools to influence what replaces these row houses. Historic preservation law gives HPRB board broad powers to review demolitions and the design of new buildings, but not every property is historic. We need the right tools to give communities some influence over other properties, but without the lengthy, heavyweight reviews that also impose serious burdens on development in historic districts.

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

Comments

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I don't think we should give up or be resigned to losing these buildings. The preservationists in the days of yore made their presence known very loudly. This would be a horrible gash on the already fragile fabric of H Street. Can we get Tregoning involved?

by SG on Jun 1, 2009 10:34 am • linkreport

This is where HPRB ought to be doing its work, not in trying to save concrete bunker/churches. It's the slow disintegration of the historic fabric that robs cities of their character. Granted, if they where to be replaced by buildings that strove to blend in and compliment their neighborhoods then it would be different, but that's not going to happen here.

by Thayer-D on Jun 1, 2009 10:35 am • linkreport

So sad. I love DC's (and Baltimore's) old row houses. I lived in one on 6th St NE several years ago, and in so many ways, they combined the best of urban and suburban living. Not only are they beautiful, but the thick walls mean you never hear your neighbors. And they come with no HOA fees.

Can't some developer offer the owner a good price for these structures? Then the missing rowhouses could be built alongside these that are still standing.

by JB on Jun 1, 2009 10:40 am • linkreport

we've lost more rowhouses in the southern reaches of eckington lately (here) and they're getting ready to tear down a large group on north capitol just north of new york ave. in truxton circle, perhaps today.

by IMGoph on Jun 1, 2009 11:21 am • linkreport

In its place, he plans a surface parking lot. Critics charge that he just wants to avoid DC's vacant property taxes.

There are some flaws in the city's new vacant property laws. This new one, though, absolutely takes the prize. Parking lots are, by definition, vacant. And yet, I gather, they aren't taxed at 10%? Even though an apartment building that had to close for 2 years to perform a total renovation would get taxed at 10%? This distinction creates the most perverse of incentives, for if the poor market for construction continues, we could see DC's remaining slums get levelled in an intentionally reckless manner, instead of being refurbished organically as has been the city's consistent policy for 40 years.

by tom veil on Jun 1, 2009 12:04 pm • linkreport

A quick personal narrative relating to this post:

I took my four year-old daughter to a play at the Atlas on 13th and H St. NE yesterday. We took the Metro S series (16th St.) from Mt. Pleasant to K St. and a cab from there to the theater (fare: $10.00). We had a great lunch at Argonaut, saw a wonderful performance of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and then rode the Metro X series (H St.)/Circulator (14th St.) combination back to Mt. Pleasant. While on H St., spent some time with an African-American boy and his pet turtle on a stoop near where this parking lot soon will be. We also had other nice interactions with people on the street. Less parking/less cars, and more space for the locals to walk, talk, bike would be a welcome future, I think.

by Antonio on Jun 1, 2009 1:55 pm • linkreport

1320.5 of the H Street commercial overlay disallows parking lots.

dcoz.dc.gov/orders/04-27.pdf

It's not accurate that the buildings are significantly altered. It's accurate that one building was demolished and replaced with a one story building, thereby significantly diminishing the integrity of the ensemble.

In any case, the problem is that there are few if any remedies in DC law for dealing with such matters other than the one remedy currently provided, landmarking.

by Richard Layman on Jun 1, 2009 6:36 pm • linkreport

This is where HPRB ought to be doing its work, not in trying to save concrete bunker/churches. It's the slow disintegration of the historic fabric that robs cities of their character.

Perhaps you mean, this is where the City Council ought to be doing its work. HPRB had one of two choices: Landmark or no landmark.

by William on Jun 1, 2009 6:39 pm • linkreport

How about we just tax the bejesus out of parking spaces? Works for me.

by Davidduck on Jun 1, 2009 11:00 pm • linkreport

This really all seems to boil down to whether the people living in that area want to be a historic district or not. While there are certainly some area of the city where there the city as a whole (or even the US as a whole) have a compelling interest to designate an area 'historical', this probably isn't one of those. So, whether the historic fabric needs/should be preserved really comes down to whether the majority of the people living in that area are willing to give up some property rights in exchange for the increased stability which a historic designation brings. If they don't, then there's really nothing wrong with these buildings which aren't landmarks being razed today ... so as to permit new and possibly even better buildings to take their place tomorrow ... or a year or decade from now. That is after all the normal development path for most areas. And there is nothing wrong with that development path if an area isn't designated 'historic' with everything that goes along with the desire to maintain a historic fabric.

As for using the historic preservation laws 'just to prevent surface parking', it seems like this could be a two edged sword. Using them in such a blunt (and unintended) manner could just as likely lead to their being bluntly used against so-called 'smart growth' desires. Once you start mis-using a tool, you can't always pick and choose where/when to apply it. Additionally, as Richard pointed out, there are already regs against putting in surface parking on that spot.

by Lance on Jun 2, 2009 8:27 am • linkreport

Sad, if they demolish these buildings for a parking lot. If there's an exit in the back, why not leave the facades intact? Isn't there a tax incentive for that?

by Thomas on Jun 2, 2009 3:45 pm • linkreport

They're quite ugly, in my technical opinion; certainly nothing historic. Tearing them down in the meantime is could be a good idea, but it really makes you question what the overall plan for the area is.

by MatthewMc on Jun 5, 2009 10:56 am • linkreport

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