What should historic preservation really protect?
Yesterday, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board declined to approve the N Street Follies hotel, proposed for the six boarded-up townhouses on N Street between 17th and 18th Streets, NW. Numerous Dupont residents, including myself, testified against a specific element of the project: its impact on the adjacent Tabard Inn.
The Historic Preservation Office recommended approval because the plan does a nice job of preserving the fronts and rears of the existing townhouses, placing most of the development along the alley in the rear with an interior courtyard between it and the townhouses. However, that arrangement also will drastically block out light from the Tabard.
Having one's light preserved isn't an absolute right. My own backyard is fairly shadowed by an adjacent apartment building. But in this case, the zoning rules for the SP-1 zone and the Dupont Circle Overlay specifically do protect light and air. Plus, there's an odd zoning anomaly at work: the property owner could build residential as of right, but would have a limitation on lot occupancy; to build a hotel, however, requires a special exception, yet that special exception automatically gives an exemption from lot occupancy.
But more importantly, in my opinion, the Tabard is a particularly valuable and historic resource that is worthy of greater consideration. HPRB often navigates difficult decisions about whether to pare down development to protect elements of a historic area. With so many historic areas and so many elements one could call "historic," how do people who genuinely support preservation but also support development find an appropriate line between allowing everything and allowing nothing?
I believe finding that line means identifying what is particularly historic and cherished by residents enough to place above the value of growing our city. Just because a wall is old or an alley has always had few structures doesn't make it involate, but an overall architectural style or specific places in a neighborhood can be. Of course, people can disagree about which elements are the valuable ones or which are prized enough to trump development.
In this case, however, almost everyone agrees about the historic value of the Tabard Inn, which ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein called a "neighborhood treasure," a phrase I echoed in my own testimony, below and slightly edited for clarity:
Mr. Chairman and members of the Board,
My name is David Alpert. I live in and own a historic townhouse a few blocks north of this property, in the Dupont Circle Historic District. I greatly cherish the historic value of many elements of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, along with our other historic neighborhoods, and participate as a member of the Dupont Circle Conservancy.
I also edit the Web site Greater Greater Washington, which discusses issues of urbanism, transportation, development, urban planning, and historic preservation in the Washington, DC area. If you read Greater Greater Washington, you will know that I often counsel restraint in using the tools of historic preservation to restrict development, especially in alleys.
I believe that our city should and must grow and accommodate new residents, stores, offices and hotels. I'm not averse to tall buildings, even in Dupont Circle, and in fact live just behind a 10-story apartment building.
When thinking about when and how to wield the tool of limiting a project's size, we should think about the purpose behind HP. Everyone may have a different definition, but I believe HP's role is to identify and preserve those elements of a neighborhood or structure that are special and cherished by neighbors and the city as a while. And I believe that the Tabard is one of the most precious of those historic elements.
Walking into the Tabard's lobby, one is virtually transported back in time to an era when DC had many charming, old inns. Now, the Tabard is one of the few that remain, and its presence is indeed a neighborhood treasure.
Since it serves the public, it provides this historic experience not just for residents or a select few but anyone who wishes to utilize its services. My family chose to rent out space in the Tabard for the rehearsal diner for my wedding because we wanted to give guests that historic experience and expose them to a part of Washington's history much more special to me than the monuments and museums. (I did not yet know Jeremiah Cohen, the Tabard's owner, at the time.)
If historic preservation is to protect this district, it must protect most of all those most significant treasures. I welcome a hotel on this site and urge you to allow some development of this property. However, I also urge you to require that the building step back from the Tabard's garden to a sufficient extent to protect the sunlight that currently illuminates the parachute.
The rear addition could simply comprise one story at its eastern end, ramping up to its proposed height at its western end. That would necessitate moving the bridge fro the old to the new, or including two elevators instead of one, but such a restriction would leave ample building envelope for an addition that still preserves the rears of the historic townhouses.
This Board has worked hard in recent years to strike a balance between allowing growth and preserving what is valuable and historic. In this case, striking that balance must include protecting the Tabard's garden and the light that reaches it. Thank you.
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