Greater Greater Washington

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.


N Street Follies proposed massing. Image from the 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.

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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Finding an appropriate line between preservation and development? When you start protecting "light," you've surely crossed that line. There is a good reason why, traditionally, property rights have rarely recognized a property owner's right to light.

by aaa on May 28, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport

Wait, in DC, you can own light? And air? Wow.

by Tim on May 28, 2010 11:11 am • linkreport

I'd have to agree that limiting light for the rear of a building is past the line. The developer would get hell regardless of his plans given the history with the community.

Maybe the building next door should be torn down since according to google maps, it already casts a shadow on the inn

by darkness on May 28, 2010 11:30 am • linkreport

Regardless of all the flowery language, the plan is in violation of a zoning ordinance. It's a stupid ordinance, and one that seems to create inequity between your right to light depending on where you live in the city, but it's the law.

by Lou on May 28, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

I understand your point, but I'm not sold. I am having a hard time with the notion that a) the Tabard Inn is so special that it warrants exceptional consideration; and b) that such a move doesn't constitute a dangerous precedent.

Who is to say that the Tabard Inn is any more special than, say, Azi's Cafe on 9th street? Just because it's harder to get a reservation for one doesn't mean that I, as a Shaw resident and frequent Azi's patron would sorely lament a tall building blocking out the sunrise that washes her cafe in light. Why is the Tabard Inn more 'worthy' of this type of consideration? Because it's more popular?

This argument reminds me a little of the ongoing Purple Line mudfight. Some CC residents oppose the purple line b/c it would eliminate all this tree cover and urbanize their neighborhoods. But, as you rightly argue, the benefits of light rail in this area vastly outweigh the costs incurred by a few people. Is the Tabard Inn case different? Sure, it's a wonderful, unique restaurant, but it is more or less off limits to those without money to spend on brunch. Meanwhile, a hotel wants to come in which will improve the tax base and employ people. I find the trade off to be well worth it.

It smells like NIMBYism to me, no offense.

by JTS on May 28, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

Doesn't historic preservation generally come down to, basically, "things that I like should be protected from development"?

by Fritz on May 28, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

I wonder if five-story boutique hotels are how Sauron planned to plunge the world into a second darkness? One gets that impression.

by Steve S on May 28, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

I think the Tabard Inn is a hotel in addition to a restaurant - yes?

by Bianchi on May 28, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

The official opinions of this site seem to be inconsistent. The zoning laws of people who don't want to see trailers in their neighbors' yards were criticized a couple of weeks ago, but the view and light in a private garden should be protected by one-and-done exceptions just because it happens to be near the author's house. Rich people in Loudoun who want wider roads for the benefit of everyone in the county are crazy, but rich people in DC who want to make things better for a tiny building and a small group of patrons are fighting the good fight.

by Nathan on May 28, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

As much as I love the Tabard Inn, I think this sets a dangerous precident. Maybe the zoning laws should be changed, but it's a bit too subjective to "preserve" someones light simply because someone's private business might be adversely affected. I hope these constant delays don't result in the demolition by neglect that happens all to often.

by Thayer-D on May 28, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

while it is a matter of one private owner vs. another, and the term "taking" doesn't exactly apply, it is a taking from one property owner (in this case the Tabard Inn), which would face a degradation in how they are able to use their property, because of the development proposal of another property owner.

I don't see why this wouldn't be a matter of building regulations, and appropriate for zoning regulations, to address. If it can only be done via historic preservation regulations, then the reality is that the way building regulations are constructed are faulty.

The point of building regulations are to protect property owners from the action of others.

Note that when I was on the ANC6C zoning committee, we had a similar issue. A redevelopment proposal for a corner lot at 6th and Mass NE would have adversely affected the rear lot enjoyment of the adjacent property owner. I thought, as did the rest of the committee, that this had to be mitigated. (The project ended up not going forward.)

Similarly, a redevelopment project on H Street NW would have required an alley closing during construction, making it impossible for adjacent property owners to use their rear lots for parking. I said that's fine, provided the developer would pay for the cost of those property's owners having to park elsewhere. The developer didn't want to do that and ended up requesting only to close 1/2 the alleyway at any one time, therefore not restricting ingress and egress.

You have to recognize that these properties were developed in a particular time and place, and land uses developed accordingly. In today's world, land uses can be different, but when a property owner proposes a scalar (or quantum) change in how they want to develop their property, the impact on other properties has to be considered, and weighed against the proposal.

But this isn't adequately covered in regular zoning regulations, which treat all pieces of land in the same zoning category the same, regardless of the context and history of any of the individual properties.

I'm kinda shocked by the comments in the thread.

by Richard Layman on May 28, 2010 12:33 pm • linkreport

The new CCSF campus being built in San Francisco's Chinatown had a similar hurdle to pass when it was proposed....casting too much shadow on a park across the street and its sheer size amid low-rise buildings in a "protected" neighborhood. Meanwhile, at the other end of the park (on the same side of the proposed campus) is a disgusting 60s concrete slab of a hotel that does the very thing. Verdict? Campus is going up as planned.

by swirlycooking on May 28, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

I don't think it was a good decision, and I don't think the rules as written do protect light and air. Assuming your talking about this portion of the regs, that is:

The height, bulk, and design of the hotel or inn shall be in harmony with existing uses and structures on neighboring property; ... The Board may require special treatment in the way of design, building setbacks, screening, landscaping, sign controls, and other features as it deems necessary to protect neighboring property.

"In harmony" is a long way from "not cast a shadow". I don't see how a shadow in any way makes the outdoor seating area unusable, or even undesirable, any more than the beautiful London Plane in my treebox makes my front porch unusable.

It seems to me the Tabard abused the HP regs to hurt a potential competitor, and I'm surprised you took their side. N Street Follies seems like the kind of careful respectful infill development we should be supporting.

by jcm on May 28, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

Richard, I think I hear your point. I think there's a disconnect in this particular topic by casting it as a historic preservation issue. Light is not historic preservation. To say that the Tabard deserves a special dispensation on its light because it's historic blah blah blah is somehow a back handed swipe at the light rights of anybody else in the city (as per the Azi's example above).

Having said that, nothing would ever get built again if we had to preserve everyone's light.

by Lou on May 28, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

The commenters here are surprisingly unsympathetic to The Tabard Inn. The reality is that this structure is in a neighborhood dominated by single-family homes. The zoning requires a special exception to build a hotel, and this quirky exception permits the hotel to build up on a much greater percentage of the property than a private homeowner could.

Then we've got on the other side this quirky rule that allows the historical preservation board to deny a project if it violates some squishy "character" issues for the neighborhood.

I've certainly had my issues with the power granted to the historical preservation board. But how can you complain about that, while completely embracing the very unusual and counterintuitive rules of the actual zoning which permit such a structure to be built in the first place?

The whole idea of zoning which regulates how much land you can use for structures, but grants exceptions just for hotels, seems contradictory from the get go. Is this a place we want big buildings or not? But there it is.

Anyway, my point is that it's hypocritical to complain about a project being nixed by the historical board because you think they are just a bunch of inconvenient naysayers, while conveniently forgetting that the only reason the project got past the laugh test in the first place was because of a very odd zoning law that was probably created to address a very specific situation long ago that is long since irrelevant.

by Jamie on May 28, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

David, Your testimony was excellent, well-received and completely on point.

Though I have often and vociferously disagreed with HPRB, they were spot on in this case. And the controlling legal authority here is the section of the DC Code that created the Dupont Circle Overlay District. Section 1501.4(e) of the code requires authorities "Preserve areas planned as open gardens, and backyards and protect the light, air, and privacy they provide."

Not everywhere. Not in every neighborhood. But in the Dupont Overlay.

Gardens within the Overlay District are protected. That law's been on the books since 1991. And it is there to protect the ambience of a very special neighborhood - a priceless and always threatened vestige of the early 20th Century that is on the cusp of the Central Business District.

There will always be a tension between market forces that seek increased height and lot occupancy and historic preservation forces that seek to protect this wonderful part of our neighborhood.

And shed no tears for Morton Bender. This wasn't about him, and most of the community supported everything about his plan except we demanded that he scale back the park directly next to the Tabard Garden and limit his parking plans to what DDOT recommended for an alley that is less than 10 feet wide at its mouth. And those of us who supported 90% of his plan did so despite the fact that Mr Bender is far from a popular fellow in our neighborhood.

If Mr Bender accepts HPRB's solution, this long-standing battle may actually end well. That would be a stunning conclusion, and one worth celebrating.

by Mike Silverstein on May 28, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

@Jamie, the zoning regs are there to control use, not just new construction. It may be a residential neighborhood, but the exemption for hotel use is probably the exact reason The Tabard can be there in the first place. It would probably also allow another private residence across the street to operate as a B&B if they went through the proper steps.

by Lou on May 28, 2010 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Lou - that's fine. I agree that the light ordinance or caveat seems kind of stupid by itself, but then so does a zoning law that lets you build up a much greater portion of your land if its for a specific use, than others may for other uses.

Neither side of the coin makes complete sense. I don't know the history of either. I'm only saying that there's no point in arguing against one stupid thing, while depending on another.

by Jamie on May 28, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

@ Mike Silverstein If it were that cut and dried, presumably the Historic Preservation Office wouldn't have recommended approval, after having denied approval multiple times.

I'm no lawyer, but presumably the HPO is familiar with the overlay regulation.

by jcm on May 28, 2010 2:28 pm • linkreport

i'm very happy to see the support for the sun. the old lug needs someone to stick for him (her?) once in a while. he gets lonely up there, with everyone trying to block him out all the time -- especially in places like Vancouver.

i hope the case of the Tabard Inn is remembered when we're recommending building tall buildings in and around DC, in particular Metro stations -- tall buildings which will cast shadows on hundreds/thousands of people who live, work, eat, sleep, play, and travel in and through the affected areas.

by Peter Smith on May 28, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

@jcm: I can't speak for Steve Calcott, the OHP officer who recommended approval. Nor did Steve speak for himself at yesterday's hearing. He's bicycling across France, and - since this hearing had been delayed half a dozen times - I don't blame him for not being there.

Ellen McCarthy, the former OP head, characterized his rationale as being that this plan by Bender was so much better than his earlier awful plans for a huge office building or a giant hotel that it deserved approval. I don't know if that's exactly fair, but I agree this Bender plan was much better than the earlier ones.

Your belief that HPRB would show fealty to any federal law or municipal regulation is an admirable leap of faith. We should have that discussion at another time. Arguendo, so much of their work is subjective that nearly any decision they make can be rationalized.

Everyone wants the Bender buildings restored to their former glory. Mr Calcott's zeal to protect those buildings is admirable. But the law says gardens are a key part of the ambience of this neighborhood, and their light, air, and privacy must be protected as well. The HPRB followed the dictates of that portion of the Municipal Regs - and the wishes of community groups - and told Mr Bender and Mr Calcott to strike a better balance and work to save both the Bender buildings and the light, air, and ambience of neighboring contributing property within the Dupont Circle Overlay.

Whenever any government agency follows the law, it is a cause for satisfaction. And it makes no nevermind whether the agency bases its decision solely on the law, or whether it uses the law as a rationale for what it wanted to do in the first place.

by Mike Silverstein on May 28, 2010 6:14 pm • linkreport

David's analysis is spot on here IMHO. And no, it's
not an example of NYMBYism.

by Lance on May 29, 2010 12:39 pm • linkreport

"The commenters here are surprisingly unsympathetic to The Tabard Inn."

"I'm kinda shocked by the comments in the thread."

I'm neither surprised nor shocked by the comments. I recently read an article about how so many "citizen" blog postings in various forums are really the work of paid staffers of lobbying firms, corporations and other special interests, and blogs are just one more way to shape opinion.

I find this an interesting website, and read it regularly. But ever since that article, my eyes were kind of opened on the steady drumbeat of support on this site for development, development, notwithstanding decades-long policies of historic preservation, the height limit, etc. that have made Washington special and protected its very livable residential neighborhoods. Now these policies are held up as impeding "green development," "smart growth", "vibrancy." Mind you, I support good development and sensible growth. I support street cars. And I know that a lot of writers here are thoughtful and sincere. But I somehow have the gnawing feeling that there are others, with perhaps a strong economic self interest, who are steadily pushing an agenda -- wrapped in attractive words like "green", "smart", "vibrant" etc. -- to sweep away a lot of things that they see as impeding big developers and real estate interests. And close in historic districts like Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Cleveland Park offer very attractive potential opportunities to those interests. Some of the comments on this thread may reflect that.

by Beverly on May 29, 2010 8:08 pm • linkreport

@Beverly,

But I somehow have the gnawing feeling that there are others, with perhaps a strong economic self interest, who are steadily pushing an agenda -- wrapped in attractive words like "green", "smart", "vibrant" etc. -- to sweep away a lot of things that they see as impeding big developers and real estate interests.

That's a big accusation to throw out there without any evidence whatsoever.

Perhaps some people just have different opinions than you do.

by Alex B. on May 29, 2010 10:17 pm • linkreport

@Beverly, If you are saying that there are self interested folks out there ready to use the enthusiam of the righteous for their own nefarious purposes, that is not surprising ... and not something one can do much about other than to provide 'both' sides of the story ... so that decisions based on fact vs hype become more prevelant. ote how David now has s fantastic grasp of oreservat

by Lance on May 30, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

*preservation issues. And part of that is that he lives in a historic district and sees the benefits up close. He isn't just rattling off something he's read about. He understands that in a city air and light do indeed have a value ... and thus a price.

by Lance on May 30, 2010 11:03 am • linkreport

I think light is an extremely important ingredient in liveabilty in all urban cases, not just certain ones. I subscribe to the theory that the world's great cities, other than NYC, are predominantly 6 stories or so. Density and affordability have little to do with height.
The frequent argument that one side of the street is currently high rise seems counterintuitive to me since I'd think preserving what light is left would be more important.

by Tom Coumaris on May 31, 2010 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris,

This proposed addition on the rear lot is only 6 stories or so, too.

by Alex B. on May 31, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

It is a six stories of solid block (see illustration above) placed amid gardens and 1 to 2 story garages and other back buildings. It's simply not appropriate to the alleyscape it is being proposed for. Additionally, it does nothing to preserve the back facades of the existing rowhouses facing N Street other than perversely encase them in an inner court for viewing solely by those staying in the rooms in the monolithic 'blob' perched against this alley. The Tabard has proposed a very appropriate alternative which would involve building a series of separate 2 story buildings on the alley (with garden space between them) that would return some life to the alley rather than extinguish it altogether as the current proposal is doing. Hopefully the HPRB will realize that letting this property sit idle another 20 years is less harmful than the current proposal.

by Lance on May 31, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

Lance, I wasn't making a comment for or against this particular proposal, merely noting that it falls within the envelope for air and light that Tom described.

by Alex B. on May 31, 2010 6:25 pm • linkreport

Isn't the bigger problem that the HPRB has established a completely arbitrary process and that for any rule that they have established, you can find 500 examples of it being broken in the city? Thus you cannot obtain the same value for your land that someone who has come before you (and without permits) has established on an adjacent lot? If you bother to pay attention to the published regulations, you are a sucker because they make exemptions for small and large developers constantly, but not necessarily for an individual homeowner.

However, I think the rule happens to be clear in this case, that garden light deserves and should be protected. No one wants the disaster that is NYC to come to DC.

by Jim Bob on Jun 1, 2010 12:09 pm • linkreport

"No one wants the disaster that is NYC to come to DC."

Ha ha ha! The value of real estate in NYC does not really support that idea.

I think this is the first time I've ever heard anyone compare NYC with DC and come to the conclusion that we don't want nothin' that they got. I'd love to live in a city that had hundreds of walkable neighborhoods with shops, transportation, and the population density needed to support those things. That's why I love Columbia Heights, it's about the closest thing to a NYC neighborhood that we have here.

Anyway I'm not arguing that this hotel (or anything) should be allowed to be built without regard for the neighborhood - I'm not at all - it just seemed an odd way to make that argument.

by Jamie on Jun 1, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

Zoning law protects adjacent property's access to light and air when new development occurs. If anyone bothers to look, this project does a nice job respecting and aligning with the required setbacks for side and rear yards as defined the SP1 district here in DC assuring the Tabards right to light and air as the zoning ordinances requires that it should. As for the Tabard you cannot have light without heat and that is what their parachute is for. It is to make their garden a bit more hospitable on those hot DC summer afternoons. You sweat less drinking beer in the Tabard garden on a summer day when you are in the shade. If there is only a seat in the sun, you will do well to drink inside.

by LIGHTer than air on Jun 4, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

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