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Some feel left out in Barney Circle historic debate

DC's latest historic preservation debate centers around Barney Circle, the southeast corner of Capitol Hill, where preservationists are advocating for a new historic district.

Barney Circle. Image from Google Maps.

Some residents in the area argue that Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and local ANCs did little to no outreach for public input on the proposed historic district. Due to opposition to the plan and questions from Councilmember Tommy Wells regarding the process, the HPRB postponed a vote at their June 24 meeting.

The proposed Barney Circle Historic District consists of 192 buildings, including 189 contributing structures and three non-contributing structures. The district is bounded by houses fronting on Barney Circle on the south, by those on the north side of Potomac Avenue on the north, by those on the west side of Kentucky Avenue on the west and by the Congressional Cemetery on the east.

Barney Circle consists primarily of front porch rowhouses, also referred to as "daylighter" houses, wide tree lined streets, and two triangular parks. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has recommended that HPRBapprove the historic district on the grounds that the concentration of front porch rowhomes are rare within the L'Enfant Plan.

Historic district designation can be restrictive for residents because it can impose harsh regulations regarding exterior alternations, tax liabilities, raising rents, and the displacement of low income residents. There are benefits associated with historic districts as well, including increased property values and the preservation of historic buildings both of which can act as a catalyst for economic growth.

Some residents in the Barney Circle area feel that the historical designation process is biased and is being led primarily by individuals and organizations that don't even live in the affected area, such as the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS). Beth Purcell, president of the CHRS, was one of the original drivers of the Barney Circle Historic District. She lives outside the proposed boundaries. Reuben Hammeed, former vice president of the local neighborhood association, has also pushed for the historic district but no longer lives in the area.

Others say that the ANC originally agreed to be the applicant for the historic district based on information given to them by Hammeed and others, who had only polled a handful of residents on the general idea of a historic district, but did not contact the vast majority of property owners and were not able to show any specific information about what the guidelines would be. The ANC, knowing that only about one-third of homeowners were contacted, decided to go ahead and file the application with the HPRB anyway.

At the June 24th meeting, opposition to the historical designation was labeled as "new young people" who are just being "hysterical" and uneducated about the benefits of living in a historical district. Concerned residents plan to voice their concerns to Mayor Fenty and the DC Council regarding the HPRB handling of the situation.

Conflicts over the definition and preservation of neighborhoods have become a common feature or urban politics, and Barney Circle is certainly not an exception. Neighborhood planning, including whether an area should be an historic district, should be an inclusive process that provides residents full disclosure of the proposed plans as well as a way for residents to speak for themselves. If you don't allow residents of the affected area to be part of the process, then in effect you run the risk of destroying the cultural and social fabric of a community, factors that reflect just as much history as buildings.

Effective historical preservation needs to strike a balance between preservationists, developers, public officials, and residents. What works in one part of the District may not work for another area. The economic and social impacts of historic preservation are too situational, making the need for transparency all that more important.

The situation in Barney Circle calls into question how the process for other historic districts has been approached in DC. Are we in effect creating communities that benefit the privileged and ignore the voices of less privileged residents?

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 


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The problam with HPRB is that they spend too much time persuing historically accurate windows and the like while letting demolition by neglect happen all around us. Many more people would be in favor of Historic designation if they loosened the rules when it comes to renovating their properties. One can always re-paint or re-install million dollar windows if that's what keeps you up at night, but barring major historical events, adaptive re-use should be the goal (read "sustainability").

It's not likely architects and builders will do much better than some of our historic stock (excluding advances in technology) until we start educating architects to be good citizens when building in our cities. Till that time, preservation is the only tool we have in maintaining the scale, rhythm, and proportion of our historic streets.

by Thayer-D on Jul 7, 2010 3:02 pm • linkreport

I'm one of those new young people who are assumed to be ignorant of the benefits of historic districts (I've lived on the Hill for 6 years, so I guess that makes me new? I have a BA in Historic Preservation and Community Planning, but that's neither here nor there). I've also spent the past 4 years working with some of the more dogmatic preservation organizations during my time on ANC 6C. To the list of CHRS and ANC 6B I would add ANC 6A, whose body is composed of at least 3 CHRS members. Sadly, ANCs function mostly as the mouthpiece of a very vocal and opinionated perspective (one reason I would be in favor of instituting term limits). Truth remains, if rational perspectives don't show up to public hearings, the radicals will always dominate the process. I agree that the Barney Circle Historic District is being driven by those residing in parts of the Hill that have long since undergone gentrification. For the most part, there is nothing remarkable or so rare in Barney Circle that it requires the stringent design guidelines and restrictions that would be imposed by an HD. This isn't Georgetown or Capitol Hill HD even. I hate to reduce this to a grand debate of a generational divide and its imapct on american politics, but I think this is pretty indicitive of a Baby Boomer mentality ("the imposition of my personal beliefs at the expense of the greater community"). As one of those "hysterical" young people, I hope I can afford to purchase a rowhouse on the Hill one day. One of the attractive features of those parts of the hill not encumbered by an HD is that I would have the ability to reshape a property into something that would meet my needs in the coming years. Without the imposition of expensive wood windows (which is not a myth as preservationists insist).

by Ryan Velasco on Jul 7, 2010 3:05 pm • linkreport

Seriously? No offense to the residents of this area, but the general quality and upkeep of the homes around Barney Circle is considerably lower than many surrounding neighborhoods without any historic preservation rules. (It's a nice neighborhood, but I wouldn't say that the architecture is a huge contributing factor to that.)

For instance, numerous structures in the northwest portions of Capitol Hill have been demolished to make way for new condo high-rises (including an entire block last month that contained several well-kept 125+ year old structures that the developer now admits to having no plans to build on). It would make more sense to gradually expand the borders of the Capitol Hill historic district to include structures worthy of preservation that also happen to lie in areas that we don't want to grow any denser. If we want condos, there are still plenty of big empty lots to build on.

I'd also be curious about the inventory of front-porch rowhouses throughout the L'Enfant city. Somehow, I doubt they're as rare as is claimed.

by andrew on Jul 7, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

Didn't the same thing occur in the aborted attempt at creating a Chevy Chase historical district a few years ago? A small, but super vocal minority of people - some of whom actually even lived in the neighborhood - wanted a historic district. The larger, but silent majority didn't. And it was off to the races of claims and counterclaims. Generally, it seemed to be more about preventing any McMansions, rather than actual architectural/cultural/historical protections.

by Fritz on Jul 7, 2010 3:17 pm • linkreport

"Some residents", "Others say", "opposition to the historic designation was labeled as..", etc.

Can we get some proper nouns here? Who is saying these things? What standing do they have to say them?

If people are being quoted at public meetings can we get their names at least? Right now, this post just splashes a lot of innuendo against the wall and hopes some of it sticks. Hard facts and attributable data will do more to productively shape this debate than the regrettably normal crap that comes out of community meetings.

by TimK on Jul 7, 2010 3:21 pm • linkreport

I would ask Ryan above if he is familiar with any of the so called Petworth atrocities in terms of pop-ups and ask if there is anything preventing that kind of renovation in Barney Circle today?

by William on Jul 7, 2010 3:21 pm • linkreport

+1 to Thayer-D. I live in MTP and wanted to get new windows because mine are about as energy efficient as plastic wrap. But after I got the quotes for windows that would meet the historic standards... well lets just say it's a lot more cost effective to just let my windows seep and blast my AC/Heat. What the gentrifiers really want is to prevent someone from putting vinyl siding on their house or throwing a hidious pop-up addition on their house. All things I like about living in a historic neighborhood. But can't we come up with a compromise that prohibits those kinds of eyesores while still allowing residents to upgrade their homes and make them more effeciant without breaking the bank?

by Anon on Jul 7, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

When I helped out in New Orleans after Katrina, one of the things that was a big hindrance in rebuilding was the historic designations that most of the city experienced.

While I cannot say what the differences between New Orleans and DC's historic designations are and New Orleans may be an extreme example, it is good to ask what a neighborhood exists for? Does it exist for itself or for the people that live there?

In the case of New Orleans after Katrina, historic preservation became a burden that prevented rebuilding as fast as many residents wanted. Likewise, what does making Barney Circle a historic district really hope to accomplish in the immediate future and 10-20 years from now?

by David Uhl on Jul 7, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

I'm relatively 'new' to the area. But aside from that, I have a hard time trying to think of Barney Circle as a "historic district" - when the actual CIRCLE has been ripped up and thrown halfway back together as an inaccessible (pedestrian-wise) birds' nest of roads and access ramps. The circle itself is almost completely devoid of city life - no store fronts, no usable parkland, just four houses and a surface parking lot fronted by one of D.C.'s most heavily traveled thoroughfares.

... then again, I suppose if you look beyond the actual *circle* and into the neighborhood of Barney Circle, then they *might* have a case.

Heck, Truxton Circle is still a thriving neighborhood - even though its namesake was "deleted from the map" over 60 years ago.

Either way, I'd be curious to see what becomes of this. :)

by Josh C. on Jul 7, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

+1 to Thayer-D. I think that any structure 80+ years old in the district should not be razed. these buildings add charm and uniqueness to the district. developers who cannot reuse and adept these buildings would apply their trade else where. DC has plenty of eye sores from the 1950s - current, that replaced beautiful buildings.

-l andrew: what happens in 50 years when all the row houses in DC (except in the historic districts) are torn down and replaced with the ugly favor of the month?

by tom on Jul 7, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

Nobody is advocating razing anything but every house was a 'flavor of the month' at some time, and who's to say which flavor is better? "Charm" and "ugly" are subjective and arbitrary values and should not regulated. How is anything going to be "unique" when everything is frozen in time?

Historic Districts in DC are inflexible and a poor approach to sustainable urban development. They're wielded as a one-size-fits-all tool in situations where they're inappropriate and unnecessary. They deny homeowners legitimate property rights (especially with Barney Circle where many residents were never even notified or involved in the process), and unfairly burden established low-income residents.

by darren on Jul 7, 2010 4:26 pm • linkreport

Most democratic way to designate a historic district: Put it up for a vote among owners of properties within the proposed historic district's boundaries.

by Fritz on Jul 7, 2010 5:48 pm • linkreport


The problem with a straight-up vote among homeowners is two-fold 1)Does every house get one vote, or does every name on a deed get a vote? It would make a big difference and could be decided either way. 2)Unfortunately, the HPRB moves pretty slowly on these things. Extensive community outreach takes time. A polling of the homeowners of 2004 (when the initiative started) would bear little resemblance to a polling of 2010. Which one do you go with?

With ill-will toward no one, I have to note that humor value in the security words I have to type in to post to this thread: toady neighboring

by Mark on Jul 7, 2010 6:30 pm • linkreport

A vote among property owners is an excellent idea, Fritz.

Mark - the Chevy Chase ANC was able to poll their 900+ homes to get a sense of community interest in an HD. I would think our measly 189 homes could be done quite easily. And petitions for residential parking changes have to be signed by over 51% of property owners; I don't know why historic designation shouldn't have the same requirements.

by L on Jul 7, 2010 7:00 pm • linkreport

@Mark: If your name is on the OTR property tax records, you get a vote. That's the easiest, most verifiable way to do it.

If I remember correctly, when the Chevy Chase neighborhood went through a similar experience a few years ago, the pro-preservationist folks didn't want a vote of any sort b/c they knew they couldn't win. Their support for democracy didn't quite extend to actually letting property owners decide if they wanted all sorts of new requirements imposed on them by their more enlightened, progressive neighbors (or non-neighborhood residents in some cases).

by Fritz on Jul 8, 2010 7:26 am • linkreport

The issues with voting in Chevy Chase were manifold.

The buildings had a single vote, eventhough there were condo owners and/or renters who maybe had divergent views, it was "majority rules".

Homeowners were divided, but whichever spouse got to the ballot first, got the vote.

Many property owners did not receive ballots and the ANC did nothing to rectify the situation.

So yes, while it might be a good idea in theory, in practice, at least in that case, it was very flawed.

by William on Jul 8, 2010 8:23 am • linkreport

Which is more flawed -- a full vote of all impacted households, or a 4-year-old petition of less than 30% of households -- many of which have moved or since changed their opinion?

If DDOT can manage a neighborhood poll for permit parking or speed bumps, surely HPO could pull it off.

by darren on Jul 8, 2010 9:45 am • linkreport

re: darren

i understand that the current historic buildings were the favor of the month in years past, but most of them werent replacing older buildings - they were the first building to be built there (like new subdivisions on farmland today). also given +80 years - these designs have stood the test of time and are still highly desirable today and probably forever. where does the charm of georgetown, capital hill, old town, mt. pleasant, shaw, bloomingdale, ledroit, etc come from? it comes for a large number of old buildings.

frozen in time? dc has enough vacant lots and ulgy 1950s to current buildings to build on that pre-1930s buildings dont need to be torn down. it is totally unnecessary. some developers can be greedy. they have all the economic incentive to buy a shell house, tear it down, and build a rowhouse size condo building in its spot. example: now look at the intersection of lamont and sherman ave nw. there are 2 vacant lots there. which is better, razing an old house and replacing it with that or filling in vacant lots?

we dont have to give up our history for the favor of the month. developers can reuse and adept old buildings.

by tom on Jul 8, 2010 10:01 am • linkreport

Nobody is advocating razing worthwhile old structures, and adaptive re-use is great, but the historic district restrictions as they are implemented in DC are rigid and inflexible. And despite their claims towards 'reasonableness' the HPO has a documented history of anything but. Historic Districts in DC unfairly burden homeowners and are a myopic approach to sustainable urban development.

I am in favor of better zoning laws or neighborhood overlays, but a historic district is a limited tool that should be applied much more judiciously than it has been until now.

Again, "charm" is a matter of taste. I have no business telling my neighbor what kind of door, windows, or fence to use, and vice-versa. Demolition and new construction should be subjected to greater oversight, but if a proposed addition blocks my view or weakens my party wall, then I should get a say, but not until then.

And enough with the hyperbole -- "flavor of the month" and "atrocities?!" Genocide is an atrocity. Bad architecture is largely subjective and can always be replaced.

This process (and even this blog) has been full of paternalistic advice from outsiders about what the residents of Barney Circle should do.

Please let the affected residents and homeowners decide for ourselves what is best for our homes.

by darren on Jul 8, 2010 12:05 pm • linkreport

re: darren.

i would not advocate for all old buildings in dc to be in a historic district, but maybe a "preservation" district. i dont care what kind of fence, door, addition, or pop up someone puts on their house just that it is not razed. there have been lots of housing shells in columbia heights that have been totally rebuilt and look great in streetscape.

i understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let's call a spade a spade. most architecture during the last half of the 20th century has terrible. now contrast that with the first half of the 20th century. there is no debate to which period will stand the test of time.

by tom on Jul 8, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

Tom -- the problem is that the Historic District is an all-or-nothing proposition. There is no flexibility of the kind you mention. I would gladly welcome some kind of limited conservation district or neighborhood overlay which constrains demolition and substantial new construction, but that's not the case here.

We have a full-blown these-are-the-windows-you-must-use historic district being forced on us -- and have had no say in the matter. And that is fundamentally wrong.

by darren on Jul 9, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

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