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Is a Barney Circle historic district a good idea?

The proposed Barney Circle historic district has stirred up a number of negative responses. Is it really a bad idea?

Porch (in Col. Hts.) Photo by thegolzer on Flickr.

Earlier, Lynda wrote about how many residents of Barney Circle feel they haven't been adequately part of the discussion around the historic district, and that many leading the push actually live in the adjacent Capitol Hill area. DCmud scoffed at the requirements to get permits for alterations. And Matt Yglesias pointed out that we ought to be maximizing housing opportunities around Metro stations instead of creating rules to limit homeowner's ability to expand their houses.

All are common objections to historic designation. Still, historic districts have enriched designated neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Anacostia, and more. DC would benefit from more historic protection for its many undesignated row house neighborhoods. However, historic preservation should also be more disciplined about which elements it protects and which it does not. There are elements of the staff report on the Barney Circle district that are troubling in how they bleed over the fuzzy line between preservation and zoning.

First, there's little to fear in the permitting rules. Yes, historic designation requires homeowners to get approval for fences, windows, and other elements. Generally, that ensures a high standard of quality for historic districts. Outside historic districts, cheap construction often degrades the appearance of a neighborhood. Blocks of classic row houses become diminished when some houses are replaced or reclad with vinyl siding or junky fences.

The rules tend to simultaneously increase the costs of homeownership while also increasing property values. Generally, that's good for homeowners, though sometimes a schism evolves between wealthier residents, who want to maximize property values and the appearance of the neighborhood, and poorer residents, who don't want to see property values and costs increase as it can raise tax bills and make it hard for other people in that income bracket to afford to move in.

Matt Yglesias raises a bigger issue with historic preservation. Is it preservation to restrict the amount of building in an area? Can, or should, neighborhoods be "historically" low density?

Most of the time, preservation is concerned with not demolishing historic buildings and ensuring good quality of materials in alterations. But it's entirely possible to uphold those principles while still allowing infill development, rear additions not visible from the street, or added height with setback and with high quality workmanship. In the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where I participate in the local preservation group, the Dupont Circle Conservancy, we're usually quite tolerant of rear alley additions, for example.

However, preservation sometimes goes farther. In many recent buildings around 14th and U, for example, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) required lowering building heights to be more "compatible" with the neighborhood. Former HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg specifically said that he got involved in preservation because he didn't want to see taller buildings at the Cleveland Park Metro. It wasn't that he wanted to maintain the architectural style of the neighborhood or maintain the aesthetic of the Park and Shop strip mall; he specifically didn't want taller buildings.

The HPO staff report on Barney Circle gives into this impulse in several cases. It talks about architectural features, like the front porches on the "daylighter" houses and front yard space that creates a sense of community. But it also makes repeated reference to the lack of development as a characteristic. It calles Barney Circle a "a neighborhood of modest rowhouses" with an "unusual urban calm" and a "semi-suburban open quality."

In particular, the staff report talks about how the "daylighter" houses didn't include the rear ells common to other rowhouses, bringing in more light but also reducing the overall size of the buildings. When a historic district is designated, preservation staff create guidelines to influence decisions about future preservation questions. Would this emphasis on the "semi-suburban" quality of the neighborhood and the rear light mean that HPO would oppose even rear additions not visible from streets, or any intensification of buildings?

Many preservationists would fervently hope so. The problem is that this view of preservation's role puts it at odds with the city's long-term growth needs, the imperative for more and affordable housing, and the value of maximizing housing choices near transit. There's also value in letting homeowners grow with their houses, adding space for a second child's bedroom instead of having to move out of what are often fairly small row houses by today's standards.

Preservationists often talk about how preservation is not about zoning, but in truth there is a large gray area between the two. The more preservation pushes into this area, the more it risks losing support from those of us who also support urbanism and a growing city. With an approach more akin to the Dupont Conservancy's recent positoins, it's possible to have both in at least some measure, balancing the value of some open space and high architectural standards with a modest opportunity for growth as well.

As for Lynda's procedural issues, I don't know the details firsthand. I assume it's correct that many people feel left out, and the level of outreach probably wasn't sufficient. Therefore it's appropriate for HPRB to ensure there's a full and inclusive public process. However, once that's done, they should move on to a decision. No matter how good the process, some people will come out of the woodwork at the last minute and complain that this is the first they're hearing. All anyone can do is conduct a reasonable process, then move forward.

Historic designation probably makes sense for Barney Circle. The "daylighter" porches, for example, are a detail worth protecting. It would diminish the neighborhood if people started tearing down these row houses and putting in glass boxes or concrete bricks without porches and that don't fit in. However, HPRB should also remove references to the "semi-suburban" character of the neighborhood, or at least clarify that the "distinctive rhythmic quality" shall be preserved, but the comparative emptiness compared to other neighborhoods shall not be beyond the already-restrictive dictates of zoning.

Someone will likely bring up my defense of light and air in the case of the Tabard Inn. What's the difference? Isn't that a lack of development? Am I just arguing against change in my own neighborhood and not in someone else's? The difference is that, as I emphasized in my testimony, the Tabard is a particular treasure. Perhaps it should itself be landmarked, which coveys an added level of historic import to the property. It may make sense to keep certain open spaces in the Barney Circle neighborhood as well.

But there's a key difference between wanting to preserve a few specific open spaces with believing that every single open space and every ray of sunshine is sacrosanct. The former protects what's most valuable while allowing growth. The latter leads to a policy against any change at all. Preservation needn't be so black and white. We can preserve some elements of a neighborhood, particularly those residents find most special, without blocking growth or change entirely.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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A few crackpots always show up at the end of any process, but what about when over half the community "comes out of the woodwork" to oppose a misguided proposal? The process has been decidedly unbalanced and the ANC and HPO have not fulfilled their due diligence in involving or engaging the all residents.

Very few residents in favor of the historic district actually voiced any concerns over preserving the historic character of the neighborhood. Fear of huge condos and more freeways is driving this -- these are legitimate concerns, but a historic district is not the answer.

by darren on Jul 7, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

This has been driven, top-down, by Capitol Hill Restoration Society and their friends in government. Designation as an historic district did not come up from the community that lives in Barney Circle, or at least not a decisive majority of Barney Circle residents.

When someone comes into your neighborhood with plans for big changes, it is prudent to delay until questions are answered.

by Trulee Pist on Jul 7, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

I live in the proposed historic district and am a strong supporter of it. My husband went door-to-door on our block--which was added to the proposed district late in the process--and sounded out our neighbors. Almost all of them thought the HD was a good idea and signed a petition saying so. Many of us are concerned about pop-ups and teardowns that have happened on nearby blocks, and we're not in the pocket of the CHRS! We have also been dismayed by some of the misinformation spread by some opponents of the district; there's a lot of fear-mongering out there. There has been a long public-comment period, and the historic-preservation office is also open to adjusting the guidelines in response to residents' input. This is not a trampling of democracy or a rich people's campaign but an honest attempt to make sure the neighborhood remains a great place to live.

by JHoward on Jul 7, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport

Doesn't every NIMBY argument generally revolve around their opposition to something because of their own "particular treasure"?

And the most democratic process for historic district designation: Put it up for a vote by the property owners within the proposed historic district's boundaries.

by Fritz on Jul 7, 2010 5:43 pm • linkreport

To say this has "been driven, top-down, by Capitol Hill Restoration Society and their friends in government" and that "designation as an historic district did not come up from the community that lives in Barney Circle" is simply untrue. The people who first came up with the idea of the historic district six years ago were residents, some for as long as 50 years.

by Mark on Jul 7, 2010 6:02 pm • linkreport

The claims of "misinformation" keep getting thrown about but I have yet to hear one legitimate fault. Quite to the contrary, those of us opposed to the historic district took it upon ourselves to provide the HPO's draft guidelines to residents when the HPO neglected to do so. I'm not sure how that amounts to "fear-mongering."

I've been up and down my block speaking to lots of neighbors and the vast majority feel shut out of this process and didn't want it to begin with. Everyone wants a nice neighborhood but you have give everyone a fair chance to decide that, not a select few.

by darren on Jul 7, 2010 6:51 pm • linkreport

Hi Darren:

I agree with you that everybody within the proposed HD deserves a chance to weigh in on the proposal, and that's what's been happening. This blog discussion is just one example. There have been plenty of public and well-advertised meetings about this, too, both formal and informal, and an extended comment period.

I also agree that the historic-preservation office should have made sure that everybody in the affected area received a copy of the proposed guidelines. Posting the guidelines online doesn't guarantee that everyone saw them.

Here's one example of the misinformation I mentioned. In a flyer that was delivered to our houses in late June, an anonymous resident or residents told us that "Your property rights are under attack!" Alarmist language aside, the flyer also told us that "Any improvements you want to make to your home need to be approved by this board." That's flat-out wrong. Not all improvements need to be approved by the board--just those specifically designated in the guidelines, which residents currently have the chance to comment on and seek to have amended.

I completely agree with you that there needs to be a full and fair public discussion of all this. I don't think that alarmism and misinformation ultimately do any of us, pro or con, any good.



by JHoward on Jul 7, 2010 11:48 pm • linkreport

This is a good discussion and I take back what I said. Apparently there are a significant number of neighbors who are promoting this HD designation. My mistake.

It does not change the fact that for very many residents this seems to have come as unexpected and unwelcome news, and it will require some time, and better efforts to notify and inform all the neighbors, before this is ripe for a decision.

by Trulee Pist on Jul 8, 2010 12:49 am • linkreport

I have to wonder how many current Barney Circle residents were around when the Barney Circle Bypass was nimby'd to death. And if they were, to what do they owe their longevity? I think not having northbound 295 traffic idling in your backyard might have something to do with it.

by monkeyrotica on Jul 8, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

The historic preservation district is the worst thing to happen to Capitol Hill since the 1968 riots destroyed H St. The REAL historic character of Capitol Hill is that it once was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America, and that the city founders designed it that way on purpose. Now it's just Georgetown II, a mess of squat buildings and double-parked BMWs and Jaguars.

by tom veil on Jul 8, 2010 9:13 am • linkreport

Hi Jennifer,

Perhaps that individuals language was dramatic, but with a few exceptions, replacement of windows for example can be approved "over the counter" at DCRA (which doesn't change the fact the "approvable" windows are typically more expensive) changes to the exterior of the building seen from public right of way are highly scrutinized by the Office of Historic Preservation, whose recommendations are forwarded to the Historic Preservation Review Board. IÂ’ve seen multiple instances where residents who wanted to construct an entrance to their basement so as to convert it to a rental unit were told flat out they could not. That's an infringement of property rights. One homeowner on Lexington Place NE was forced at great personal expense, to navigate a bureaucratic maze when she sought to construct an addition to her home. Office of Historic Preservation was strongly against the addition and advised HPRB not to approve (despite having approved a similar project on a home of the same architectural period). HPRB denied the application. These are middle class families that are being forced at great expense to endure unnecessary oversight. ItÂ’s enough to make someone move to..Â…Virginia.
Someone earlier raised the issue of pop ups. Most, but not all, are bad. It depends more on the skill of the architect---or the lack of one altogether. I can point to several pop ups to historic structures that were done “tastefully” (a most subjective term).

I think we need to reform the process of expanding historic districts so it is more democratic and cannot be leveraged as a tool for gentrification (not saying all use it for nefarious purposes, but I suspect some do). The solution would be to include it as a ballot intiative. Already, DC Board of Elections can customize ballots, as they do for ANC elections. I am not aware of any reason why it couldnÂ’t be included as a ballot measure for a specific ANC.

by Ryan Velasco on Jul 8, 2010 9:23 am • linkreport

I used to live on Capitol Hill, not far from Barney Circle, and I hope they get their HD designation.

Without this designation, Old Town Alexandria would long ago have been made to look like Clarendon does now. Some people on this blog would probably prefer that--but you can't build new history somewhere else. Once those gorgeous old rowhouses are gone, they're gone forever. You can build new condo towers somewhere else (unfortunately).

I now live in a 1930s neighborhood in Arlington. The HD idea was bandied about a few years ago. It tanked. Now we have home after old home being torn down and replaced with an overly tall McMansion with that fake-looking stone and no trees in the yard. At least the houses that were torn down weren't from the 19th Century or before.

Trulee Pist (is that a sports drink somewhere?): Kudos for having the cojones to post that retraction.

by JB on Jul 8, 2010 9:29 am • linkreport

The trouble with historic preservation -- and we in Mount Pleasant have 24 years of experience with being a "historic district" -- is the terrible subjectivity of HP law. What is "compatible"? Well, "compatible" means "harmonious". OK, what is "harmonious"? In fact, harmony is very subjective judgment. And the further fact is that the DC Government people making this judgment are not neutral, but are historic preservation advocates. No one on the Historic Preservation Review Board speaks for homeowners, afflicted with the heavy costs of meeting HP demands. Even the "citizen members" are self-selected as historic preservation advocates, and tend to be very aggressive in their demands.

In Mount Pleasant, historic preservation has meant "change absolutely nothing", preserving the mundane appearance of very ordinary, undistinguished buildings, such as row houses built as inexpensive workforce housing during the Depression. Residents who try to improve their homes, such as replacing leaky old windows with energy-efficient windows, encounter furious resistance. There is no useful provision in the District's HP law to weigh costs versus benefits. The law decrees preservation, with no practical exceptions, and heavy fines ($1000 per day, per violation) for anyone who deviates from HP orthodoxy.

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

Hi JB:

Seems you are making a blanket assumption that ALL buildings are worthy of preservation by virtue of age. (Let’s keep in mind the Secretary of the Interior's official definition of historic is anything built before 1961). In my opinion, there needs to be a graduated standard of preservation. In other words, if a particular style is rare or there is a collection or concentration of historic structures of great historic or cultural significance, then more rigorous standards should apply. Old Town Alexandria; New Orleans; Charleston, SC; Georgetown even, are examples of high concentrations of early periods of architecture whose context is as important as the individual details that comprise it. (Referred to as “Le tout ensemble” in the landmark preservation case Maher v. City of New Orleans) The architecture in Barney Circle is far from rare. It is a further stretch to argue it expresses anything of deep cultural or historic significance.

The problem you cite in Arlington—while I don’t know the specific instances, this appears to be more of an issue with the zoning and tree ordinances. I agree--sad to see those bungalows replaced with starter castles, but that's a flaw in the zoning ordinance, not something that should be remedied through the imposition of an historic district.

by Ryan Velasco on Jul 8, 2010 9:56 am • linkreport

The problem with "subjective" laws like HD is that they erode respect for all laws and regulations.

The first of three criteria is preservation of an area where something historic happened. The Hine Jr. High site has been a school for 145 years, the first school on the site was built at the height of the Civil War as the first integrated public school in the District, yet when the city, local officials and developers decided the site should no longer hold a school, HPRB was silent.

Makes you wonder what the fourth, unspoken criteria was that overturned the first three in that case.

by Trulee Pist on Jul 8, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

@Jack - thank you very much for that useful insight from someone who actually lives in a HD and has had to deal with the frustrating decisions made by the HPRB. And your experience is certainly not an anomaly, unfortunately.

Preservationists always argue that the requirements are really minimal and easy to meet, when it actuality they are quite the opposite. And they are often arbitrary and as you mentioned, highly impractical.

by Sarah on Jul 8, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

@tom veil:

The historic preservation district is the worst thing to happen to Capitol Hill since the 1968 riots destroyed H St...

I'd vote Crack Epidemic, but then, I don't have much experience with the whole "Unhinged Hyperbole" thing.

by oboe on Jul 8, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

Trulee, I agree with you that this is a good discussion. I hope it continues to be. My greatest fear about the current debate in my neighborhood is that it will create lingering ill will, whether or not we get HD status.

I wonder if the Barney Circle proposal presents an opportunity to try out a more flexible, inclusive standard of historic preservation in Washington. Clearly some past efforts on Capitol Hill and more recent ones in other parts of town have created ill will among some residents.
By extending the comment period and making it clear that residents can suggest amendments to the guidelines, the historic-preservation office is giving us a chance to come up with an approach that won't unduly burden homeowners but will help keep the fabric of the neighborhood intact.

I'm not an architectural expert but, having lived in the Barney Circle neighborhood for 5 and a half years, I've really come to appreciate the architecture. It may not be fancy but it *is* distinctive. We went on a walking tour recently and learned a lot about the different architects who had a hand in creating the "daylighter" rowhouses, how they incorporated Arts & Crafts design into their planning, etc. It made me appreciate the neighborhood more.


by JHoward on Jul 8, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

@jhoward - i would have to disagree that the architecture in the neighborhood is "distinctive". federal porch style houses are ubiquitous in DC and i wouldn't be surprised if they constituted a majority of the attached dwellings in the entire city. even the picture at the top of the post is of a porch style house from outside the neighborhood. there is absolutely nothing unique about the few blocks that make up the proposed barney circle historic district.

you might be able to make other arguments in favor of an HD in barney circle, but "distinctive" is not one of them.

by LB on Jul 8, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

If I may interrupt the serious debate, I would like to just point out that Barney Circle really should feature a statue of a large purple dinosaur, with a bronze commemorative plaque containing the words to at least one or two of his most famous songs. :-)

by Mike on Jul 8, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

Ryan, I actually don't think everything that's old must be preserved. But like a lot of people, for me it's as much about what would replace an older structure as it is with the historic value of the existing structure.

I'm not in love with a lot of the postwar ramblers in Arlington, and I'm not averse to their replacement per se--but I'd prefer they be replaced with houses that match the scale and aesthetics of the nearby homes. I would expect that the many of the HD advocates in Capitol Hill are fearful that increased density may be foisted upon them if they don't nip it in the bud now.

And regarding density: someone said Capitol Hill was more dense in years past. I assume this is in reference to the alleys, where poor African Americans once were forced to live in squalor. I can't imagine anyone thinks that was a good thing.

I'm sure there are ways to ensure that HD rules are not draconian while still protecting the overall character of the neighborhood.

by JB on Jul 8, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport


The entire District was more dense before - a lot of that has to do with household size shrinking in that time.

I don't see what your point is with alley dwellings. You seem to be asserting that they are squalid merely because they are located along alleys.

Replacement housing of a matching scale and design can be accomplished with zoning, as well.

by Alex B. on Jul 8, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

AlexB, I'm asserting that they were squalid because it's been documented:

From that page of the link:

George Kuber's "Report of Committee on Social Betterment" states that alley houses "... were nearly all old, two-story brick or frame buildings without such modern conveniences as hot and cold water, bathrooms or inside water-closets."

Overcrowded ...

He goes on to state that "where apartments were small and families large, all available space, even the kitchens, were used as bedrooms".

Health Concerns ...

Wilbur Vincent Mallalieu in his "Monday Evening Club" report, states that "in 1909 the death rate per thousand for the alley colored for the whole city was 31.94. For this particular district it was 34.14."

by JB on Jul 8, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

JB, I don't doubt that they were squalid - but the past tense is crucial there. There is nothing inherently squalid about alley dwellings.

Many people constantly conflate density and overcrowding. They are two very different words, and it's important not to conflate the two.

by Alex B. on Jul 8, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

Hi LB:

I guess distinctiveness is in the eye of the beholder. I grew up in DC, though, and have lived in several different neighborhoods in the city (Palisades, Mount Pleasant, the closer-in part of Capitol Hill) and have spent a lot of time in other neighborhoods. There *is* something distinctive, at least to me, about this part of the Hill, and the "daylighter" rowhouses here.

To those who've raised the question of density: Most of the blocks around here are filled with rowhouses, so it's a pretty densely occupied neighborhood already. I don't see the HD proposal as a plot to keep density down. As I said, it's a close-packed neighborhood already, although the longer yards and triangle parks give it an open feel too.


by JHoward on Jul 8, 2010 9:52 pm • linkreport

I am a born and raised native of DC, it doesn't matter that I am, but just a disclaimer that I have seen the neighborhoods change over the years.

I used to fully support Historic Preservation, but over the years I have become a strong opponent of the way in which it is implemented in our city. I have been through the permitting process in historic neighborhoods. In my experience it is subjectively implemented. Although there are "guidelines," in many cases obeying the guidelines is not enough, the historic review boards have been given subjective final say and often force their opinions on the property owner (if you don't believe me ask people who have been through it for a while). For example, the guideline might state that an addition has to be below a certain height, and not visible from the street, however the board may reject it simply because they don't like it, or it is too large, even though it falls within the guidelines. Which is all fine and well if you want distant neighbors to have that kind of control over your home. I was once told "if you want that kind of space, leave the city..." (by someone who came to the city for grad school).

I have found that "historic preservation" in DC (I have worked with better examples in Europe) is basically working to ensure that 1890's sensibilities never change, and preventing any architectural gems of the future from appearing. Of course if you are a big enough developer you just steamroll past the boards "opinions." The small homeowners are completely limited, but the 10+ unit condo buildings somehow manage to do what they like.

Preservation no longer preserves the historic "character" or treasures of a place, in most cases it has turned to pedantically "preserving" exacting details on the homes of families. Residents should be free to modify their homes to meet changing times, the style chosen (for example late 19th century) can be applied, but it should not limit people from fully using the city. Changes can be made while still maintaining the character we all love in our neighborhoods (for example front basement entries should be allowed if they meet the desired stylistic requirements). The homeowner will be held to exacting reviews and their household requirements will be at the mercy of someone's opinion. Let's see the Hines Jr. High redevelopment gets the same nitpicking (window sash/basement entry/view protection) that a resident would have to deal with, for some reason I expect to see a few things that don't exactly fit with the late 19th century. Living in a Historic District can sometimes be like having parents, a familiar refrain being "because I said so."

I am not against Historic Preservation at all, and neither should you be- but please be very careful with how it is implemented and who has control over the process. It should help us keep the character we want (which is basically the facades and streetscapes) not limit urban living for generations.

Be warned Barney Circle.

by Paul on Jul 13, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

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