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Preserve our buildings with conservation districts

DC should create a less restrictive form of historic district, in many places called a conservation district, for its historic row house neighborhoods and other areas with historic value but which aren't interested in becoming full historic districts.

Photo: Prince of Petworth.

Residents of neighborhoods recently considered for historic review have expressed much trepidation about the designation process. Some worry that preservation oversight will significantly increase the cost of even minor additions, like requiring expensive and less energy efficient wood windows instead of the ones generally made today. Others feel that preservation unnecessarily restricts the growth potential of properties in dense urban areas where growth in appropriate.

In Chevy Chase DC, preservationists withdrew a proposal for a historic district after it didn't receive majority support in an unofficial vote of property owners. In Barney Circle, HPRB postponed a potential historic district after residents charged that people from outside the district, in adjacent Capitol Hill, were trying to push it through without full participation by other residents.

However, some protection is important. People can now tear down 100-year-old rowhouses, even without plans to replace them with anything more than a parking lot. Horrifically ugly vinyl-sided pop-ups mar the landscape. We ought to be able to protect old buildings from outright destruction while still allowing additions provided they look more compatible with the existing building stock.

Conservation districts could accomplish this. Other cities have created such districts, like San Jacinto, TX. Here is a hypothetical set of rules what such a district could allow or allow only after review:

Razes of entire structures would be prohibited without approval from HPRB. The same criteria should apply to razes in a conservation district as in a historic district.

Additions not visible from a public street, like rear wings, porches, or the addition of extra floors set back sufficiently that a person standing on a sidewalk or in a public street could not see them, would be allowed provided they comply with zoning and any other regulations. HPO would sign off on permits to ensure that changes are not visible from the street, but if they are not they would not have the authority to restrict them.

Additions visible from a public street would be allowed (again assuming they comply with zoning and any other regulations), but HPO and HPRB would have approval authority to ensure that the modifications use materials and workmanship compatible with the character of the district the buildings are in. For example, top-floor additions would need to use similar materials as the rest of the building, and the Board could require roof styles, shingles, and cornice detailing to match that in use elsewhere in the particular district.

Modifications to the street facade(s) would be allowed without historic review if they are minor, with standard review if they are more major. HPO would have the ability to review these permits, but there would be restrictions on which types of changes it can exercise review over. A more detailed list would have to be developed.

For example, changing the material of windows would be allowed, but replacing a number of smaller windows with a large picture window would require historic review. Changing materials on front stairs would be fine, but removing front stairs entirely would require review. Repainting or repointing (the replacement of mortar between bricks) would be automatically approved without the level of scrutiny of the contractor in a historic district, but redoing a facade in a different material from the original would trigger historic review.

Modifications to non-street facade(s) would not be subject to historic review as long as the facade fronts onto an alley or another lot, even if that is visible from a public street. In other words, if the back of a house is visible when someone stands on a public street and looks down the alley, that wouldn't count as being a street facade, but if the rear of a property faces a river, large public park, or other significant public space, the same rules as for a street facade would apply.

Construction of new buildings on empty lots would be subject to limited design review. That review could not dictate size and massing beyond the dictates of zoning, or materials and styles, but could request urban elements common to the area, like street-facing entrances instead of rear-only entrances. As with facade modifications, it would be necessary to flesh out more details to avoid this turning into design police dictating architectural choices, but it's worth some role to ensure that a building isn't actively hostile to the urban fabric of its area.

Under these rules, many old DC neighborhoods ought to become protected, and there's a good chance they would be willing to. There could, and probably should, be conservation districts Barney Circle, Trinidad, Truxton Circle, Eckington, Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, Park View, Pleasant Plains, Petworth, Brookland, and Chevy Chase DC. There are many other neighborhoods where they could also gain support in the many low-density areas toward the edges of the city.

Would you like to see this in your neighborhood? What do you think of these guidelines?

Update: Added mention of the San Jacinto, TX district and Housing Complex's research.

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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Wow, how is that even possible? That easily beats any abomination I've seen posted in the NY boroughs on sites like Brownstoner, etc. That's just nausea inducing.

by Busy Bee on Jul 23, 2010 10:38 am • linkreport

I wrote a similar post about this on Housing Complex about two weeks ago after chatting with some folks from San Jacinto's conservation district (link here: I think it's a great idea, and San Jacinto's model is particularly interesting. Their city planning department was able to push the designation through without a majority neighborhood vote, but the residents determined the restrictions they wanted to place on the conservation district. Their emphasis is the prevention of demolition and construction of new building stock that could be at odds with the rest of the neighborhood. There's no restrictions on modifications made to existing homes--no requirements for four- or six-paneled doors or a particular type of siding.

I think the coolest part of San Jac's conservation district is that the community decided the rules that they wanted to exact on themselves. That's, to me, the biggest difference between historic districts and conservation districts. The implications of a historic district designation are handed down from the HPO/HPRB (or similar organization), but a conservation district would allow residents to decide what they value and what they deem most worth their efforts.

So, if DC ever does adopt conservation districts, I'd like to see their resolutions drafted by residents. In a situation like Barney Circle, which had its own historic district guidelines tailored specifically to the 198 homes there, that wouldn't have been a difficult next step.

by alexbaca on Jul 23, 2010 10:47 am • linkreport

Not every rowhouse district needs to be preserved. Rowhouses were great affordable housing at the time that they were built, but now a lot of these rowhouses are substandard today. Many are firetraps thanks to old and faulty electrical wiring as well as insulation that is no longer in use. Cities are living beings they grow and change. Why should the current residents of the city not be allowed to leave their own mark in architecture styles. A block of town homes could easily replace a block of rowhouses and include modern ammenities. I believe it is cheaper to raise rowhouses and start from scratch then to modernize them for today's families.

by stevern77 on Jul 23, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

Thanks, Alex. I had meant to include a link to your article but then neglected to do so. I've added it in.

by David Alpert on Jul 23, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

There seems to be inconsistency in David's approach to preservation and height. He clearly understands the addional height in this particular photo is inappropriate, but finds opposition to increased height in residential areas a problem. Are there mixed messages on GGW or subjective observations? Are you finally growing up and recognizing the value of the hard work others have done to preserve the character of the city and individual neighborhoods?

by Karl on Jul 23, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

This makes perfect sense and I'll add that I think DC already has plenty of Historic Districts. They should be capped at a point no? Going forward residents could vote to become a conservation district instead. Or perhaps with overwhelming support it cold be justified that we still grant historic distirct status. Has there ever been a gmap drawn up with Historic District overlays? That would be very helpful visually in determining how much protected housing stock we have and how much more is really needed.

by Anon on Jul 23, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

I live within Barney Circle, and am adamantly opposed to the Historic District, but would be in favor of some type of conservation district or custom neighborhood zoning as described. I would prefer fewer restrictions, but I think those restrictions could be left to an individual neighborhood's discretion (their discretion, not HPO/HPRB's).

At a minimum, work should not significantly impact neighbors without their consent; significant demolition is largely prohibited; and new structures must pass a neighborhood design review process. But most homeowners should be left alone to modify their houses as they see fit (to the degree already permitted).

The city desperately needs an alternative to historic districts, but the key to all of this is full community engagement.

by darren on Jul 23, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

Karl: It's not inconsistent. It's not the height of that pop-up that's so much the issue as the way it's so ugly and gaudy. If someone designed a top 2 floors on that building that made it look like it had always been a 4-story building, I still might not like it, but perhaps it should be allowed in a conservation district.

These rules don't mean that every building would end up looking exactly as *I* want it, but they seem to be a good way to draw the line that will prevent the worst abuses without restricting property owners too much.

And I agree with Alex that the neighborhood ought to be a big part of deciding the specific guidelines.

by David Alpert on Jul 23, 2010 11:07 am • linkreport


I think the point of conservation districts is to allow developments like the one you describe, provided that they exceed the quality of the structure that they are replacing. Similarly, additions and renovations shouldn't be hindered, as long as the addition uses similar materials to the existing building.

I'd vehemently support (and campaign as such) for such a district in North Capitol Hill (aka. The Old City). Our neighborhood is covered in scars from entire blocks that were razed for development projects that never got built, most recently along 2nd St. Fortunately, most existing structures are being renovated and preserved in such a way that maintains their character. A conservation district will allow us to continue the current status quo, and prevent ugly popups or more empty lots from appearing.

I'd also be in favor of a one-time tax credit for building on any lot that's been vacant for more than a certain number of years. Plug those holes!

by andrew on Jul 23, 2010 11:07 am • linkreport

The biggest issue with this plan is that it would likely require a sizable funding increase for HPO and would also give HPO staff a very large amount of discretionary authority in approving some things, but rejecting others. My guess is that you'd have a substantial number of ensuing court cases challenging them on arbitrary & capricious grounds.

The other key issue is that you need community involvement and support for such a thing. The main reason the Chevy Chase historic district attempt imploded was b/c of the view that it was being forced on property owners without their input or consent. The fact that some of the historic district designation's biggest supporters weren't even residents of the neighborhood didn't help matters, either.

Before the imposition of either a historic or a conservation district, I'd require that the property owners of the affected district be individually notified (no, simple publication in the DC Register doesn't count), that there be a well-publicized hearing on the matter in the neighborhood and at a time when working folks can attend (no, a Monday 9:30 am hearing at the Wilson Building doesn't count), and a polling of the affected residents to gauge their level of support (no, an ANC meeting and vote doesn't count).

If you follow the Fritz Law, then perhaps a large area doesn't get the district designation, but perhaps a smaller area - maybe even a single block/street/alley etc - does and gets it with substantial support from property owners in the affected area.

by Fritz on Jul 23, 2010 11:08 am • linkreport

I live in Barney Circle and IÂ’m opposed to the historic district designation there currently under review with the HPRB. Despite what many supporters of the Barney Circle HD may tell you, most residents were unaware of the proposed HD (until very recently) and also had no real opportunity to weigh in on the decision. Further more much of the support for this HD is from people and organizations that do not live in Barney Circle. The only people who should have any voice in such a matter are those that will be affected by its outcome.

The fact is many of the supporters of a HD in Barney Circle are only concerned about ugly pop ups and tear downs. A HD is far too over reaching and burdensome if those are your main concerns. A conservation district or some sort of special zoning to prohibit certain modifications seems far more reasonable and prudent than a full blown HD.

Not too surprising the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) is against conservation districts. The HPRB is the sole body that approves HDs, oversees the office that maintains them and decides which guidelines are acceptable for HDs. Every member of the HPRB is enthusiastically pro-HD. ThatÂ’s far too much power for one group and a serious conflict of interest.

by Eric on Jul 23, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport


u are totally wrong. 99% of the old rowhouses should be saved. yes old the wiring and stuff sucks but u gut it and renovate it! my historic rowhouse was a shell, rehab to a wonderful modern house with historic facade. also the city was plenty of vacant lots to grow on - build there.

by harry on Jul 23, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

how can we get a group together to start pushing for this? i would be willing to volunteer my time to get this passed.

by peter on Jul 23, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

Does anyone understand that proposed historic districts come from the public and not from HPO. Chevy Chase, Barney Circle, and Foxhall Village are all historic districts nominated by community groups or preservation organizations, i.e. the public.

by crin on Jul 23, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

Re: crin -- the problem with Chevy Chase and Barney Circle is those historic district proposals came from a vocal minority, and without "broad community support" -- to use the HPO's own language.

Re: Foxhall Village, I have not heard of any objections to their Historic District and from all reports they followed an open process with reasonable notification and community input. If that was indeed the case, I don't have a problem with it.

by darren on Jul 23, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

I can relate with the additional cost of renovating a property in a historic district. I have to pay for a georgetown renovation despite living next to public housing in shaw. I replaced 27 windows, and the HPRB denied my proposal to use extremely energy efficient and structurally sound cellular pvc windows, and instead forced me to purchase 27 custom wood windows at an additional cost of nearly $10,000.

@@stevern77 - You are lucky that your property was a shell. A shell is the easiest thing to renovate. You don't have to worry about the various environmental mitigation issues that come with demolition and you don't have structural surprises waiting for you behind the plaster and lathing. Unfortunately most of the historic townhomes are not shells, and are a real gamble for someone renovating them.

by HistoricShaw on Jul 23, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

@HistoricShaw, and the HPRB denied my proposal to use extremely energy efficient and structurally sound cellular pvc windows, and instead forced me to purchase 27 custom wood windows at an additional cost of nearly $10,000.

Actually, HPRB (as of last year or so) allows non-wood window replacement provided they look like wood from the street. Windows are an important part of a building's looks and in the past there were many atrocities created to the looks of houses by replacement with windows that didn't match. The historic house I bought is one of those that has that problem ... with vinyl windows having been put in at some point. I can live with the fact that I have federal-style windows in what is an Italiante house, BUT I don't like the increased heating bills and outside noise I get because of these vinyl windows. Count your blessings. Wood (and correctly cut windows) are still the best in terms of noise and heat insulation ... not to speak of aesthetics. Yes, good windows are expensive, but they'll last you forever ... and you get what you pay for.

by Lance on Jul 23, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

@Lance - your statement about vinyl windows is completely incorrect. Vinyl windows are significantly more energy efficient and better for noise reduction than wood windows. And are more cost-effective in the long run. Ask any window installer.

If you hate vinyl windows so much, buy the really expensive wood ones. No one forced you to buy your house with such horrific windows. You have all the choices and power here so I'm not sure what you are complaining about.

And vinyl windows are not "atrocities" - the holocaust was an atrocity.

by Anon on Jul 23, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

Historic districts in DC really only apply to preservation of the facade as visable from the sidewalk. That's not much.

Most people have no problem working around that and doing pretty much what they want. It just takes a little cleverness.

(In large multi-unit and commercial building renovations even that facade rule is eased to increase height).

I'm grandfathered in with vinyls but if I had to replace my front windows with different ones at some point I wouldn't consider that a disaster and I would insist on the most energy efficient.

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 23, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

Do we really need _more preservation_ methodologies here in DC? Especially in the "lower density outer zones"?

This is a living city, not "Disney's Olde Time DemocracyLand". And living cities change and adjust to time. Astoundingly, there are tons of major cities with far _more_ history behind them than DC that have managed to adapt over time while retaining _some_ historical areas, with most changing to the times.

Try Switzerland. Plenty of ancient old town centers that date back half a millenium, which are either surrounded by or very close to large modern cityscapes. Ditto London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, etc... Somehow they all manage to still be extremely historic, while having evil skyscrapers and (gasp) wire bearing streetcars. In fact, they are more historic than here.

Try going to Bern, Switzerland where you can get in walking distance from an ancient town center on the Gurten peninsula, to a small mountain with active farms, to a tall building modern business district.

Why don't we just call this stuff for what it is..."NIMBY Districts", or "I got mine, go get bent and live in Tyson's" Districts.

by John on Jul 23, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

Oops. My bad. The mountain is the Gurten. The river is the Aare.

by John on Jul 23, 2010 7:48 pm • linkreport

@John, In fact, they are more historic than here.

"Historic" in the sense of "Historic Preservation" doesn't necessarily equal "Historic" in the sense you're using it. And incidentally, the 'wire issue' isn't a preservation issue. It's simply a matter that the master development plans for Washington, the L'Enfant Plan and the MacMillan Commission's plan, call for a low rise, monumental city with ... open skies. Wires strung from one pole to another, no matter how thin, violate that fundamental design element. And I find it astounding that Wells and DDOT didn't bother to try to understand the reason behind Congress' ban on wires before trying to appropriate it control of it to themselves.

by Lance on Jul 23, 2010 7:51 pm • linkreport

Honestly? Who gives a damn about the design plans of long dead guys who did their designs before most of the modern technologies involved or the advanced understanding of how urban areas develop computer modeling allows?

This isn't the Constitution, or the revealed wisdom of a prophet. It's a design plan. And as time, technology, and population changes so does design.

I'm always amused when the "I got mine, go get bent" crowd tries to elevate an ancient design plan into sacred scripture when the realize the new population is going in a different direction. Last stand of the outnumbered.

by John on Jul 23, 2010 11:01 pm • linkreport

@John, Last stand of the outnumbered.<./i>

Sorry John, but you're the outnumbered one. Sorry you can't handle it with dignity and pride.

by Lance on Jul 24, 2010 12:59 am • linkreport

I'm not sure I'm seeing a real difference between a conservation district and a historic district ... other than that in a CD, apparently one can build to the full full extent zoning allows ... provided that it looks 'good' in someone's judgement.

I'm also guessing the concept is based on someone's misunderstanding of what historic preservation is supposed to be ... because it doesn't seem to address that which is historic preservation's main purpose, i.e., the preservation of the 'essense' of a neighborhood or of a building. It instead just focuses on the bricks and mortar ... i.e., it's all about 'the looks'. That's kind of like not seeing the forest for the trees. Who cares if you've preserved some old buildings (and/or their facades) if in the process you've changed the fundamentals of how those buildings interact with the people usng them?

by Lance on Jul 24, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

Zoning and building regulations for the most part do not address broad issues of urban form, neighborhood quality of life, and character.

Overlay zoning, in this case, historic preservation guidelines, is an attempt to provide these kinds of protections.

Typically conservation districts have very weak provisions on design, and no provisions against demolition. That's why I don't favor them.

OTOH, DC could enact design guidelines and demolition guidelines (and demolition by neglect guidelines) that cover the entire city, and provide the kinds of protections concerning neighborhood quality of life and character that are necessary regardless of whether or not a property is deemed historic.

by Richard Layman on Jul 24, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

P.S. typically, wood windows are more energy efficient than the vinyl replacement windows you refer to. The addition of external or internal storm windows are usually enough.

by RIchard Layman on Jul 24, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

Any idea that is based on trusting OHP, HPRB, and their allies to show restraint - while granting them more power - is a bad idea.

If they were intellectually honest and gave a tinker's dam about what the public thinks, it might be a good idea. But they never have cared and never will.

A program that is 100% neighborhood-initiated and neighborhood run- without interference from well-meaning outside preservationists - might be acceptable. But I have strong doubts that anyone could keep neighbors safe from outside meddling.

by Mike on Jul 24, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

Lance - Actually, HPRB (as of last year or so) allows non-wood window replacement provided they look like wood from the street.

The HPRB has a preapproved list of fiberglass window models that are acceptable for installation in a historic property. The regulatory language has said that resembling the 'qualities and appearance' is the criteria upon which windows will be approved.

However, cutom sized fiberglass composite windows from vendors on the list are not a cost effective solution for a homeowner (the cheapest approved-vendor fiberglass quote, from Ameritech, was still 6k over the wood Jeld Wen windows I eventually purchased).

When presented with a less expensive option, that resembles the appearance and qualities of historic windows more accurately than fiberglass, the HPRB were not willing to evaluate the qualities of a newer building material.

This wasn't just a phone call I had, then gave up. I had multiple meetings with HPRB officials and constant contact with the HPRB Shaw official over the course of months. I even offered to bring them a sample window, which they declined.

They are completely indifferent to the incredible additional expense that they place on homeowners, unable to adapt to new technologies and unwilling to even consider adapting.

by HistoricShaw on Jul 26, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

HistoricShaw's experience is EXACTLY why I'm against this historic district.

Those in opposition have been told time and time again by the HPO, the HPRB and other supporters if we read the guidelines and took time to "educate" (their exact word) ourselves we'd feel more comfortable about becoming a HD. I can promise them, and everyone else, I HAVE read the guidelines and I am EDUCATED on what a HD means. This is precisely why I oppose becoming a HD. Not to mention the guidelines can change over time and they are written with some ambiguity. Who knows how reasonable the HPO will be after we become a HD? They have all the power at that point and there is no guaranty that they'll be reasonable or fair. The HPRB is basically the last stop if I disagree with a decision, unless you've got a lot of time and money to take on a legal challenge.

by Eric on Jul 26, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

@Eric, While the desire to maintain the essence of a neighborhood may be the impetus for requesting historic designation, HDs owe their success to the fact that they ensure quality and consistent improvements/modifications to the building stock of the neighborhood. In that way, they are not unlike the covenent restrictions that come with the purchase of any home in any suburban subdivision in the last 40 - 50 years. And if you doubt my use of the word 'success', take a look at which neighborhoods have increased the most in value over the years ... and you'll find a correlation between their property values and their designation as historic districts. Think Georgetown (once a slum and the first historically designated area in the District), think Capitol Hill, think Dupont Circle, Sheridan-Kalorama, Kalorama Triangle, etc etc. The designation as a historic district was always the beginning of a rise in 'value' of the neighborhood. And yes, part of that rise in value is enforcement of high quality standards for additions and modifications, but ALSO for the fact that when you move into such a HD you know what you're getting. You know your neighbors can't just unilaterally put in something non-quality ... or something that isn't compatible with what's already there. Yeah, you give up some decision making ... but you gain stability and quality in the bargain. It's not for everyone. But's its definitely for people who want to know what they're buying into ... Hence the reflection of historic district designation into higher property values whenever a neighborhood has enjoyed historic designation.

by Lance on Jul 26, 2010 9:36 pm • linkreport


Two points of argument here:

1) property values should not be the impetus behind historical designation

2) I'd argue that the historical designation in those areas likely followed the rise in home prices. It would be hard to prove with out doing some serious research, but I'd doubt highly that Dupont Circle or Georgetown was a slum until designated a HD THEN the property value suddenly started to rise.

by Eric on Jul 27, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

@Eric, Georgetown received its historic designation in 1950 and Dupont Circle in 1977. Both these areas were at their respective designation dates were similar stages of 'rediscovery' as Shaw is currently. So, yes, you're correct that it's not like the HD took what was a slum and suddenly made property values turn around. In all these instances it took people first willing to take a chance at turning an area around ... and then solidifying their 'first steps' by getting historic designation to bring in the quality controls and other assurances of 'stability' that would/will encourage even more people to take a chance on the reviving neighborhood.

by Lance on Jul 28, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

Lance -

Or you could see it as the typical NIMBY crowd. They bought homes in a neighborhood at a reduced value. Then they implemented restrictions to prevent long time residents from making improvements they may have wanted to their properties.

Either way, I'm not necessarily opposed to historic districts. If the vast majority of affected residents want a HD and the neighborhood warrants historic preservation then give them what they want. There isn't even a simple majority of residents in Barney Circle who support a HD there. It's up for debate whether or not Barney Circle is worthy of historic preservation. I'd argue that it isn't, but I'm willing to concede that may be a matter of opinion that's hard to quantify ... unlike community support which is relatively easy to gauge.

by Eric on Jul 28, 2010 1:39 pm • linkreport

@Eric, I remember a while back some guy from Germany on here expressing surprise that our entire city wasn't designated a historic district. He said that's how they do it in Germany for any city with all the wonderful old buildings a city like ours has. I'm not sure that that would be a bad thing. In some ways, historic designation is to an older pre-suburban era area what suburban subdivision deed convenants are. They work very well in suburban areas and were a reason why so many folks moved out to the burbs to begin with ... They provide stability and certainty. Not many people are going to invest their hard earned dollars and sweat equity in a place if they can't be sure there's a reasonable chance that that investment isn't going to go to waste because someone can come in an do something really inappropriate next door to them ... Is that NIMBYism? If so, than it's a good thing. People SHOULD be protective of what happens in their backyard. If they aren't, who's going to be?

by Lance on Jul 28, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

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