The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Will preservation be a tool of blatant anti-development?

Opponents of a redevelopment project at Colonel Brooks' Tavern next to the Brookland Metro are turning to historic preservation as their latest anti-building tactic.

Photo from Brookland Avenue.

Lydia DePillis reports that ANC 5A has nominated Colonel Brooks' Tavern and the adjacent houses to be designated as historic.

The timing of this is quite suspect, since a Planned Unit Development (PUD) has already been filed to replace these buildings with a 5-story mixed-use project. The ANC is already on record opposing the project, and for that matter virtually any development around the Brookland Metro.

Most preservationists vehemently dispute that their field is simply about blocking development. Many people who don't oppose all development nonetheless consider themselves preservationists or supporters of preservation. In the blog world, that includes people such as Richard Layman, Alex Baca, David Garber, and myself.

Unfortunately, at times preservation really has been a tool of opposition. Former Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) chair Tersh Boasberg readily admitted that his reason for getting involved in preservation was to stop development of the Cleveland Park "Park and Shop" strip mall into anything larger.

There is certainly a contingent of preservationists who are willing to accommodate change, as long as that change doesn't involve getting anything any taller or bigger than it is today. There are others who see preservation's proper role as focusing more narrowly on the most valuable elements of historic properties or districts.

That creates a dilemma for the Historic Preservation Review Board when they consider this landmark nomination, which does little to conceal its true motivation.

The criteria for designation are very broad. A property can be designated, for example, if it merely "embod[ies] the distinguishing characteristics of architectural styles; building types; construction types or methods; landscape architecture; urban design, or other architectural, aesthetic, or engineering expressions significant to the appearance and development of the national capital or nation."

Colonel Brooks' Tavern and the other buildings are indeed good examples of the kind of building that historically comprised Brookland. These are "typical owner-occupied storefronts of the first years of the twentieth century" which "were associated with an Irish American owner whose business catered to Catholic University staff and students throughout their history."

In other words, it's pretty typical. Does that make it historic?

The laws in DC are written to allow designating a wide range of buildings. In many cases, designation and the concomitant review for new development makes for better projects. They do, however, also impose stricter limits on changes and create more time-consuming process even for allowed changes.

HPRB could take one of several approaches:

  1. It could refuse to designate the property. HPRB previously refrained from designating the Giant in Cleveland Park, for instance, though that wasn't representative of old stores in the area as Colonel Brooks' is.
  2. It could designate the property, but then grant a raze permit anyway. This is what the HPRB did not do with the Third Church of Christ, Scientist downtown. This is difficult because they would essentially be saying the property is historically significant, but then declining to protect it at all.
  3. It could designate the property and then find some way to let almost all of the project go ahead, such as by preserving only the façade. It has not generally allowed this level of latitude with other properties in recent years.
  4. It could designate the property and reject the project or ask for very significant changes that force redesigning and substantially shrinking the project. Then, the owner could apply to the Mayor's Agent to grant the raze or the change anyway. Preservation groups are currently pressing a lawsuit to try to limit the Mayor's Agent's legal ability to allow this.
What will the Board do? Many eyes will be on them in this case, which could set the tone for public support or criticism of preservation for some time, especially as Mayor Gray chooses new nominees for the board.

A few years ago, preservation was under attack in DC, with some negative stories around Third Church and residential properties in Mount Pleasant and Capitol Hill fed by critical columns by Marc Fisher. Following that, the Board made some wiser choices in a few cases, Harriet Tregoning acting as the Mayor's Agent allowed projects at Third Church and the Heritage Foundation addition on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the real estate market slowed, reducing the number of controversial projects.

Now that the market is picking up again, preservation is set for some high-profile battles. HPRB and citywide preservationists would be best served not to make a stand on this particular battle with Colonel Brooks, where the justification for designation is relatively weak and the underlying, anti-development motivation very strong.

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. 


Add a comment »

I have a tough time with this one. I agree that more density and development near the Brookland station is needed. But I also think that the building form that Colonel Brooks Tavern is would be a crucial part of that development. This is particularly true because the proposed building is just so bland and corporate looking. As Layman has said repeatedly, there is competitive advantage to keeping the old building forms, not simply because they're old (although a sense of history does help a retail neighborhood) but because buildings of that vintage better engaged the street and pedestrians. I hope something can be done to keep the tavern building but build the density around it. Maybe that's not possible, but it would be the best result, in my opinion.

by TM on Mar 10, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

I agree TM. You can't have Brookland without Col Brooks. That building is an icon of that neighborhood. I am sympathetic with the arguments against historic preservation in some cases, but this is not one of the times. I just can't see the same restaurant/bar inside of a large corporate building.

by dc denizen on Mar 10, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

These buildings are not so great individually, and they surely have a troubled history no one would want to preserve, but their importance to the overall fabric is one that seems worthy of preservation. First of all, why is wanting to preserve something to halt development necesarrily a bad thing? Also, with HPRB's stand on infill buildings having to either stand out as different or look like an old building stripped of all it's character, I'm not sure the new building would add to the neighborhoods character. Then again, if it's not a historic neighborhood, the architect's can do something of quality. But I digress...

The importance of fabric buildings are commonly understood by most urbanists, but seldom fought for because of the amorphous nature of what qualifies as fabric. Every historic neighborhood has a tipping point when it's a collection of historic buildings in a characterless neighborhood rather than a historic district. Maybe the loss of these buildings won't significantly take away from what Brooklanders and others love about their community. Maybe the architects will infill with harmoneously scaled and detailed buildings. But until architects/developers regain the trust of the public that what comes next will be superior to what was, I'm afraid we'll continue to see this knee jerk reaction to these kind of projects.

by Thayer-D on Mar 10, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

why is wanting to preserve something to halt development necesarrily a bad thing?

because they're trying to preserve something they don't actually care about but are just trying to halt development, which is an abuse of what should be a valuable preservation system.

by JustMe on Mar 10, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

@ dc denizen - Respectfully, Brookland was there before Colonel Brooks, and it'll survive it's passing. It's a neighborhood landmark, to be sure, but the owners have reached the point where don't want to run it anymore. Should we force them to keep at it? They're trying to realize a return on the investment they've made in the community. It would be wonderful if they could sell the business to someone who would continue the tradition, but it's their investment and I'm not going to tell them what they can and can't do.

Besides, what made Colonel Brooks into a landmark is the place that it holds in the community. If someone else wants to invest in building a neighborhood pub, and welcomes the neighborhood in, they'll be supported, just as the Colonel was.

@ Thayer-D - To be honest, you're going to get this knee-jerk reaction no matter what the developers do. In this case their track record (or the track record of developers in general) has nothing to do with the opposition to the project. Brookland has a core of activists who don't want to see anything change and who oppose all development as detrimental to the community. I've lived there for almost ten years and have seen business after business open and close because 12th street and Rhode Island avenue is moribund.

Frankly, if there was denser population around the metro station and a healthier business district, it's entirely possible that someone would have offered Jim Steigman a good price for his business and kept it open, and we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

by Joshua on Mar 10, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

I am unclear where you are getting the information upon which you are basing your plea to reject the property's proposed historic designation. I agree that historic preservation is an accessible and often used tool that opponents to various projects use and that historic preservation gets a bad reputation because of this.

Equally damaging to historic preservation are articles, like this one, that dismiss a proposed historic designation based on information gleaned from newspaper reports and anecdotal evidence. Have you read the designation documentation and evaluated it based on the credibility of the sources used or the accuracy of the research? What about the property's historic context? Does it meet any of the historical/cultural or architectural criteria established under DC law?

These are the questions you should be asking and the sources you should be looking for. I haven't read the documentation so I cannot make an informed decision about this property's significance. Let the HPRB do its job and review the property based on evidence, not anecdotes.

by David Rotenstein on Mar 10, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

The purpose of historic preservation is not to preserve parts of the urban fabric that are pretty good, it is to preserve our history. Tearing down good urban buildings to replace them with something of lower quality is really unfortunate, but it's not worth embalming the city and mandating design.

Whether or not a building is likeable is not the question; that matter needs to be dealt with at the ANC level for PUDs, or by the individual property owners and architects.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 10, 2011 2:59 pm • linkreport

Don't know how you can assume they don't care about preserving these buildings. The preservation movement came about not to halt development per say, but modernist development. The Daughters of the American Revolution actually began the movement at the turn of the 19th century because of the loss of our historical monuments, but they whern't trying to preserve whole neighborhoods or development per say. The modern preservation movement came about because they began tearing down paradise and put up a parking lot (Joni Mitchell) or Madison Square Garden.

I'm sure when they tore down the mid-19th century brownstones for McKim Mead White's original Madison Square Garden, not many fretted that they where going to replace it with something as hiddeous as the current Madison Square garden. But after one too many of these modernist monstrocities defaced New York (Penn Station), people lost faith in the noble profession of architecture, and the modern preservation movement was born. It's intimatley related to modernisms dominance of the profession. Things have certainly gotten much better than in modernism's heyday, thanks to the new Urbanists that prooved looking at the (whole) past for solutions is the most progressive thing after all, with out getting cought up in outward appearances, but many architects unfortunatley are still stuck in the old Howard Roark paradigm.

Some people will always be hesitant of change, me included, but being an architect, I kind of depend on development to a degree. It's not just about change though, it's about what kind of change.

by Thayer-D on Mar 10, 2011 3:07 pm • linkreport

The purpose of historic preservation is not to preserve parts of the urban fabric that are pretty good, it is to preserve our history. Tearing down good urban buildings to replace them with something of lower quality is really unfortunate, but it's not worth embalming the city and mandating design.

I'd also add that tearing down older stuff and replacing it with new stuff is central part of our urban history.

Historic Preservation, as practiced today, all too often picks an arbitrary moment in time and decides from that point on that nothing shall noticeably change. The problem with this, of course, is that's it's completely opposite to how our cities have evolved over time. Cities are dynamic places - the forces that created the very historic places the preservationists seek to protect are now the ones they're seeking to stop.

Many places that preservationists love now had been built, erased, rebuilt and rebuilt again. It's one thing to manage that dynamism, but trying to regulate it out of existence is bad for the very health of our cities.

by Alex B. on Mar 10, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

The most extensive analysis of Brookland that I'm aware of comes from GWU's Washington Area Studies program, the result of an effort to "design and implement a community inventory which would reflect the broad, multi-disciplinary criteria of the contemporary preservation movement." The 78-page work can be downloaded as a PDF from the CWAS Publications Page: it's number M10, entitled Images of Brookland.

It should be noted that neither the Colonel Brook restaurant, nor the building in which it is located, are mentioned. (Widespread citizen support for streetcars, powered by overhead wires--in 1910--is mentioned.)

by thm on Mar 10, 2011 3:22 pm • linkreport

The narrative that preservation is the result of Modernism is totally bunk and does not reflect the derision that many felt for skyscrapers (10 floors), urban decline, a growing sense of history in American culture, reaction against capitalism and technocracy, construction of the interstate highway system, and yes, the shock at the widespread destruction of beautiful and meaningful buildings in the name of urban renewal.

The only people who have ever claimed this were traditionalist architects. It's a nice narrative, but it's a canard meant to push a particular agenda.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 10, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

I've been to the meetings, I think the proposed building is very nice looking. I say just build it. They way the proposed building sits at the bottom of the hill, it will not be too tall for that block.

by Brookland Rez on Mar 10, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

The iconic feature of Brookland is the Brooks Mansion, first of all, not Colonel Brooks.

Aside from the widespread love for Colonel Brooks' tavern (which has not translated into enough customers to make it a business worth owning in recent years, mind you), there is not that much else to recommend it. It's not exactly something that hearkens back to a simpler time when you could get everything you needed by walking around the neighborhood- you'd have to be able to walk past it for that to be the case.

If people want to preserve the Colonel so badly, they should Metro to the Brookland/CUA station, walk literally across the street, and *eat dinner there* instead of trying to prevent the owner from getting out from under a business that is losing money.

by Tiffany Bridge on Mar 10, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

@ Neil,
No need to see conspiracies where there are none, in fact, I think I detect some projection. If by traditional architect, you mean one that goes by the commodity, firmness, and delight creed rather than shock and awe, guilty as charged. While all the complimentary reasons you stated are indeed relevant, I don't think the timing of the modern preservation movement's genesis with the ascent of modernism in academia is a mere coincidence. It's reflected through out culture, from Joni Mitchell to the Pretenders, to Tom Wolfe ect.

No one's trying to replace one monopoly (modernist) for another (traditionalist), although I have the feeling you'd be the last to be convinced of that, but understanding history, warts and all, can only help understand why so many people rebelled against "progress" in the 70's and 80's. That's part of modernism's legacy, like it or not. That being said, there are many beautiful modernist styled buildings..but it's just another style, no more or less valid a style to build in than classical. I know that's hearasy to academic architects, but much like music, literature and any other art, pluralism is our modern condition. Don't believe the preists when they say you'll burn in hell if you have premarital sex, and don't believe the high priests of modernism that you suck because you want to create beauty from something other than history not sanctioned by them. Ironically, that's the truly regressive stance.

if part of Historic preservation's mandate is not to save urban fabric, what is Georgetown's historic designation all about?

by Thayer-D on Mar 10, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

Once again a few in Brookland trying to stop anything that makes it better. OK the houses and the store front look like hell and surely there is no significant historical value to any of them. WTH is going on in Brookland that these same few wacko jacko's get to file this stuff. The PUD is a good one! Who the hell are these preservationists? They sound more hoarders! Maybe I can start a show on preservationists! Think DC would wake up then when they see these fools and wackos are on TV! That's it call Bravo quick! It would be a HIT!

by Barrie Daneker on Mar 10, 2011 4:11 pm • linkreport

I think it's unfortunate that the cause of preservation is getting tarnished by the actions of the ANC. They're using preservation as the means to an unrelated end - if they could use anti-dog pooping laws to stop development, they would, but it wouldn't mean that they stood for clean sidewalks.

by Joshua on Mar 10, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport

Indeed, Thayer, modern historic preservation came about in the 1960s, when no other changes were happening in American culture. Nothing else.

I never alleged conspiracy, it's just that I've been told that preservation exist to guard the keep until the traditionalists are back in power by a number of practitioners.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 10, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

@ Neil, historic preservation is in fact a conspiracy. It's a conspiracy to throw archaeologists out of work. If the built environment never changes and nothing is ever torn down, then there will be very little for future archaeologists to work with beneath the ground!

by David Rotenstein on Mar 10, 2011 5:21 pm • linkreport

Somewhere, Robert Moses is smiling.

by charlie on Mar 10, 2011 5:24 pm • linkreport

Col Brooks is next to but not on the I-95 Grand Arc alignment, and was last to be displaced by the infamous 1964 version of the North Central Freeway.

by Douglas Willinger on Mar 10, 2011 5:50 pm • linkreport

Why does every neighborhood in DC need to be "high density"? Brookland is a comfortable bedroom community, and I dare say that many residents moved to Brookland for its relative tranquility and vintage architecture. This relentless drive to turn the entire District into Crystal City or Clarendon is really starting to turn me off so-called "urbanist" thinking. Real cities are composed of varying densities to meet the needs of diverse residents.

by JM on Mar 10, 2011 9:50 pm • linkreport

Why does every neighborhood in DC need to be "high density"? Brookland is a comfortable bedroom community, and I dare say that many residents moved to Brookland for its relative tranquility and vintage architecture. This relentless drive to turn the entire District into Crystal City or Clarendon is really starting to turn me off so-called "urbanist" thinking. Real cities are composed of varying densities to meet the needs of diverse residents.

Real cities vary in density because urban economic markets provide for varied densities. Except when you distort those markets with restrictions on development when the market clearly warrants additional density.

I'd also note that there's quite a wide range of densities between Clarendon and Brookland. I'd also challenge you to articulate what about Clarendon it is you don't like - I'm willing to bet it's more about design and use, not density.

by Alex B. on Mar 10, 2011 11:04 pm • linkreport

It isn't about turning every neighborhood into Clarendon. It is about maximizing the District's investment in Metro and maximizing density areas well served by transit to minimize auto-dependency and continued paving of rural greenspace.

There is plenty of diverse housing stock, and many would argue that there needs to be more multi-family units in well served transit areas with walkable amenities.

One can debate the details and the merits, which is part of what this blog is all about.

by William on Mar 10, 2011 11:04 pm • linkreport

@Alex B. '- I'm willing to bet it's more about design and use, not density.'

Please ... who would want to live in cookie cutter, stacked rabbit cage place like Clarendon .. unless they can't afford otherwise? The goal shouldn't be to build more of these lowest denominator type inhuman housing units but instead building more nice, humane, type housing. What you might call sprawl accomplishes the latter vs, the former.

by Lance on Mar 10, 2011 11:14 pm • linkreport

So you agree that its about design and use and not the density per se?

by Canaan on Mar 10, 2011 11:32 pm • linkreport

The same way some urbanists use "enviormental impact" studies to thwart building roads.

I guess they are antis as well?

by TGEoA on Mar 11, 2011 12:02 am • linkreport

I'm for much greater density, especially at underused metro stations. (I'm also a modernist, not a traditionalist). But I'm for preservation as a means to more human-scale streetscapes.

Forcing developers to at least preserve facades (and that's all DC does) at least forces a minimum of thought into community incorporation and a little imagination in design.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 11, 2011 12:09 am • linkreport

@Alex B. I know this is America and all, but sometimes "The Market" sucks and actually works against a large portion of society. That's why "The Market" is regulated. Some people might like a smaller, historically scaled Brookland and want to keep it that way. They're not the Koch Brothers, can't buy the whole block, so they use the democratic processes within DC's regulatory structure to have some control.

I don't think Brooks Tavern rises to the level of being a landmark, but I'd rather have the people in control instead of "The Market."

P.S. Ayn Rand can blow me.

by crin on Mar 11, 2011 6:41 am • linkreport

Sure, regulate the market. But you still have to understand the market. You can't ignore it.

And the reality is that someplace like Brookland - practically on top of a Metro station - is a place where the market easily justifies more housing and more density. This doesn't mean plopping down 25 story buildings, but it does mean some modest change from the status quo.

crin, the people already have some control. They helped fashion Brookland's small area plan:

The will have input in a PUD process. They do not deserve veto authority over neighboring land - nobody does. Likewise, attempting to subvert the historic preservation process merely as a means to stop good, reasonable development projects only further hurts the cause of preservation.

by Alex B. on Mar 11, 2011 7:35 am • linkreport

How does using the preservation process as a means to stop (good, reasonable) development projects hurt the cause of preservation? Preserving something de facto means one want's to halt development of the land the building being preserved is on. By your logic, DuPont Circle should be redeveloped because it's near a metro, but it's not only the metro that drives the market, but also the quality of the architecture and urbanism. If your logic where to hold, what's stopped the countless other metro stops from developing? Because the market hasn't found good enough reasons besides the metro to develope those areas.

I agree with your general point, and am all for smart growth and TOD's, but there's a balance between building up desirable areas, and tearing them down to be replaced with souless buildings, thereby makeing them less desirable. Clearly, many in the community feel the buildings area an irreplacable icon of their neighborhood. At the same time I'm a firm believer in property rights. Maybe the architects can be more creative and find a way of preserving the facade or incorporating the building into a taller structure. There's a huge parking lot behind the site and a ton of fallow land all around the metro.

This is a quandry that many older and close in communities are facing where by they want to preserve their neighborhood's character, while allowing them to organically grow. This is why I harp on my profession of architecture. Many of the great buildings of the world where created because they had to deal with or incorporate some pretty intractable obstacles. This involves humility, practicality, and nuance, things that are hard to teach, let alone learn, but all the more so when so many architects are schooled with the tabula rasa approach to historic fabric that is an unfortunate inheritance of modernisms decades of dominance. This is not a zero sum argument where by we need to be divided into traditionalists or modernists, we're all modernists in the strictest use of the term. It's about relearning some of the values that used to make architects respected as leading contributors to our shared culture, what ever style one personally preferes.

by Thayer-D on Mar 11, 2011 8:23 am • linkreport

How does using the preservation process as a means to stop (good, reasonable) development projects hurt the cause of preservation?

Isn't it obvious? When preservation is simply another tool in the NIMBY toolbox, it demeans the good intentions behind the movement. You get a Boy who Cried Wolf scenario.

I'm sure there are some potentially interesting design solutions to this particular issue. If this is really about preserving the building, then those opposed shouldn't have much opposition to allowing greater density on the vacant lots behind Col. Brooks as compensation for the forgone density along Monroe - right? Somehow, given this particular ANC's record, I don't think that would be the case.

I also note that the implied assertion that new development cannot mesh with the old urban fabric to be false. Preserving that old facade is not the only way to achieve a positive end result.

We can all agree that development should be well designed and well executed. No argument there. But at the most fundamental level, this is about change. The ideal that preservation embodies is one that aims to stop time and runs contrary to the very reason that cities exist - they are dynamic places.

by Alex B. on Mar 11, 2011 9:06 am • linkreport


Shorter Alex B: "You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you."


by oboe on Mar 11, 2011 9:12 am • linkreport

Here is my take on preservation....regardless of what happens I will be long dead, so it does not matter to me if a building is hysterical or not....I will not be around for tear it down.

by sick of 'em on Mar 11, 2011 3:23 pm • linkreport

In this case the attempt to obtain historical designation is hypocritical and cynical. The commissioner for the affected district, ANC5A07, vehemently opposes designating Brookland as an historical district because it would take away property rights and destroy the neighborhood. Now that a development she opposes is gaining increased public support by the day, she has found Jesus? Preservationists should be wary of becoming pawns for this fight that has nothing to do with historical preservation and everything to do with hysterical paranoia.

by Josh on Mar 11, 2011 4:48 pm • linkreport

At Belles Firm of Architecture, in Rockford, IL, our feeling is preservation prevents, or re-directs the normal, "capitalistic" (read this economic) development. This can be a good thing, as when preservation allows for tax incentives, that make an otherwise economically unfeasible development not possible; or a bad thing, as when preservation makes a project so expensive that it kills what should have been an economically viable development.
In the end we have to ask ourselves if the "costs" of preservation are worth it. The problem, as we see it, is when a portion of the general public-many with NO economic interests-play with the economics of a private development. There is architecture all over the world that is far more precious than this little building. The countries that control/own/manage these structures can barely feed their citizens. They pillage these historic sites, yet nobody can do anything. It is economically not possible.

by Belles Architecture on Mar 11, 2011 6:11 pm • linkreport

Why all the agony about motivation?

Either the buildings can be rationally kustified to be significant or they can't. The motivation behind the nomination is irrelevant.

by pedro on Mar 12, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

It's unfathomable that the very buildings which symbolize Brookland to the rest of us in DC could be so endangered. Their owners may not have intended for them to have such a central role, but at least one of them recognized this and capitalized in it ... allowing the naming of a Colonel Brooks tavern and all that goes with that. Having helped create the historic story for this group of buildings and profited accordingly, he's now going to find it hard to reverse course and argue against a historic story of his own making . I may know that Colonel Brooks Tavern wasn't lived in by the founder of Brookland, but I also know that when someone mentions Brookland to me it is that group of buildings that comes to mind. And THAT is what historic preservation is all about. Preserving the elements which define and symbolize a sense of place for us. We can't let Brookland disappear so easily. We must all fight to protect it.

by Lance on Mar 13, 2011 8:02 am • linkreport

I'm intrigued by the commentariat's view of ANC Commissioner David Garber's efforts to get historic landmark designation for a long-abandoned corner store in SE near the Ballpark. HIs move comes only after Akridge filed a permit to raze the property and has royally ticked off his constituents (check JDland's blog for all the comments on it). Are we to question his motives as anti-development? Or are we to question his motives as purely on the side of the angels? Or does it depend on who's ox is being gored?

by Fritz on Mar 13, 2011 8:48 am • linkreport

Meant to post this to Thayer-D on Friday, but I left the window open without hitting Post:

Dupont has a lot of tall buildings (tall for DC) near the Metro now. If there were proposals for a couple more, well-designed ones replacing a few of the small "contributing" but really not so individually amazing buildings there, I don't think that would be a terrible idea.

by David Alpert on Mar 13, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

To David,
I agree. Whilst passing through Dupont, I'd add several more stories to the Riggs bank building in my eye amomg several others and imagine the main avenues built out with a varied but contiguous cornice height of 6-9 stories. But I'd do it with the eye of a pre-WWII architect, both thinking of the surrounding buildings and trying to create something people walking by might say is beautiful. That goes for just about all other metro centers.

As it pertains to this case though, I think Lance hit the nail on the head. It's like saying, let's take out the Red brick Queen Anne mansion between Massachusets and P street, facing the circle, and building a 10 story slick condo. The condo might be supper tight with cool metal fins, and even be a great juxtaposition, but my guess is the loss of the mansion would further erode the character that people across DC have come to associate with that beautiful neighborhood, and thus making it less unique.

The Brooks tavern isn't a midblock one story 1925 store front, it's at the head of the entrance to the metro, and therefore an indelable part of Brookland's face. Even then, if "market forces" prooved insurmoutable, a 1920's architect might find a way of keeping the facade but incorporating the density the site merits on paper. Some contemporary architects do a great job, but far too few architects think more about the feelings of the every day user than their peers. Poeple and preservationists included would be much more amenable if what was built tried to grace the city rather than make a statement confined to theoretical texts.

So build, baby, build, just give us something worth caring about, something worth preserving.

by Thayer-D on Mar 13, 2011 7:34 pm • linkreport

Hmm, lotsa stuff here.

1. One thing you didn't mention is that the reason people do this is that there are no other "remedies" for weighing in on-managing neighborhood change other than preservation for the most part, when it comes to DC law.

That makes "preservation" take the fall when it's not preservation per se, but people using preservation laws "by any means necessary" to help them wrt development matters.

Even so, as a preservationist, I am not offended by the Brooklanders doing this. Maybe it will help them understand better that they f***** up when they opposed the creation of a historic district a few years ago, and this will led to a reconsideration and creation of a historic district.

2. Does putting some higher density development at the Metro, yes to leverage the transit investment, and to provide more residents to support local retail, public safety, local institutions (e.g., many local public schools are closing in the Brookland area due to enrollment declines) without necessarily changing the character of the community?

I'd say yes, probably. You're talking about changing 5-6 blocks around the Metro, out of 100+ blocks. (Although there could be some changes along 12th Street over time as well).

But that's not how people think. They see this as the harbinger of massive change. Since most of the neighborhood is zoned R1 probably--except for the rowhouse blocks (My connection is really bad right now and I can't look up the zoning map)--the reality is that there won't be much in the way of substantive impact over the majority of the neighborhood, because it is almost impossible to change R1-4 zoning. I've said for years that 12th St. is the natural block to any other major changes.

Note however that I was against the loss of rowhouses on the 1000 block of 3rd St. NE (now part of the Loree Grand building), but I still see it as a small overall cost in terms of the return that comes from selectively adding higher density development in a manner which has limited negative impact on the neighborhood overall.

3. related to something someone else said, asking if every place has to be like Clarendon, it's not changing the entire neighborhood, but some underdeveloped areas, right by the Metro.

The issue isn't Clarendonizing everyplace, but leveraging investment, recognizing that this is the 21st century and that the city has limited places where density can be added and that the city invested billions of dollars into the transit system.

What Arlington did is actually a lot more like Haussmann than anything that DC is doing these days, even Columbia Heights' intensification is limited to one full block and a bunch of partial blocks along 14th St.

It's not a fair comparison. Or you can say we're wimps. This is an issue, because doing something crazy, like Dave Murphy's conceptual separated yellow line, would likely require a similar kind of intensification to justify it.

4. Getting back to the headline, etc., my sense is that the buildings won't be designated, based on my experience with two different nominations, one was successful (Uline Arena) and one wasn't (two frame buildings dating from about 1876 on the 800 block of 7th St. NE).

The former building met many of the criteria under the HP law wrt designating a "landmark" (architecture and construction, social and cultural significance, association with major events and people, etc.)

The latter buildings didn't meet that level of significance, although Brumidi likely had been in one of the buildings, which was owned by a subordinate, to whom he left his desk in his will. They were important, they were some of the only extant frame buildings north of H Street NE in the neighborhood. They represented a certain type of lot development. Even so, there were many other examples of this type of building and site plan south of H Street, inside and outside of the Capitol Hill Historic District. And furthermore, there are many more frame Italianate buildings elsewhere in DC.

The buildings in Brookland, especially due to the loss of integrity of the built form in terms of those buildings and their era of architectural significance, are not likely to be able to sustain a nomination. Colonel Brooks is an average commercial building. The house at the corner is more significant as there are few buildings from that era still extant. But it's only one building, and there are more buildings from that time elsewhere in the city...

The issue isn't so much buildings in the neighborhood as much as the overall representation of buildings of similar types across the city.

5. Which leads to the general issue of historic district. If the area were designated, these buildings would be considered contributing structures.

But even so, it's likely that a special merit petition would be granted for redevelopment of the site. (Because the buildings aren't highly significant, and because the proposed development meets other public policy objectives as detailed in the Comp. Plan.)

Note that while you cite this CP article, you didn't cite the other CP article on the Takoma Theatre. That building shows the difference between structures of significance and contributing structures. The Takoma Theatre is a theatre, a truly distinctive building that was the center of the commercial district and of local entertainment. Plus the inside is one of the most intact theaters in the city, especially for typical neighborhood theaters (although the interior is not designated, which is a problem given the owner's neglectful management of the building). Only the Uptown is similar.

Compare this building, which could sustain a landmark nomination (as did the Newton Theater in Brookland, and I helped coordinate the successful nomination of that building, including the presentation to HPRB) to the buildings being nominated in Brookland, and you see the difference in how preservation designation is considered between types of buildings and levels of significance.

6. Alex B. -- it's misleading for you to say that preservation takes some "arbitrary moment in time" around which to designate. It's called an "era of architectural significance" and it is defined in the nomination application-document.

Based on your statement, I'm surmising that you haven't read any historic district nominations. Yes, they are long, but they are usually very interesting reads, and you learn a lot about an area as a result. E.g., I once applied for a job in Hyattsville, so I read the nomination for their historic district. I'd suggest you read it as an example. It's a good read anyway, but you'll see how the period of significance is defined in terms of historic district nominations and historic preservation generally.

7. But that doesn't address your issue of places-buildings changing over time as part of the natural course of time, and should buildings be allowed to change when they are part of a historic district.

I have to admit that there is no easy answer to that question. I fully understand your concern (which is an issue discussed in yet another CP article, concerning a building on the 200 block of PA Ave. SE, which as you know, I wrote about in my own blog).

Generally, I think it's an acceptable cost to not allow changes, at least for particularly significant blocks, because of that "competitive advantage" "thing" that I tout so often, as TM points out.

On the other hand, my house isn't in a historic district. It's a bungalow from 1929. But unlike virtually every other bungalow ever constructed, it doesn't have a "bungalow-style" front porch. When I make some money, I want to put one on. It's arguable, if my house was in the Takoma Historic District, that I would be allowed to do so...

Am I hypocritical...? I don't know, but I am at least willing to ask myself the question.

8. fwiw, thm, the GWU document you cite does reflect the sentiment of the authors, who didn't think Brookland was deserving of being designated as a historic district. There is a fuller, longer version of this document, which was the "context statement" of the historic preservation fund study of Brookland around 1981. (They have a copy at HPO. There's some interesting stuff in the document by the way, including a cite to a UMD thesis on the impact of the creation of the civil service on the local housing market, etc.)

by Richard Layman on Mar 13, 2011 8:02 pm • linkreport

Thayer, perhaps you already know this, but Riggs did already try what you are suggesting to that block. A less successful addition was produced instead, IMO.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 13, 2011 8:37 pm • linkreport

6. Alex B. -- it's misleading for you to say that preservation takes some "arbitrary moment in time" around which to designate. It's called an "era of architectural significance" and it is defined in the nomination application-document.

Based on your statement, I'm surmising that you haven't read any historic district nominations. Yes, they are long, but they are usually very interesting reads, and you learn a lot about an area as a result. E.g., I once applied for a job in Hyattsville, so I read the nomination for their historic district. I'd suggest you read it as an example. It's a good read anyway, but you'll see how the period of significance is defined in terms of historic district nominations and historic preservation generally.

If you want to nitpick my word choice, that's fine - I won't argue. The biggest problem is the lack of allowable change after that period of historical significance. After all, that's what cities do - they change. They are constantly in flux. The moment chosen to preserve might be architecturally significant, but that's only part of the concern - how it plays into the larger role of the city is the larger scale here.

And yes, I've read plenty of nominations. They are indeed fascinating documents.

by Alex B. on Mar 14, 2011 12:30 am • linkreport

@Richard 'The issue isn't Clarendonizing everyplace, but leveraging investment, recognizing that this is the 21st century and that the city has limited places where density can be added and that the city invested billions of dollars into the transit system.

This is easily solved when one comes to realize that 'the city' in the 21st century extends far beyond the artificial borders of DC. 'The City' in this case nowadays covers vast swaths of Northern Virginia, Suburban Maryland, and even small parts of West Virginia ... and perhaps even Delaware. And yes, not only is there plenty of room out there to increase density, we're investing in a transist system that can capitalize on areas already dense enough to support it (i.e., the Silver Line), and we're learned that the cheapeast and most economical method of reaching the varied parts of our vast 'city' is building roads for personal vehicles first, and then augmenting with rail as the spider web or our ever growing city gets dense enough to support it along some of its webs. I.e., There's absolutely no reason to overbuild Dupont, or Brookland, or anywhere in this region. We can't like a place 'so much' we're willing to destroy it by overbuilding it. That's not 'liking' it. That's abusing it.

by Lance on Mar 14, 2011 12:55 am • linkreport

The irony is that most of those fighting to "save" Colonel Brooks clearly do not dine there. I do, and as much as I'll miss my current watering hole, there are two realities the "preservationist" anti-development crowd is ignoring. 1. The owners of Colonel Brooks plan to close the restaurant this yr regardless of whether new development goes through. So we can preserve yet another empty storefront in Brookland (and the crime that goes with it), or bring some new life to the neighborhood. 2. Those who don't eat at CB's don't seem to realize that the building interior was completely gutted 30 years ago and long since departed from local architecture as a historical example. Moreover, the building is in rough shape and in need of repairs.

Brookland needs development to reduce crime, keep residents' dollars in the community, and create jobs. The desire of the majority is being drown out by a small group to the detriment of all.

by BeltwayInsider on Mar 14, 2011 6:54 am • linkreport

@BeltwayInsider, 1. The owners of Colonel Brooks plan to close the restaurant this yr regardless of whether new development goes through. So we can preserve yet another empty storefront in Brookland (and the crime that goes with it), or bring some new life to the neighborhood. 2. Those who don't eat at CB's don't seem to realize that the building interior was completely gutted 30 years ago and long since departed from local architecture as a historical example.

You're showing a complete misunderstanding of what historic preservation laws are intended to preserve.

1. Historic preservation laws protect buildings and 'sense of place'. They don't get involved with who's using the buildings or for what purpose.

2. Historic preservation laws (for the most part) only protect EXTERIORS of a building ... since that is what gives a neighborhoood a 'sense of place'. (Yes, you can also get an interior landmarked, but that is not what is occuring here.)

Both these things they DON'T do (which you thought were what they did) are like that because no one would be happy if preservationists got to mandate the use of a building ... And that is what would be occuring if the historic preservation laws got involved with what you can do in the building and how you can configure/use the inside.

You're actually helping to bring light to why so many people think historic preservation is applied inconsistently or somehow 'unfairly'. It's really much more a matter of people not understanding what historic preservation is really about. It's all laid out in the law, so it's not like there's really that much gray area in there. But most people don't bother to read the law.

by Lance on Mar 14, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

Lance -- whenever I write about "the city" I am not referring to any other jurisdictions in the Washington Metropolitan area other than the center city of Washington, DC. So that other stuff that you wrote about the suburbs is irrelevant to my point. (The point that you are making though is drawn out of the writings of Peter Muller on city and metropolitan spatial design. Note that I draw on this work frequently when I discuss the spatial patterns of DC as being derived from the Walking City [1800-1890] and Streetcar/Transit City [1890-1920] eras.)

It happens that I disagree with you about the value of sprawl or polycentric transit system design. cf. Belmont _Cities in Full_ which is specifically about recentralizing of commerce, housing, and transit.

Even if I don't like being called a neoliberal from the standpoint of Marxist influenced sociology and geography, the reality is that the 'city' competes with those other jurisdictions and has to protect its interests and continue to be proactive in order to maintain its relative position within the regional economy as a place to do business and as a place to live.

In a way, this touches on Alex B.'s point about places changing over time and whether or not preservation responds to this fact.

Alex B. -- I will nitpick your language, because era of architectural significance is not some aesthetic random thing, but a firm construct. So I am surprised that you assert this if you have read various "context statements" for historic districts.

E.g., this line in a WBJ article from Friday about the construction of a church (those "theater church" people) where the Miles Glass building is on 8th St. SE:

The NCC, currently headquartered at Ebenezers coffeehouse near Union Station, bought the Miles Glass building last summer for $3.5 million. It is located in the Capitol Hill Historic District, and it is unclear what if any restrictions that might place on the church when it comes time to raze the building.

There may be no constraints, said Martin Smith, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, if Miles Glass isn't a contributing building to the historic district. It was constructed in 1963; the vast majority of buildings deemed historic on Capitol Hill were erected prior to 1945.

That's from the online story. The print copy story is more specific that the building was constructed outside of the "era of architectural significance" for the Capitol Hill Historic District and therefore isn't considered a contributing building and therefore not protected.

Seems like a pretty firm concept to me.

Read more: D.C. church seeks to raze Miles Glass | Washington Business Journal

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2011 1:27 pm • linkreport


As I said, it's plenty firm in the narrow lens of architecture, but completely arbitrary through the broader lens of urbanism - or the even broader lens of civilization.

This is my point about preservation - it is too narrowly defined and often fails to address the consequences of preserving this one element (and insulating it from change) of the overall environment above all others.

by Alex B. on Mar 14, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

@Richard, I understand (and agree) with what you have to say about the city having to defend its interests. The point I was trying to make is that 'all these things' ARE happening ... just to a scale that is larger than the manmade boundaries of the District. They're happening over the de-facto City of Washington which time has spread out over many miles (and counties and states.)

That's not saying that cities can't play off their comparitive advantages in the war of the hearts and loyalties (and especially dollars) of the people who live in the region. For example, Tysons and Bethesda each play off their strenghts of 'lots of room' in providing cheap and abundant parking. But I am saying that even in competing against other cities/towns in your area, you have to recognize that what's really going on is 'big picture' and not constrained by artificial political boundaries. For example, Tysons and Bethesda wouldn't have a competitive advantage over DC in regards for parking if there wasn't the 'bigger picture' of patterns of automobile use and rail use and bike use already establishing itself (and always in fluid state) just like a spider weaves a web ... I.e., That recognition has to come first so that you can adjust to it and not viceversa. For example, thinking just adding more density to Washington will solve anything is losing site of the bigger picture that the real gains in being able to accomodate more people in this region isn't stacking more people on its already expensive and scare land near Metro stations but instead finding ways to better utilize all the hundreds of thousands of acres in the Metro area so that you can use land that is cheaper (and thus more affordable) for all.

by Lance on Mar 14, 2011 2:50 pm • linkreport

@Beltwayinsider: Regarding your last sentence, fear not. The Council will laugh at the ANC's silly resolution just like they laughed at the ANC's silly arguments against the Abdo development.

by Brooklander on Mar 14, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

Lance -- we disagree, violently. What your approach is commonly referred to is called "sprawl."

Cities have certain characteristics around which to uniquely position, so do suburbs. As you point out places like Tysons and Bethesda theoretically are better in terms of automobility.

What you don't point out is that DC is better for sustainable transportation modes (walking, transit, biking) and it is important to build and strengthen the spatial pattern for these modes.

That means surgically adding density, which also adds income, property, and sales tax revenues, eyes on the street, more customers for retail businesses in the city, etc.

Interesting, what you also don't point out is that the suburbs--Montgomery, Arlington, Alexandria (a city-county) and Fairfax (yes! Fairfax!!) are urbanizing and focusing on extending transit in order to reduce automobile dependency.

I wrote a long post two weeks ago about Fairfax County and how it is using the Silver Line to reposition itself for the next 50 years around transit and away from the car.

Interesting that you want to consign DC to the ashcan of history so to speak, in terms of its continued relevance as a place to do business and as a place to live, in the context of the future.

Now I hate to sound so pedantic, but clearly you don't see surgical increases in density and a focus on promoting the qualities of the walking and transit city (remember that L'Enfant designed the city of Washington to handle 1 million residents...) as a necessity for the city's continued economic success.

Remember that the city has more lower income residents to support than any other competing jurisdiction. This comes at a huge cost, and requires income-producing residents in order for the budget to come close to balancing, not to mention that my quality of life, to some extent, is aided by having more city residents, not fewer, to cost-effectively support the various amenities, public and private, that I would like to have access to.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

This is not the same as the fight to prevent the freeway from coming through this neighborhood. The reference to Moses is BS, plain and simple. As a lifelong resident, who remembers that fight (but was too young to participate), stop with the irrelevant references. I worked with DC renovations for many years in the 70's and 80's, much of it historic. I can tell you with utmost confidence that the building occupied by Colonel Brooks Tavern is NOT of any historic significance whatsoever.

The proposed project, on the other hand, nicely complements the neighboring Abdo development and may prompt a renovation of top of the Monroe Street bridge, which is another eyesore in this area.

There are virtually no places worth eating here in Brookland (although the new Mexican style place is okay - you can only stand that once in a while). There are not even any nice coffee shops! It is pathetic. Brookland needs this project, and I wholeheartedly endorse it.

If you need any assistance in driving this forward, please contact me.

by John Guay on Mar 26, 2011 6:38 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us