Posts about Third Church
On May 25, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) turned down the Third Church of Christ Scientist's plans to redevelop their church and office building, at 16th and I NW, into a new church and office building.
The church and developer ICG Properties already have permission to tear down the Brutalist church structure. They were seeking concept approval for a new 9-story structure, which was scaled back from their original 11-story proposal. The hearing, and controversy, almost entirely revolved around whether or not a 9th story is acceptable at this site, part of the 16th Street historic district.
This case illustrates a number of the problems with the current historic preservation process. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO)'s staff report is filled with problems. It oversteps the bounds of proper preservation considerations, ignores precedent in reaching its conclusions, doesn't respond to the ANC, and just came out too late.
To give some background, HPO is a department of the DC Office of Planning with a full-time staff. Among other functions, they meet with people who apply for permits in historic districts, conduct research into the history of buildings, and issue written reports about redevelopment proposals.
HPRB, a group of 9 private citizens appointed by the mayor, makes decisions on cases. Department of Interior rules require certain members to have degrees or experience in architecture, archaeology, history, and so on, while other members can have any background. HPRB hears the case, listens to the applicant, HPO, and the public, and then determines whether a proposal is "compatible" with the historic district or landmark.
The decision in this case had many problems which the church can probably use to challenge the decision, if they choose. Some of the problems reflect flaws in the process itself, which will come up in other cases as well.
The staff position is inconsistent. The staff report primarily argues that there is a sacrosanct 90-foot cornice line on lower 16th Street, and that no occupiable space should go above there even if it's set back, as the owners suggested in their compromise plan. However, in 2007 the staff endorsed an occupiable rooftop event space for the Hay-Adams Hotel, one block away and closer to the White House.
HPO doesn't necessarily need to always come out exactly the same on each and every issue, but they should have cited that case and explained why they think this one is different.
Too many of HPO's and HPRB's decisions seem arbitrary and subjective. In most regulatory areas, there are set statutes and rules, and an agency's job is to interpret how the rules apply to the specific case. There are only a few historic guidelines HPO has developed over the years, and they're remarkably sketchy. Therefore, very few of HPO's decisions actually follow from written policies. This makes it difficult for anyone to plan an addition or new construction in a historic district.
The report strays too far into zoning. Former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg used to cut off public witnesses who attempted to cite zoning rules at hearings. He would insist that preservation is not zoning, and point out that the board's only job is to decide whether a project is historically "compatible" or not.
This staff report smashed that wall. Rather than just discussing whether the proposal was "compatible," the report brought up the limits of the site's SP-2 zoning, and the fact that the Zoning Commission would have to rezone the property and grant a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to make the proposal work.
At least some members based their decision on this zoning language. Gretchen Pfaehler, for instance, said that "I would ask that you work to comply with the 90-foot height level as the law requires." She clearly viewed the issue as whether she should give an exception to the zoning rule.
But, in fact, her job is to pay that particular rule no mind. The Zoning Commission decides on zoning; HPRB decides on historic compatibility. Which steps a property owner does or does not need to change the zoning on their property is historically irrelevant, as Boasberg would often point out.
And while the law might set a 90-foot height maximum, it also allows the Zoning Commission to set a different height, still within the law. So the law doesn't "require" 90 feet, per se.
The staff report came too late. HPO staff provide a formal written report the Friday before a case comes up before the HPRB. In this case, however, they did not get it out on time. Since the report was late, the property owner didn't have an opportunity to review it ahead of the scheduled meeting. Unable to prepare a response to a report they hadn't received, they decided to postpone their case by one month.
Government agencies have considerable power to impede property owners from doing things on their own property. The very least we should ask is that they make these decisions in a timely way and not unnecessarily string anyone along. If a project is on the agenda for a specific meeting, the government is obliged to be prepared for that meeting.
The staff negotiate in secret. In zoning cases, the review process is quite transparent. A property owner applies for a certain change, the application becomes public, agencies and community members weigh in, and then a board reviews the application. With preservation, however, the process is less clear. The owner first spends weeks or months talking with staff and often negotiating over what changes to make to a project, before it goes before any board and often before it's even public.
HPO staff often ask applicants to make changes which don't have a clear basis in regulations, but are merely personal preferences. Sometimes the board ends up disagreeing, but often in those cases the owner has already taken elements away from their plan and the board has no chance to restore them. This process limits the effectiveness and authority of the law, in favor of subjectivity.
In this case, staff negotiated to reduce the height of the building. The owners proposed a compromise where they would take one floor off the building and set the new top floor back farther, making it almost invisible. At one of the presentations ICG made to the community, they said they felt this was a compromise staff were willing to make based on their conversations with staff. But at the very end, staff backed away.
Any applicant has to run a long gauntlet of multiple offices and boards, each of which can ask for changes. Sometimes these changes are inconsistent, or one group asks for a compromise in one area and then the next uses that agreement as a starting point to negotiate for even more changes.
Rather than discussing projects in secret, preservation staff should just publicly state what they think is or isn't historic about a project, let neighbors and others put in their two cents, and put the questions to the board.
The ANC received no "great weight." By law, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) recommendations deserve "great weight" from District agencies. There's no clear definition of how much weight is great, but there is a general consensus: As ANC 3B explains it, "'Great weight' means that a District agency must consider and respond to concerns voiced by an ANC, but does not necessarily have to agree with it or abide by the ANC's decisions." ANC 2E's webpage says, "The DC agency must: make its decision in writing, explicitly answer ANC arguments, and send a copy of the response to the ANC."
The staff report made no reference to the views of ANC 2B, which includes the site, and which voted to support the compromise plan. The staff report does not explicitly respond to the ANC's arguments, and therefore there is a strong case that they did not afford "great weight."
The meeting stayed nowhere near on time. This doesn't relate to the outcome of this particular case, but it's an important issue with the process in general. The agenda called for this case to come up at 1:30 pm. It actually started around 2:30, and members of the public got to speak closer to 4.
Acting chair Pfaehler also asked everyone to keep their remarks to 3 minutes, but several testified for over 10 minutes without a word from the chair. Meanwhile, 40-50 people had shown up to testify on McMillan, the next item on the agenda. But given the late hour, Pfaehler concluded there wasn't time to cover it, and sent all of them home.
They had taken considerable time out of their day to provide comment and didn't get a chance to do so at all. They may not all be available for the next meeting, so some of those comments will simply not be heard. The board needs to better manage its time, to show more respect to the people who dedicate part of their day to present views.
Overall, any process which leads such subjective decisions, where much of the negotiation happens in secret, with inconsistent rules about what is and isn't appropriate to consider, and unpredictable timing, needs fixing. In an upcoming article, I'll suggest a few ways to address these problems.
Historic preservation staff want to remove 2 floors from the proposed building that will replace the Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist and the Christian Science Monitor building at 16th and I in downtown DC.
Responding to pressure from preservation groups and the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the owners shrank down their original proposal to one with very little visible bulk beyond any other building on 16th Street, but HPO is recommending that the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) reject anything larger than the typical building size along the street.
The current structure is a small octagonal church that turns its back to the street, a larger office building, and a brick plaza in between. In 2008, the church asked to raze the building and build a new, larger combined office building and church on the site. They said that the building was too hard to heat, too expensive to light, and poorly suited to their needs as a congregation.
In one of DC's most controversial preservation cases, the HPRB rejected the application, since the church had been designated as historic. The owners appealed, and Mayor Fenty asked planning director Harriet Tregoning to personally sit as the Mayor's Agent, which hears such appeals. Using the broader discretion available to the Mayor's Agent, she granted the raze, but only once the owners present a new design that gets past historic and other review.
Separately, the church and developer also reached a settlement with the DC Preservation League where they gave $450,000 for
DCPL's operations preservation programs involving religious properties in exchange for DCPL ending their fight against the project, the staff report notes; other groups such as the Committee of 100 continued to oppose razing the structure.
Earlier this year, the developers working with the church proposed an 11-story building with ground floor retail, offices above, and a church space on the first 3 floors at one end. Since the buildings along 16th have cornices at 90 feet above the street, they designed a building with its own cornice line slightly below that height. Behind and set back, a glassier structure would rise to the higher point.
This building would still not be as tall as the adjacent one to the west on I Street, which falls into a different zone and isn't part of the historic district.
At a community meeting with residents of the Dupont and Golden Triangle area a few months ago, people were generally enthusiastic about the proposal. Architect and former HPO staffer Michael Beidler suggested some ways to set the upper portion back slightly more to create more separation.
Last month, however, the designers presented a different and significantly smaller proposal. Staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and some of the groups that opposed the original raze, opposed having a building taller than the 90 feet prevailing along the street. In response, the architects shrank the top portion to a single extra floor, set significantly back and only minimally visible from anywhere outside.
In their staff report, HPO rejects even that proposal. The report argues that on 16th Street, it is not historically appropriate to allow any buildings over the prevailing 90 foot size. A few buildings have penthouses, but not ones with space for people to use, and the report seeks to draw a firm line there; if this building can even have a single floor of occupiable penthouse, then the St. Regis hotel will want a rooftop restaurant, it says, and several other buildings will likely follow suit.
The property owner's argument is also more difficult in that they're looking to exceed zoning, though in legally permissible ways. In the typical preservation density dispute, staff want to restrict a building far more than the zoning permits in that area. Here, the owners want to rezone the property from SP-2 to C-3-C as well, which would give greater flexibility, and also to seek a Planned Unit Development, where the Zoning Commission reviews the project in exchange for even more flexibility.
Still, if successful, HPO's action has consequences for the city far beyond the look of the street. To take away the top 2 floors whe moving from the original proposal to what the owners call the "compromise" proposal, they reduced the interior space from about 14,000 to 10,000 square feet, they said during a presentation. At a typical rule of thumb of 250 square feet per office, that would cut 152 potential jobs from downtown DC. HPO's recommended limits would squeeze that further.
Jobs are the centerpiece of Mayor Gray's agenda, and one prerequisite for jobs is space. Already, many companies DC would love to attract, like technology companies, have trouble finding affordable office space compared to the suburbs or other cities.
Downtown, in particular, is the best place for jobs because it already has the transportation infrastructure to move more people in and out than in any other part of the region. It has the restaurants and the office supply stores and more. Plus, residents of many neighborhoods don't want too many office buildings coming into their areas; Dupont residents fought for decades to prevent the neighborhood from completely changing into an office-only extension of the Golden Triangle, for instance. Jobs, and space for jobs, downtown reduces the pressure elsewhere.
To me, the original concept doesn't look out of place in downtown. The grand avenue leading to the White House would be just as grand, if not grander, if buildings flanking it had slightly taller sections behind the main cornice lines that more closely matched the buildings right off 16th.
The report makes a good point that it would be better to set limits for the entire street, rather than piecemeal. However, this debate should more properly be part of a zoning discussion. If piecemeal rezoning a block of an SP-2 district to C-3-C is inappropriate, then it should be inappropriate in an SP-2 zone not subject to historic review. The Zoning Commission has the power to decide whether this should be a C-3-C PUD or just a standard SP-2; they should properly make that decision, not HPRB.
If this were already C-3-C, or if the Zoning Commission decides to rezone it, then a building of this size isn't inappropriate. The report makes repeated reference to provisions in the Comprehensive Plan about preserving the "historic, majestic, and beautiful" avenues, but an avenue can still be all of these things with buildings scaled to downtown.
The developers have some legitimate gripes about this process. They were originally scheduled for an HPRB meeting on May 3, but HPO did not issue its staff report by the Friday before the meeting, as usual. That forced them to postpone the project since there would not be enough time to respond to the staff report, said Sylianos Christofides, a principal at ICG, the project's developer.
In the meantime, the Dupont Conservancy, which initially endorsed the "compromise" approach, reversed its position between the two meetings. They say that ICG changed the project, warranting re-review, but Christofides insists they made no changes. Disclosure: I am a member of the Conservancy and was present at the meeting where the project first came up, but not at the second one.
This process also misses opportunities to create a more appealing building. When applying for the raze, the developers insisted that they would replace it with a top-quality building; I wrote that "HPRB now has a chance to shape some excellent architecture at this site."
The church entrance will have an interesting faceted glass arrangement (which hopefully would not be too hard to clean), but the rest of the building, while perfectly reasonable for an office building (and far better than some of the concrete boxes nearby), isn't especially interesting either. Instead of pushing for more significant architecture on the rest of the project, HPO has focused on just asking for a smaller building.
A grand avenue might have been better served by a building which stands out for its detailing and architectural quality instead of just having to get smaller so as to fade away and not impinge upon the consciousness. In past eras, the grand avenue leading to the White House was a place for notable and visible buildings, not invisible ones. Sadly, our preservation process has more recently evolved into one that tries to make each building as close to nonexistent as possible rather than truly great.
Update: Rebecca Miller of DCPL emailed in with additional information about what the $450,000 payment will fund:
The fund is to be used towards educational and outreach programs related to religious properties and mid-century modernism. The fund will also have a grant component to which congregations will be able to apply to the fund for bricks and mortar money or other projects such as research etc.Miller was concerned that when I wrote "DCPL's operations" it sounded like that was to fund staff or office space and so forth. That was not my intention and I have updated the post.
Greater Greater Washington is the subject of the cover story in this week's City Paper, about how our little ragtag band of bloggers here is getting to be a little bit influential.
If you're visiting us for the first time after finding out about us in the article, welcome! The best way to stay on top of what we're talking about is to subscribe to the RSS feed, sign up for our daily digest email, or follow us on Twitter.
What did you think of the piece?
My favorite bit is Chris Zimmerman's insightful quote about the forces shaping WMATA coverage in the Post and Examiner (though I do think Kytja Weir has been doing a great job), followed by the part about how Richard Longstreth might be able to make a persuasive-sounding case to landmark a pile of dirt. If you don't get the Eleanor Roosevelt reference, it was an allusion to Falkland Chase.
And aw, shucks, Rob Pitingolo.
Is our group too white, as DePillis wonders? It's too bad Dan Reed had decamped for grad school in Philadelphia by the time that Hyattsville meetup happened, else he'd very likely have been there. And we're always happy when Bradley Heard has time to write something. But yes, we're pretty white, as are planners in general, and it'd be really great to increase our diversity.
DePillis is pointing out an issue that I've long known we need to address. Since we don't pay anyone, I'm limited in how much I can influence this. But we're always looking for contributors, of any race, gender, age or other characteristic. The only requirement is quality, and a general fit with our philosophy. Email email@example.com if you'd like to write for us.
Richard Layman also raises a point about the challenge of building relationships with insiders versus attacking them. It's a tough line all journalists walk. In our case, we criticize agencies and officials when warranted, but also try to be be fair and understand the challenges people on the inside face.
When it comes to Jim Graham, I'd just note that I criticized the DC USA parking garage, one of the listed issues, in February 2008, March on bike parking, May twice, June, a New York analogue, March and April 2009 ... you get the idea.
The thing about Jim Graham is that you just have to understand where he's coming from. He's very much a politican, and makes decisions based on what voters want. But that means all you have to do to win is get a lot of Ward 1 voters to support your policy. He also has an absolutely first-rate staffer in charge of transportation, which counts for a lot. Finally, that quote from me at the end of that section is the only one I'd say was a wee bit out of context.
I also have just a few little nitpicks. Remarkably few, actually, given the amount of content in the piece. One of the little Metro-line graphics lists ANCs among the "anti" groups. Sometimes they are anti, but some ANCs are terrific. Last election cycle, a bunch of good candidates won many Ward 3 ANC seats, turning several ANCs from knee-jerk naysayers to constructive participants in neighborhood visioning.
Also, I wish I could take credit for the bag fee, but that one was all amazing legislative legwork by Tommy Wells and his staff.
DePillis's piece is quite balanced, and pretty accurate for an article of its length. As someone who does a fair bit of journalism myself, I know how hard it is to say a lot and be absolutely precise in every tiny, mostly-irrelevant detail.
So what if Drinking Liberally really met in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, or Jaime hadn't quite yet started planning school at the time she started contributing, or if the landmarked Brutalist church at 16th and I is Third Church, not First Church (which is up in Columbia Heights); you're not going to go fundamentally wrong reading it, and DePillis deserves good marks for a tough job well done.
Then (left): The home occupied by Justice Horace Gray. Gray was on the Supreme Court from 1882 to 1902. This structure later became the location of a Christian Science Reading Room.
Now (right): The Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. The church was built in 1971. Since opening, the building has not been well suited for the church, which has experienced declining attendance at its services. It currently has received the green light for demolition.
Yesterday, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, acting as the Mayor's Agent in the Third Church of Christ, Scientist case, gave the church permission to replace their Brutalist building with a new structure. The widely-expected decision should now make dangerous First Amendment litigation moot. But it also contains several conditions that should also forestall some of the worst scenarios that preservationists feared.
The owner of a landmark may only appeal to the Mayor's Agent for certain reasons. One is that the city's denial of the raze permit would cause "unreasonable economic hardship." Another is to construct "a project special merit." The Church had initially filed under both criteria, but at the hearing, they dropped the "special merit" claim when the DC Preservation League pointed out that the Church had never submitted sketches, plans, or any other description of the building they'd like to construct.
Why haven't they? If the Church could design a really great building to replace this one, it might increase support for razing the current structure. However, it's likely that they simply can't afford to pay for architectural work without knowing whether they can build it. But some preservationists worried that the Church might actually be concealing its true plans. What if, instead of wanting to build a new church, it just hoped to make maximum profit from an office building and move somewhere else?
The Church denies this. They are committed to their downtown location, they say, and want to keep working in their community. They simply can't afford to keep maintaining an aging concrete building which has problems with water, heating and cooling, deterioration of the concrete, and more. The building is now too large for their shrinking congregation and too inflexible to rent out. They are probably telling the truth. Tregoning's decision, however, codifies this formally.
The order gives the Church permission to raze their building. But before they can do so, they must get approval for a new structure. And that structure has to include a new church. It might end up being part of a larger mixed-use building, like the church in the Penn Quarter. Hopefully the church will design something better than that Penn Quarter design, something that doesn't turn blank walls to the street, as does that and the current Brutalist building.
The church itself could also occupy a different part of the site instead of the corner, if the developer that owns the adjacent Christian Science Monitor building proceeds with its one-time plans to demolish and replace that building as well. But one way or another, "that the demolition permit will be issued no sooner than a
building permit for a replacement church."
Since the site lies inside the Sixteenth Street Historic District, HPRB must approve the new design as compatible with the existing historic character of that area. That should prevent any really bad designs. HPRB now has a chance to shape some excellent architecture at this site. They should avoid any temptation to make life difficult for Third Church just because they lost a case, and use their power judiciously to produce a new building that everyone, from architects to passersby to Third Church, can love.
While one judge railed against misconduct in the prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens on Tuesday, another judge in the courtroom next door sharply rebuked the DC government for its refusal to let the Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16th and I raze their aging, concrete, historically landmarked building.
Federal Judge James Robertson made it clear that he believes the landmark designation of the church imposes a burden in conflict with the federal RLUIPA statute. He denied DC's motion to dismiss and all but promised that if Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, the "Mayor's Agent" on the administrative appeal, doesn't rule for the church and grant them permission to tear down their building, he will in a "hundred page decision" that wades into the First Amendment "thicket".
Most expect Tregoning will do just that. In a very unusual move, she presided over the case personally instead of delegating the job to the typical administrative law judge. Ruling that Third Church's building imposes financial hardship, due to the expense of heating and lighting the concrete structure, the difficulty of maintenance, and other burdens would get rid of the case without creating a potentially dangerous precedent exempting religious bodies from their obligations to preserve other, more historically worthy buildings.
Robertson has earned himself a no-nonsense reputation. After promptly throwing out the lawsuit challenging President Obama's citizenship, he asked the plaintiff's attorneys to justify why their suit wasn't frivolous and harassing and why they shouldn't pay back the President for his own legal fees. Robertson is also the judge who resigned from the FISA court in 2005 with a sharply-worded letter criticizing the constitutionality of the secret court.
The judge made his opinions on this case clear right away. ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein, a supporter of the church's position, sent this synopsis of one exchange, with Robertson questioning DC's counsel Leah Taylor.
"Have you seen the church?" Judge Robertson asked ... "Yes, your honor," she replied.One of the biggest urbanist arguments against the building is the position of the door, in a courtyard on the opposite side from the corner. Blank walls face I Street and the portion of 16th closest to the corner. A fire door does open onto I, and according to church officials, confused visitors often try to knock on that door.
"Been down there? Walked around? Seen the building?" he continued. "Yes, your honor," she replied.
"Gone inside?" he asked. "No, your honor," she replied.
"Couldn't find the door, could you?" he shot back with a gleam in his eye and a wicked smile.
The left side of the courtroom, filled with members and backers of the church, erupted with laughter. The right side, where the preservationists were sitting, heard a few nervous chuckles.
But the issue before the court is whether landmarking the structure violates the church's First Amendment rights. And according to Silverstein, Judge Robertson clearly signaled his willingness to overturn the Metropolitan Baptist Church case holding that landmarking of a church does not pose a "special burden". Robertson also criticized the HPRB hearing which denied the raze permit, where Chairman Tersh Boasberg dismissed First Amendment issues as being beyond the scope of the Board's purview. "I am very troubled that the District refused to even entertain assertions of violations of First Amendment, RLUIPA and RFRA rights," Robertson said.
This is a great test case for those eager to curtail preservation and a terrible case for preservation itself. The preservation community will benefit most if they lose this case in the Mayor's Agent hearing so that they don't lose the broader case in court.
Last year, Councilmember Jack Evans introduced a bill to exempt recently-designed churches from historic preservation. I and others argued that it could exempt other properties that might be, at the very least, less controversial. Evans withdrew the legislation amid criticism and the primary election; Marion Barry later reintroduced it, but it didn't come to a vote.
Now, as promised, Evans has introduced new legislation (PDF). This time, it specifically only exempts this one property from the historic preservation law. I'd suggest that the bill specifically clarify that if the church ceases to own the property, the exemption would end. Barry also reintroduced the broader bill once again.
Jim Graham introduced a bill to amend the WMATA Compact under the terms of the deal worked out between the federal government and DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Each jurisdiction must contribute $50 million per year to WMATA, and the feds will match the $150 million total. Under the bill, as promised in the deal, they also get two board seats, appointed by the General Services Administration, as long as they're holding up their end of the bargain and contributing their share.
In addition, the bill requires one of the federal representatives to be a regular rider of Metro services. Good idea; how about demanding that of all board members? It also adds a position of inspector general.
Other measures introduced recently include a resolution to confirm Gabe Klein, and this bill by Barry and Harry Thomas, Jr. that seems to seek to reestablish a Museum of the City of Washington, DC at the Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square. The museum closed in 2004 from low attendance, and now the Historical Society occupies the building including some public exhibits.
For good or ill, it's much, much easier to landmark a building in DC than in our fellow Northeastern cities. In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission doesn't even act on many landmark requests, and can't stop developers from ripping off historic cornices to avoid landmark designation. The Commission declined to preserve St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, partly because of opposition from the Catholic Church yet despite community support and the endorsement of Congressman Charles Rangel.
In DC, I can't imagine such a building not being designated in the blink of an eye, or HPRB actually ignoring an application to expand a historic district. And that's good. St. Thomas should become a landmark, and New York's disinterest in preservation is burying many beautiful and valuable old Brooklyn warehouses that could easily become great loft buildings or offices.
The Times article explains how many NYC churches, including quite beautiful ones, are opposing landmark status because of the immense profit possible from selling their land. That's a factor in DC's Third Church fight as well. At last week's hearing, preservationists made many suggestions for saving the building, but the congregation either believes those options wouldn't work or simply isn't interested in anything less than the full sum they could earn from redeveloping the site completely.
Dupont ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson predicted the demise of the church, saying that "No one is tearing down the National Cathedral here to put up a Wal-Mart. Everyone here today wants to preserve a church. The difference [between us] is whether the church is a building or the people within it." But the National Cathedral is a building, too, as is St. Thomas, and if those congregations wanted to tear those buildings down, we'd protest loudly.
That's why a church victory on First Amendment or RLUIPA grounds, setting a broad precedent against preservation of churches like St. Thomas as well as Third Church, would be the worst possible outcome. The real difference between these buildings is that the bunker-like and anti-pedestrian Third Church does not contribute to a sense of place at this downtown corner in DC, while an elegant Gothic cathedral very much does for Harlem or on Wisconsin Avenue.
In Boston, Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham last week lamented the imminent loss of the Shreve, Crump & Low building at Boylston and Arlington. Boston's Landmarks Commission "decided the building is not sufficiently architecturally significant beyond its neighborhood." (Can you imagine HPRB saying that about something like this?)
Abraham reserves her harshest words for the developer's proposal, dubbing it one of Boston's "generic genuflections to 19th-century architecture" because of its "enormous bay windows and its segmented fašade echoing a row of brownstones." Personally, I think echoing Boston's beloved brownstones is a nice architectural mix of the new with the tried-and-true old. Abraham says "we can't re-create the 19th century," but why must we abandon it entirely and its great success in favor of something like the ICA, which is one of Abraham's favorites despite being boxy and (at least temporarily) un-urban?
I guess some things don't change from city to city, like the inexplicable fondness among architects and critics for buildings that only look good from distant vantage points far from the everyday pedestrian experience.
The church anti-preservation bill, first introduced and withdrawn by Jack Evans and then reintroduced by Marion Barry, will not be considered this year. Chairman Gray has decided not to proceed with the bill, designed primarily to get rid of Third Church, until after the Mayor's Agent hearing now scheduled for November 25th.
After the hearing, the church will either win and get permission to tear down their building, or lose and have to keep it. If they win, then there will be no political reason to re-introduce the bill, and the church will drop their civil rights lawsuit. Both the bill and the lawsuit threaten to set bad precedent that could let other, more widely agreed-upon historic houses of worship tear down important historic buildings, even to create ugly surface parking lots.
If there's ever an example of winning the battle and losing the war, this church fight is it. Winning the Mayor's Agent hearing could be the worst thing to happen to preservation in a generation. I admire the strict preservationists' fortitude in standing up for what they believe, but preservationists need to realize an important fact: preservation is a political movement.
For all the talk about how preservation retains even buildings that are unpopular (since tastes change), preservation got started saving buildings that were popular. Masses rose up unsuccessfully to save the old Penn Station, still New York City's most deeply-felt loss. In historic neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle, neighbors banded together to stop undesirable change. Our historic preservation laws came from the political force of many citizens dismayed at the changes happening around them.
Since then, the political climate has changed. Preservation's zeal to protect the very same buildings that, when constructed, prompted preservation in the first place, doesn't help. In Chevy Chase DC, two historic district opponents defeated pro-historic district candidates, one an incumbent. If I were a leader in the historic preservation movement, I'd be very worried that the movement is heading down the same route as the Virginia Republican Party: toward irrelevance in pursuit of ideological purity.
A political movement's success depends on finding issues where undecided people agree with their side, and playing up those issues. Democrats want to talk about health care and education, where they know most Americans are on their side. Preservationists need to play up the areas where they enjoy broad support. And they're working on education, organizing events to teach people about modernism, which is a good strategy.
In the case of the defeated Chevy Chase historic district, the loss seems part PR, part ideology. Neighbors who worried preservation might threaten their front-porch rocking horses didn't help, and proponents could have done more to illustrate the damage from teardowns. And, as I've written, we should explore compromises involving an intermediate level of protection. Much as progressives might want universal single-payer health care, there's wisdom in leaders' approach to bite off one politically viable piece of the problem at a time.
Finally, the preservation movement needs to steer the headlines away from the controversial cases damaging to preservation's reputation. When an individual unfamiliar with the nuances of preservation, as I was earlier this year, reads an article like Marc Fisher's criticism of the church, they may not only conclude that this building should be torn down, but that the historic preservation movement is a bad idea altogether. Politicians are introducing overly broad legislation that will cause collateral damage in an effort to remove the church, and a court could very well issue a ruling against preservation that goes far beyond this little concrete box in a city with many concrete boxes.
Republican corruption and xenophobia has turned a generation of young people, minorities, and educated suburbanites toward the Democratic party, creating what could be a lasting coalition. Preservation had its coalition in the 1970s and 80s. With the failure in Chevy Chase, it's clear that coalition is gone. I don't want to see new residents similarly set their minds against preservation in all forms for a generation, simply for the sake of a few, widely reviled modern buildings.
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
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