Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Historic Preservation

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

Preservation


Eckington is wrestling with whether to be a historic district

Eckington is the latest DC neighborhood to explore historic status. Residents' debate over the subject has centered on their ability to make changes to their property, like adding solar panels and build additions, and the impact such a move would have on affordability.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The effort is being led by the Eckington Civic Association (ECA), which has engaged QED Associates to establish the neighborhood's historic character and organized three "town halls," two of which were held earlier this year with the third scheduled for May 9th.

"The two things that come up are pop-ups and other projects that are not within historical keeping of the neighbourhood," said Randy Nolan, president of the civic association, when asked why they are looking at historic preservation for the neighborhood.

He is quick to note that the topic is nuanced and that the ECA has not taken an official position on historic designation, except to follow its membership's desire that the topic be explored and considered.

The ECA began the effort after neighboring Bloomingdale began looking at historic designation, with the association's board approving the study and town halls in the middle of 2015, said Nolan.

Is Eckington historic?

Eckington's built environment is diverse. Brick row homes (author's note: I own and live in one) that date back to the late 1800s make up the bulk of the housing stock while new development is rising in its southern reaches east of Eckington Place NE. Light industrial fills the blocks bordering the Metropolitan Branch Trail and those east of 4th Street NE.

McKinley Technical High School sits at the center of the neighborhood.


Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

But one would probably not characterize Eckington as all that unique on first glance. It is certainly one of DC's many beautiful older neighborhoods, but it does not stand out in the same way some of the city's better-known historic districts in Capital Hill and Georgetown do.

On the other hand, QED has established some important historical links in Eckington. It was DC's first streetcar suburb when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway line opened in 1888, said Peter Sefton, a historian with the consulting firm, at the first historic designation meeting in January.

Harry Wardman, known for building many of Washington DC's row houses, developed the majority of Eckington after 1905. Construction of the homes that now line its hilly streets was largely complete by 1925, said Sefton.

Establishing Eckington's historic significance—or where it is historically significant—is a key part of qualifying for preservation. This can include social, architectural or planning aspects of the neighbourhood, said Kim Williams from DC's Historic Preservation Office at the January meeting.

The borders of the proposed district have yet to be set. However, they would include many of the historic row homes that fill Eckington.

What does historic designation mean?

Historic designation means a neighborhood's character will be preserved in its current state, including previous modifications, and future changes will be required to keep with that historic character, said Williams.

Some examples are the adaptive reuse in the historic district along 14th Street NW. The corridor has been revitalized, with many of the old facades and buildings kept and adapted to modern uses. For example, the furniture store Room & Board at the corner of 14th and T Street is the site of a former Ford Motors showroom.


Room & Board at 14th Street and T Street NW. Image by Google Maps.

Some Eckington residents, though, are concerned over what historic designation means for any future changes they might want to make to their property. Everything from replacing a street-facing door to a backyard "bump-out" will be subject to approval by the Historic Preservation Office or, for larger projects, the Historic Preservation Review Board, said Williams.

Pop-ups, rooftop solar panels, and rooftop decks would be off the table unless they could be installed away from the street.


Pop-ups like this one on Todd Street NE, where the houses are very narrow, would not be possible in a historic district. Image by the author.

These limits bother some residents.

"[The] absolute restriction on massing changes in Eckington makes historic designation overly burdensome," said one resident on the neighborhood listserv. "We have a small, infill row home like several houses in the neighborhood that's only two bedrooms [and] 16 feet wide…. What happens when we need another bedroom for kids? Under historic designation, we are faced with having to buy a more expensive house that is already larger or leaving the neighborhood altogether."

Flexibility to make future modifications to dwellings as resident needs and wants change is a common theme in comments on historic designation.

In response to repeated questions over solar panels and property additions, Williams said there are some ways these could be possible within a historic district. For example, solar panels are likely feasible on flat roofs behind "half mansards" and backyard additions will likely work in most locations, even with Eckington's hilly topography.

Affordability

One argument against historic status is that it makes neighborhoods more expensive by restricting supply.

"Historic districts do sell," said Greta Fuller, a board member with the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society and former ANC commissioner, at the last Eckington historic designation meeting in March. "But the cost of housing in the District of Columbia is not run by historic districts, it's run by economics and that's another story."

None of the speakers representing the District government at either meeting gave a very convincing argument that historic status does not impact the affordability of a neighborhood, especially one that faces pressures from gentrification.

"It's not the historic designation itself, it's the historic character of the neighborhood" that drives gentrification, said Williams. She added that there is no direct connection between gentrification and historic districts.

However, she and other DC government representatives, point to Dupont Circle, the 14th Street NW corridor and Capitol Hill—some of the District's priciest neighborhoods—as examples of how well homes in historic districts can sell in response to a different resident question.

In addition to raising home prices, historic status could also put some basic home repairs out of the reach of lower income residents. A front door replacement would have to be within keeping with the character of the neighborhood, as would new windows or fixtures, potentially adding cost to such routine repairs.

Up to $25,000 grants are available to homeowners in historic districts to cover these costs but the District only awards 15 of these annually after a length application process, said Williams' colleague Kim Elliott at the March meeting.

The approvals process can also be arduous. While Williams says minor changes can be approved within a day, it does require visiting the Historic Preservation Office and submitting paperwork for a planned project. Such added steps for minor projects could be difficult for anyone working on an hourly basis or simply have difficulty taking time off on a weekday to get a window replacement approved.

These are serious concerns for Eckington residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for years, to weigh as they consider historic status.

The ECA does not have a fixed timeline for the historic designation process. Attendees at its June 6th meeting will vote on whether to go forward with seeking designation after which the association will have to canvass the entire neighborhood before submitting an application to Historic Designation Board.

Once in front of the board, Williams says it could be three months to a year before a hearing is held and the board votes on a potential Eckington historic district.

Public Spaces


Baltimore's World War I memorial is falling apart

Nearly 100 years after World War I, Baltimore's memorial is badly deteriorated, and going ignored. As of now, nobody has plans to fix it.


Grove of Remembrance with pavilion in background. All images from the author unless otherwise noted.

The National Service Star Legion planted the Grove of Remembrance on October 8, 1919. There was a tree for each state in the union, along with three for the US' allies and Woodrow Wilson. More trees have been planted for each subsequent war. According to the Monument City Blog, it is the oldest living memorial in the United States.

One other tree that went up as part of the original grove was for Baltimore. Once the United States entered the war in April of 1917, Maryland provided 50,000 troops. Most were from Baltimore, and they served largely in eastern France.

In 1992, Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly wrote:

Baltimoreans filled the ranks of an infantry regiment, the 313th of the 79th Division. Its Company A was mostly East Baltimoreans; Company F drew heavily from the old 10th Ward, a section south of Green Mount Cemetery. It was known as the Irish Fusileers. There were favorite companies from neighborhoods in South, Northwest and West Baltimore. Many never came home.
The Grove of Remembrance also has a stone pavilion honoring Merill Rosenfeld, a Johns Hopkins graduate who died during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The site is next to the Maryland Zoo and adjacent to the Jones Falls Trail.


Inside the Edward L. Palmer Jr designed pavilion.

The pavilion was designed by Edward L. Palmer Jr., an 1899 graduate of Johns Hopkins. Palmer was also the designer of many significant residences in Roland Park, Guilford, and Gibson Island. With his partner, William D. Lamdin they designed over 200 houses and dozens of buildings including the Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford and the twin-domed Saint Casimir Church in Canton. Using old world charm, Palmer and Lamdin are credited with building some of the most graceful and distinctive homes and buildings in Baltimore.

The Grove of Remembrance is in bad shape, and it's unclear who should fix it

At Palmer's pavilion, wood beams are rotting, rain gutters are falling over, the iron work is rusting, the benches have been destroyed, the mortar supporting the stone structure needs repointing, and the signature slate roof needs repaired. There also aren't any flags on the flag poles, which need a fresh coat of paint.

And while the tree grove itself has glorious oaks that are nearly a century old, there's quite a bit of trash scattered around the memorial site.

Fixing these problems won't cost millions of dollars, but it will mean needing some money, and a capable project leader, which isn't all that easy to come by.


Many years of neglect are taking their toll on the memorial site.

The Grove of Remembrance is in Druid Hill Park, but Baltimore's Park and Recreation Department is woefully short of money.

"There are no plans in place," said Deputy Director Bill Vondrasek recently. "We would welcome outside funds to help renovate the structure."

Friends of Druid Hill Park is an organization comprised of volunteers that are mostly engaged with programming events, so capital project fundraising is probably beyond their current scope. Billionaire David M. Rubenstein, the son of a Baltimore postal worker, is interested in historical sites and has donated millions to sites around Washington, including 7.5 million toward fixing Washington's Washington Monument. Maybe he has interest in being a benefactor for historical sites in Baltimore? Governor Hogan recently appointed a World War One Centennial Commission to develop activities and events for the war's 100th anniversary. Maybe that group could lead the project. One other option might be having the Maryland Zoo helping with day-to-day upkeep.


The plaque in front of the Oak honoring the sacrifice of troops from Washington.

Nearly a hundred years after one of America's bloodiest wars, this memorial site is forgotten and neglected. Now that we've arrived at World World I's centennial, perhaps we'll find a way to restore the site and honor those who sacrificed.

Preservation


Does Silver Spring's Perpetual building deserve perpetual preservation? Possibly.

In 2007, an effort to give historic designation to the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring failed. But new information suggests that Perpetual might have played an important role in African-American suburbanization.


The former Perpetual Building Association building in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Adding the 1958 building to the county's Master Plan for Historic Preservation would have ensured the Perpetual building's presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II. The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington's rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

Multiple arguments for historic significance did not hold up

Adding a property to a local landmark list can have tremendous consequences for an owner who does not agree with the designation, like Perpetual's. Designation must be legally defensible. Historic preservation advocates' key arguments—that the Perpetual building was architecturally significant because of the modernist design architect Robert Scholz had used, and that it had played a significant role in local history—were not.

Preservationists' first argument came in the summer of 2007, when the made their case to the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). (In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the Montgomery County HPC's vice-chairman at the time and I chaired the meeting in August 2007 where the final vote was taken.)

The documents that the preservationists submitted did little more than than appeal to save an interesting looking building that might have had an interesting story—a story preservationists could only support using digitized historical newspapers as their leading evidentiary source.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Other HPC members and I pressed the preservationists about their sources, and while the SSHS provided a lot of newspaper articles about the building and the business, it failed to make a compelling case for why it met the legal standard for historic preservation. After the first HPC hearing in July 2007, I told SSHS members to come back with more information that connects the building to the community. I urged them to find people who recalled opening their first bank accounts there as children; folks who got their first mortgage there—anything to make the building something other than a block of midcentury corporate architecture.

In August 2007, at the HPC meeting about the building, I said, "We have a lot of information, but I don't think we have sufficiently contextualized information."

Still, the HPC voted 4-2 to forward a recommendation to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the Perpetual building be designated because it had "character, interest or a value as part of the development of Montgomery County." The HPC had rejected all of the arguments that the building was architectural significant and that it's history was remarkable.

The Planning Board, however, did not agree when it heard the case the next year. "We were not convinced that the history or architecture of this building met the standards of Chapter 24A or the Master Plan for Historic Preservation," wrote then-chairman Royce Hanson in the letter transmitting the amendment.

That eventually led to Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), an organization allied with SSHS, suing the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) over a procedural matter (the County Council didn't take action on the draft amendment that came out of the Planning Board hearing), with both the Court of Special Appeals [PDF] (in 2009) and the and the Maryland Court of Appeals saying that the Planning Board had acted lawfully.


The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

The Perpetual building may be more significant than we thought

I had all but forgotten about the Perpetual case, except for those occasions when I discussed it with clients in my consulting practice. Last year I began doing a lot of research that involved editions of the Washington Afro-American newspaper published between 1950 and 1990. Among the ads for grocery stores, movie listings, life insurance, and cigarettes were display ads for the Perpetual Building Association. In many issues, the Perpetual ad was the only one for a bank.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Washington's history of discriminatory real estate and mortgage lending practices has been well documented. Residential suburbs in the District, Maryland, and Virginia were built on legal foundations cobbled together from restrictive racial covenants and redlining. Yet here was an established historic Washington bank marketing itself to African-Americans.

None of the Montgomery County historic preservation documentation mentioned the role Perpetual might have played in African-American suburbanization after World War II. Was this the missing history historic preservation reviewers wanted back in 2007? Perhaps. Do comments left in SSHS Facebook posts from people who remember banking at Perpetual qualify as the community link I urged preservationists to find a decade ago? Maybe.

Is Silver Spring's former Perpetual bank building historic? Even after a decade has passed, including hearings by the HPC and Planning Board plus cases that worked their ways through the Maryland courts, I don't think anyone's fully capable of answering that question.

History


Vice City: A map of where all the Vice Presidents have lived

From our nation's founding until 1977, vice presidents had to find their own place to live. I created a map of where they made their homes, from boarding houses in the shadow of the Capitol building to large estates in nearby Maryland and Virginia.


Stars are buildings that still exist; colors signify the half-century they were occupied. Map by the author.

I found 58 houses and hotels were vice presidents lived. Twenty-five of these homes still remain today, and 17 of them are still used as private homes or hotels.

The map includes at least one residence for every vice president, even Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in DC for five days, and John Tyler, who lived here for just one day. The one exception is William R. King, who was inaugurated in Cuba and died six weeks later without ever coming to Washington. This is not a complete list, as some directories don't include the information or aren't easily available, and some vice presidents likely moved mid-session (Aaron Burr did it once) and their new homes might not have been recorded.

The first vice presidents lived in boarding houses

Starting with President John Adams in 1800, presidents lived in the White House, which was then the largest house in the United States. In contrast, Adams' vice president, Thomas Jefferson, rented a bedroom and parlor in a Capitol Hill boarding house where he lived with 30 other members of Congress, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, and a handful of their wives. Similar to Jefferson, most of the early vice presidents lived in boarding houses, many near the Capitol.

Later, vice presidents lived in hotels, starting with George M. Dallas in 1845. Others followed suit over the next century until John Nance Garner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president who lived in the Hotel Washington until 1941, became the last. Others rented private homes or lived with wealthy residents. In 1889, William Henry Benjamin Harrison's vice president Levi P. Morton was the first to own his own home (or possibly Schuyler Colfax 20 years earlier), but by the 1950s personal ownership became the norm.

It wasn't only the kinds of homes that changed, but also the locations. Until 1839, most vice presidents lived on Capitol Hill. From the 1840s to the 1920s, vice presidents lived almost exclusively within what we now call the Central Business District, except for John C. Calhoun's time at Dumbarton in Georgetown. In 1919, Thomas Marshall moved outside of the L'Enfant City to stay in the old Wardman Park Hotel, and 20 years later, Garner would be the last VP to live downtown. After World War II, vice presidents moved toward the upper northwest part of DC and into Maryland and Virginia.

Of the 25 remaining vice presidential residences, the oldest one is 1909 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. In the late 18th century, it was home to Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who served under James Madison and gave is the eponym of the term "gerrymandering." The building was a boarding house at the time, and Gerry lived with the secretaries of the Navy, War, and Treasury. Today, that building is part of the Mexican Embassy.

The Naval Observatory is now the vice president's permanent home

In 1951, Congress directed the Secret Service to protect the vice president and their family, which would eventually lead to the creation of a permanent vice presidential residence. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Secret Service gave vice presidents full-time, in-home protection, which required expensive improvements to their private homes.

In 1966, Congress authorized the creation of an official vice presidential residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, but postponed construction until after the Vietnam War. For the following eight years, the Secret Service spent $123,000 to safeguard the private homes of Hubert H. Humphrey, $250,000 for Spiro Agnew, and $80,000 for Gerald Ford.

Due to public outrage over the cost of improving Spiro Agnew's house, Congress took an existing house next to the lot where the vice presidential house would go and made it the "Official Temporary Vice-President's Residence." The 33-room mansion, then known as Admiral's House, had served as the home of the Chief of Naval Operations since 1923. Due to political opposition to the cost of building a permanent home, and concerns from astronomers at the Naval Observatory that a new house would interfere with their work, a new house was never built.

Admiral's House, now called One Observatory Circle, became the official vice president's residence in 1975. However, then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller only used it for entertaining, preferring to stay at his sprawling estate in the Foxhall neighborhood. In 1977, Walter Mondale and his family became the first to move in to the official residence. Since then, six vice presidents have lived there (though ongoing maintenance to the house has delayed the Second Family from moving in on at least three occasions), tying it with the Willard Hotel for housing the most vice presidents.

Development


To get ideas for reusing the historic Franklin School building, DC can look to Newark, NJ

The Franklin School, at 13th and K NW, is an iconic DC building, but it has been vacant and abandoned since 2008. On a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, I got a glimpse of another use for old, historic buildings.


The Franklin School building. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Designed and built in the 1860s by Adolph Cluss, who also designed Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the Franklin building has a Great Hall that could seat 1,000. It was the centerpiece for DC's public education system—its big windows for light, along with roomy and airy spaces, made for a great learning environment—as well as a resource for community concerts, exhibitions, and public meetings.

Before being abandoned, the building most recently served as a homeless shelter. Mayor Vincent Gray pushed to renovate it, but when Mayor Muriel Bowser became mayer she reversed course and put the proposals on hold. Though Bowser solicited new proposals in October 2015, she has not provided any timeline for review and decision making.

Throughout the 2000s, the DC Council had multiple opportunities to make the building eligible to lease or sell but failed to do so. A 2005 deal to turn Franklin School into a hotel fell through because the proposed lease wasn't valid, and the discussion over what to do with the building has been plagued by a lack of focus, transparency, and analysis of redevelopment options, the kind of thing that can keep proposals with a lot of merit from ever even coming forward.

It's not as if we don't know how to preserve important historic structures. It took just two years after a 2007 fire at Eastern Market for the neighborhood jewel to reopen: Local firm Quinn Evans Architects replaced the roof while retaining many of the original iron trusses, and added sustainability features including high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, high-performance glazing, and stormwater filtration.
Thinking creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents is an essential task for every city and town.

So why have we struggled with the Franklin building so much?

Here's what Newark did with its equivalent of the Franklin School building

If I could, I'd take some of DC's leaders on a field trip to Newark, New Jersey to visit the Hahne & Company department store building.


Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

There, a truly collaborative effort between the City of Newark, Rutgers University - Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase has resulted in an old icon (a former star of local retail, it's been in disrepair for 30 years) becoming the centerpiece of Newark's recovering downtown.


Construction workers inside a gutted Hahne building. Photo from L&M Development.

During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed use, mixed-income space will be open to its first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready.

The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open this spring. Rutgers University - Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. The project has put nearly every relevant tax credit to use—historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight—4-stories above the central atrium—is being meticulously restored to its former glory.


Rendering from L&M Development.

As it turns out, Newark is a hotbed of preservation and reuse. Not far from the Hahne building, a similar coalition is nearly finished renovating the former American Insurance Company tower into a building that will have both retail and residential uses. When it comes to historic preservation, partnerships across sectors, and creating new housing, these projects are transformative.

In Newark, preservationists and other key stakeholders are taking full advantage of the assets they have available—60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents.

Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place—a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through—that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town. In the nation's capital, we have plenty of opportunities to apply these lessons.

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

Preservation


Baltimore will tear down whole blocks of row houses to fight blight. Is that wise?

In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can't give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?


Image from @MayorSRB.

Baltimore officials think so; its mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano think this is something the city needs. Some advocates aren't as sanguine.

In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.

What's the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.

Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:

There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.

But if the "plan" (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).

Meanwhile, one of Baltimore's best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That's why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.


Photo by urbanfeel on Flickr.

Payton Chung explained the economics:

There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room—you'd pay to get rid of it, right? That's negative value.

Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.

Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there's little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you're comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn't an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.

What's more, even good houses at low prices won't be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It's easy to think "oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it's a bargain." As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that's not always the case.

Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18' wide, Baltimore's rowhouses are just 12-16' wide in most cases. (It's not just a matter of platting—rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn't scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.

Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.

The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn't enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City's expense.

But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.


Photo by John Perivolaris on Flickr.

Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:

As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can't be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.

We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and "better" neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.

I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.


View from the West Baltimore MARC station. Photo by Adam Moss on Flickr.

Could Baltimore be DC's next bedroom community?

So, there's negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we'd be talking about how it's the next hot area, but it's about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?

(Maybe that's what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn't want to pay for it, it wouldn't go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)

What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn't think so.

If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).

As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.

Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn't so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, "Life within walking distance." Baltimore isn't set up that way.

Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they're nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.

Photo by Ian Freimuth on Flickr.

Payton Chung:

Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won't be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line's B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.

Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn't convenient to most workplaces in DC.

Through-routing MARC trains down to L'Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.

It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can't help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.


The originally-proposed Baltimore Metro network.

And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a "donut" of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.

Preservation


An art deco industrial building in Georgetown could have a new use

Developers want to build a contemporary mid-rise residential tower on a prime site in Georgetown, but it'd mean tearing down a distinctive old heating plant. There might be ways to reuse the old building and build something new as well.


The West Heating Plant looking south from the C&O Canal. All images by the authors unless noted.

The West Heating Plant, which abuts Rock Creek Park on the edge of Georgetown, was built by the Federal government to provide steam heating for federal buildings in the District. Designed during World War II by architect William Dewey Foster, it opened in 1948 as one of the few examples of industrial art deco-to-moderne architecture in the District; the other is the Central Heating Plant on 13th Street SW.

The six-story structure now stands idle, having been decommissioned in 2003.

A team led by local developer Richard Levy purchased the plant from the Government Services Administration (GSA) in 2013 with plans to demolish part of the building for up to 80 luxury Four Seasons residences and use the former coal yard for a new park.

Unfortunately, preservation officials encouraged Levy's team of notable architects - British architect David Adjaye and OLIN landscape architects - to be creative with the site without preserving the building. Levy understandably leapt at the opportunity.

In a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in December, Levy outlined plans to tear down the West Heating Plant entirely. His new plan includes a 10-story tower made of blue travertine and bronze on the site of the plant, housing 60 to 70 luxury residences and the adjacent park.

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

DC has few industrial buildings and even fewer that are architecturally significant. The West Heating Plant, despite its decaying state, is significant as both a notable industrial edifice and one of the few examples of moderne architecture in the city.

Eight massive vertical windows stretching nearly the building's entire height dominate its north and south faces. A similar vertical portico dominates the 29th Street façade.


The entrance portico is an impressive vertical dominating the building's 29th Street facade.

The West Heating Plant stands out on the Georgetown skyline as one approaches from the south or east, reminiscent of the neighborhood's industrial past. Other remnants of this include the lofts in converted warehouses along the canal and the Capital Crescent Trail that was on the former Georgetown Branch railroad line.


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

The building is a worthy reminder of Georgetown's history, and an impressive example of civic architecture.

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

With or without Levy's plan to demolish the West Heating Plant, it was never really feasible to convert the existing building into residences. Floors are only located on its 29th Street side, and shoring up the columns that run up and down the building would be costly due to years of corrosion.

In addition, at 109 feet wide, the building is deeper than is preferable to get good light throughout an apartment. The design team attempted to fix this in their earlier partial-demolition proposal by adding big shafts to the center of the structure to bring in light.

To fill the building with apartments or offices, the developers would also have to add a lot of windows. This would be problematic as the brick is only loosely attached to the steel frame. Adding windows would require painstaking care and, even then, might deface the monumental qualities that give the building interest.

In other words, it is a tough sell for a residential or commercial conversion even before he exorbitant cost of cleaning up the asbestos, PCBs, and other toxins scattered throughout the site.

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

The original appeal for developers was that the West Heating Plant sits on just a fifth of the lot. When the GSA sold the facility, it anticipated the site would receive a waterfront zone district, W-2, allowing for 362,000 square feet of development up to 60 feet high, in its environmental assessment.


The West Heating Plant only sits on about a fifth of the lot. Image by Google Maps.

However, adaptively reusing the plant would offer only up to 143,600 square feet of space. While the building is tall, it only has six floors with high ceilings—13 feet on most floors and 22 feet on the first—that allows for less density than the height suggests.

To address this disconnect, the GSA imagined that a developer would build a second flat and fat structure on the coal yard south of the heating plant that would peep over the Whitehurst Freeway viaduct. Since the conversion would ruin the dramatic interior spaces and significantly alter the monolithic exterior, it would have been a pretty hollow deal for developers and preservation interests alike.


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

Levy's demolition plan is a compromise to the competing expectations of the developers and neighbors: there's no second building and the new 10 stories of apartment fit into the existing massing. That's more floors than with an adaptive reuse but less density and more open space than the GSA's scenario. The height and the park secure the great views that high-end buyers will pay extra for and the park has quieted a lot of neighborhood concerns.

It is a clever solution but it is not the only one. There are options that preserve the historic plant and also get a distinctive new apartment building.

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

If height is not really an issue, Levy could build a new 10-story building in the coal yard and reuse the actual plant for something much more creative.

There are ways to reuse the West Heating Plant that work in big messy spaces. Contemporary art institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, are a good example, especially if the first floor is open and free to the public, effectively making it an extension of the streetscape.


The Tate Modern gallery is located in the former Bankside Power Station in London. Image by Alquiler de Coches on Flickr.

The Tate Modern has been a staple of the London tourist circuit since its turbine hall hosted a series of blockbuster exhibitions shortly after it opened. This has prompted demands for contemporary art museums elsewhere with large spaces that can handle rough treatment, like the Dia:Beacon near New York City.


The turbine hall at the Tate Modern. Image by Jennifer Morrow on Flickr.

The West Heating Plant's boiler room is an ideal candidate for such a space, something the Post recommended in 2012. While only about a third the size of the Tate's 36,500 square foot turbine room, it is much bigger than the District's last proposed contemporary art museum in the Franklin School. If two floors of the plant were cleared out, Adolf Cluss's landmark school would fit comfortably in the boiler room.

The plant could also be used as a home for one of DC's excellent theaters. A big box with three stories for flies could make the cornerstone of a spectacular alternative theater venue. The industrial patina, few windows and big spaces of the old plant again could be more of an asset than a drawback.

Realistically, to keep the old and add the new, any reuse of the site would have to assume a new building on the coal yard. This would likely mean more height and density on the site in order to allow development of as much of the 362,000 square feet allowed. It would also mean no new large park.

Dropping the park from the Levy's proposal may not be a bad thing. The Georgetown Waterfront Park, just a few blocks from heating plant, was completed just five years ago and both Rock Creek Park and the C&O canal run along the site.

To offset the loss of the park, and curry neighborhood support for a higher and denser project, the boiler room of the new West Heating Plant art space could be part of a new public space with new entrances connecting it to both Rock Creek and the canal. Shops facing the canal could be added along the ground floor making it a popular neighborhood destination.

Compromises will undoubtedly be necessary to get the developer to support preserving the plant and the neighborhood to support more density on the site. But it would be well worth it.

A West Heating Plant site with both an extension of the urban fabric plus new public arts and green space at the intersection of two of DC's most popular parks might be a altogether a better deal for Georgetown and the District.

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