Is Washington D.C. Preserving Buildings or Hoarding Them?

Noting that the city "has many more historically protected buildings than cities several times our size," Payton Chung argues that a vague set of criteria and the lack of a more centralized approach are hampering the effectiveness of historic preservation in Washington D.C.

Preservation may often act as a second option for residents opposed to changes the zoning code cannot prohibit. "Once it's in force, preservation concerns get the final say over just about everything else that might be on a community's wish list, whether it's sustainability, affordability, or occupant comfort."

A preservation glut, in addition to blocking new construction, "does an injustice to legitimately interesting buildings whose histories have yet to be uncovered, while also bloating the historic inventory with many other buildings of middling merit."1

Rowhouses within a proposed Kingman Park historic district. Thousands of 1920s and 1930s rowhouses in DC already have historic protection, and the proposed district would add hundreds more.
Rowhouses within a proposed Kingman Park historic district. Thousands of 1920s and 1930s rowhouses in DC already have historic protection, and the proposed district would add hundreds more. © Google Street View


The arbitrary nature of historic designations was made abundantly clear by DC’s historic preservation staff in a rare 2015 recommendation to deny a historic landmark application for a house in Petworth. In it, they said that the house itself wasn’t that special. Yet, if pulled together with its equally unremarkable neighbors, they cumulatively would clear the bar for architectural significance: “[T]he Board has denied applications to designate [eight addresses] on the grounds that, as architecture, they were not important enough examples or of special distinction in their neighborhoods. An architectural landmark must be a particularly noteworthy example and must be significant to the District of Columbia… The house at 16 Grant Circle does not alone stand out in this way… while not eligible for listing as an Historic Landmark, the house at 16 Grant Circle would undeniably contribute to a Grant Circle Historic District.” Sure enough, just months later the HPRB created the Grant Circle Historic District, evidently at the behest of some residents who wanted to stop construction of legal pop-ups.

Anywhere a penny-pinching developer stamps out identikit designs, the resulting buildings will all look unremarkable, all together — but as long as that togetherness was a while ago, it's apparently sufficient to warrant historic protection. Never mind that the individual buildings might be middling, that their architectural unity is compromised by "non-contributing" buildings in the middle, or that there might be better examples somewhere else.

Many other places, including ArlingtonChicago, and Los Angeles, have proactively done comprehensive "historic resources surveys," a process that a National Park Service handbook calls the "basis for preservation planning." The National Historic Preservation Act even lists the first responsibility of a State Historic Preservation Officer, a role that the Office of Planning plays in DC, as "direct and conduct a comprehensive statewide survey of historic property and maintain inventories of the property."

In these surveys, planners go out into the field to visit and inventory every single building, and evaluate whether it could potentially meet the predetermined criteria for historic designation because of its age, architectural merit, or context. A comprehensive survey is the first step in a proactive approach to preservation that identifies and saves those buildings of greatest historic value — whether the oldest structures, the most noteworthy and influential designs, the best-kept examples of various types and styles, or places that shaped important individuals, events, or movements.

A survey could identify the best examples of particular building types, like those from a certain era, style, architect, or use, and make preservation of the most notable structures a high priority. By doing so, it would guarantee that the stories that those types tell are being preserved, rather than rescuing everything for all time.