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D.C. hosts 50th anniversary preservation conference

(Published November 1, 1999)


Special to The Common Denominator

"As Mae West said, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly,’ and I guess that includes historic preservation in the District of Columbia."

The crowd chuckled at attorney Ellen McCarthy's welcome to a panel discussion at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 50th Anniversary Conference, held recently in the District.

McCarthy went on to give a snappy, sound-bite version of the last 20 years in D.C. development politics. Now, "developers trying to convince city council to give them TIF (tax increment financing) say, ‘Give us TIF to put up hotels or we'll put up an office building,’" she said. "They don't threaten to simply walk away."

The practical politics orientation of the session, "Preservation, Planning and Housing in Downtown Washington, D.C.," was typical of the conference’s 70 sessions. Topics like combating suburban sprawl, fighting freeways, challenging big box retailers and encouraging low-cost housing were popular. The bricks and mortar of physical preservation received limited attention. And the past tense wasn’t used much in these seminars; they were not dry recitals of history.

These are good times for preservationists, about 3,000 of whom came from around the country and overseas for the five-day gathering in October. The movement that got its impetus in the 1960s along with civil rights and feminism has become mainstream. Grass-roots organizers don’t have to twist arms to get city officials to recognize the importance of preserving the past. In most cities, historic preservation regulations are in place, though enforcement could be improved. Often the demands of "being open for business," as Mayor Anthony A. Williams puts it, overpower the forces of historic preservation, and the question of how to balance the two preoccupied the conference.

Why did they come to the conference? "For inspiration, to learn new things, to see people I haven’t seen since graduate school," said Angela Wolfe of Philadelphia.

Most attendees were some variety of government employee: city, state, county, federal or even military. They were predominately middle-aged, middle-class, female, educated and white. Only a few looked like refugees from Vietnam-era sit-ins or stage crew for a Limp Bizkit concert.

Washington was the natural setting for this 50th anniversary conference for the National Trust, which has always had its headquarters here. But the District is also a preservation poster-child success story.

"We have 40 historic districts and 29,500 designated historic buildings. We review about 30 buildings each year (for landmark status) and we’re proud of our aggressive program. Virtually everyone on our staff and on the board are homeowners in the city," said Steve Raiche of the city's Historic Preservation Review Board, who told the conference the District has almost a third more historic buildings than New York City. Success has come through compromise, however. "Facade-ification" and "Facade-ectomy" (leaving the historic facade of a building but gutting the rest of the outside and the inside) were maligned by McCarthy and other local speakers as the "D.C. solution."

Attendees got a better sense of how the D.C. process works in action in a number of sessions. In the most popular, a crowd of about 300 observed the regular monthly hearing of the Historic Preservation Review Board which was held in the pink, Victorian splendor of the the Sumner School, instead of the concrete block of 441 Fourth St. NW. Testimony from witnesses and staff reports were heard for 16 cases. The first case was hotly contested and concerned landmark status for the Webster School at 10th and H streets NW. After all sides presented their arguments, developer Jeff Zell wanted time to rebut the other side's testimony. "Don't get lawyerly on me," Chairman James Speaghts warned Zell, evoking a round of laughter from the audience.

It all seemed very familiar to Sandra Morris, Brett Richards and Rob White of Salt Lake City, Utah. They were among the dozen or so standing -- since all seats were taken -- through the two-hour session.

Other out-of-towners voiced criticisms of the local process that would sound familiar to anyone in D.C. "The whole process in Detroit is too bureaucratic, there are too many layers of government to go through, too many forms. It took me two years to get city approvals for a little corner store, and I had to go through a lawyer just to get very basic forms approved. The city should have been happy to have a store move into that neighborhood," complained Cheryl Huff, head of her own restoration contracting business in downtown Detroit. "When I first started there was no place to buy groceries in the neighborhood. Now we've got stores and new people moving in and million-dollar price tags on some of the bigger houses."

A woman from the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood railed against the same kind of forces at a session called "Increasing Citizen Participation in the Planning Process." All the panelists for the session were from the District. The Foggy Bottom resident asked what can we do now that the success of the neighborhood has "made it unaffordable for most of us?" In Cleveland Park, which 20 years ago was becoming a victim of its desirability, a proposal to construct high-rise office buildings was defeated by the designation of the area as a historic district, said Tersh Boasberg, a local attorney who heads Washington's Committee of 100. Historic designation, Boasberg told the crowd, can be used as a form of zoning which can thwart over-development. Others on the panel agreed that painful as such events are, they can mark the beginning of citizen activism against development.

Many attendees spoke of neighbors unwilling to join in the historic preservation process or who feel alienated from their own neighborhoods. One strategy that worked on Capitol Hill was reaching into recalcitrant households by allying with the local ward Democratic Party organization, said Patrick Lally of the D.C. Preservation League. "A lot of us in the baby boomer generation grew up distrusting government generally, and that's carried over into skepticism about historic preservation because it's associated with a government agency. We tried to find a way to make it more personal."

Typical questions were on bread and butter issues. For example, "Who is your market for downtown living here in Washington? Do you have families with children?" asked Liz Duffy from Texas of the panel on "Preservation, Planning and Housing in Downtown Washington, D.C."

Local property developer Kingdon Gould III answered, "Many of the buildings in the Pennsylvania Ave area have no children. A lot of our buyers live there only part-time and have houses elsewhere; some are here for two-year stints and downtown is a good place to start. There's a high turnover in rental all over the city. What we're seeing increasingly is cultural resources -- the Smithsonian, the lively theater district here -- are drawing people back into the city."

But developers are finding that building condos or rental housing downtown can be profitable, he added. They used to think only putting up office buildings would cover their expenses.

The perception that historic preservation is only for yuppies, that it results in minorities losing their homes, was a frustration for many attendees. Kateri Ellison, president of the Development Corp. of Columbia Heights, blamed the media and developers for describing the tussles over development in terms of class or race conflict. "Historic preservation is often viewed as a tool of the enemy, they say it brings gentrification, that you won't be able to afford your own home or your children won't be able to afford it. But now that I won't be president of the Columbia Heights organization anymore, I'm going to push to make the neighborhood a historic district to try to stop the kind of development we don't want," she said.

"What about absentee landlords who won't be part of the historic preservation process and won't keep up their properties?" asked Carl Meyers from Boston. Ellison said that in Columbia Heights the only way to fight absentee landlord is to push to have properties condemned by the city, but it's a long process that often takes years. On Capitol Hill's H Street NE corridor, where almost 85 percent of the properties are owned by out-of-town landlords according to Patrick Lally, they formed an "orange hat" (citizen's brigade) patrol which each week keeps detailed records on neglected properties. It gives the lists to the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, hastening the process of city intervention.

A self-confessed (but anonmyous) absentee landlord at the same seminar reported that the rising tide of property values in the District is not lifting all boats. He told attendees that he owns a property in Shaw on Lower Marion Street just outside the historic district. "'We used to live there but then moved to Alexandria. We thought the property would appreciate in value because it's close to the Green Line, but we haven't been able to sell it and have to rent it below what we hoped we would get for it. What can the city do to help us?" The consenus was that this may be an unresolvable dilemma. City council members hear this concern all the time, said Chris Weiss, an aide to Phil Mendelson, D-At large, but there is no easy solution. "It’s a popular ‘Catch--22,’" responded Lally. "This situation is the root cause of neighborhood degradation. This problem is fundamental to why some neighborhoods improve and others don't."

Several sessions and tours explored the historical and environmental background of D.C.'s preservation conflicts. And the conference didn't whitewash the city's past for the sake of visitors. For instance, at "The Many Faces of Washington, D.C." they learned that for a long time, no one wanted to live here, in part because of the swampy climate. While the District became the capital in 1800, 20 years later the population was only 8,000. Even by 1840, L'Enfant's grand ceremonial boulevard, The Mall, was still used as a pig pasture. Our history provided a cautionary tale for those who would ignore the realities of city finances. Pierre L'Enfant was fired by George Washington in 1792 for refusing to dilute his elaborate design for the city.

There was high interest in actually getting out and seeing the city. Treks to unglamourous sites like Shaw or Seventh and G streets NW were packed every day, even in the pouring rain. While conference coordinators said some were apprehensive about taking the Metro, most enjoyed exploring the city on their own as well as on organized tours. "I grew up in an urban setting and I live and work in an urban setting, so I'm not afraid to walk around by myself here at all," said Jeffrey Ow of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation near San Francisco. "This seems like a vibrant place with a lot happening."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator