Housing Complex

Anything Worth Saving Here?: H St. Rowhouses Edition

The battle over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist is finally over. But the supply of ridiculous preservation stories in D.C. is eternal. Here is the first tale in what we hope will become a series about the fights some people choose to wage.

The Spot: "Meads Row" 1305, 1307, 1309, 1311 H Street NE.

The Fight: The owner of the yellow building with the garage wants to tear it down.  He's paying too much in taxes, and no one will rent from him, according to his application. Meanwhile, neighborhood groups, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A, want it designated a landmark in the D.C Inventory of Historic Sites.

They say the entire row is a jewel or, more specifically, a good example of people living on top of people—"two floors for residential use over the commercial ground floor" is aparently historically significant. Also the row was built by Charles C. Meads, "a local builder of note." The oldest buildings here date back to 1892.

Some background: The next door tenant, Salon 1307 manager Elwood Payne can recall a number of businesses in the old property: A grocery store, a ladies boutique, and an incense shop.  Roughly three years ago, that last establishment, Baitul Khair, moved its Islamic tapes, books, traditional garb, and rainbow-colored oils to the next corner down.  They are much happier in the 1200 block of H Street than the 1300 block. Why the intolerance? Weak walls and two break-ins at the old yellow rowhouse. The upstairs apartment was dilapidated, empty and open, and people "climbed up a tree in the back," then entered from the roof, says store manager Mel Akmel. "The best thing is to tear it down."

"Conquers Pain"

The recommendation: Staff Reviewer Tim Dennee says no, bad idea, to the historic designation—though he does acknowledge there's a cool sign that says "Conquers Pain" on the eastern wall of 1311. Still it is a mere "faded remnant" of something...What? Dennee does not divulge if he knows, which suggests that he doesn't and neither does anyone else.

Onto the rejection: For one thing, part of the row is already gone. One property was destroyed in 1939, and a grungy garage stands in its place. For another, well, this property isn't special, nor is the builder—or in preservationist-speak: "There is no reason to believe [the  row] to be more compelling than what could be said of buildings across the street." Also: "It is too early to offer conclusions about Charles C. Meads’ relative significance, but safe to say that the nomination does not settle the matter."

The ruling: 5-3 voting to support the recommendation, meaning no designation. Owner: Proceed to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) on your continued path to destruction.

  • JJ

    H St. has a significant problem with absentee landlords (read: slum lords) who refuse to rent or sell their properties at market prices. The higher tax assessment was specifically put into place to prod these landlords to fix up their eyesore properties and rent them out. This particular landlord has stated that he wants to demolish the property so he can lower his assessment -- thereby defeating the purpose of the higher taxes. Your article fails to take this into consideration. Your article also fails to take into consideration the fact that this landlord will leave a giant unsightly hole in the western half of H St. that will further impede re-development of the area. If memory serves, I believe this guy wants to put a parking lot in where these houses are. Which will, of course, make the street look even more ghetto than it already is.

  • Ruth Samuelson

    I hear you. Clearly, the landlord was negligent. The building looks awful. But what you're talking about is regulatory issues and taxing.

    There's a certain attitude in this city of 'Oh let's just get this building historically designated--then we can get the owner to do what we want.'

    Another example: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2008/12/03/the-battle-over-st-martins-convent-why-preservation-doesnt-always-stop-development/

    Sometimes, that thinking works, and sometimes--as in this case--it doesn't.

  • JJ

    You're right, I am talking about regulatory issues. I don't think the attitude is "Oh lets just have the building historically designated" I think the attitude is "how do we stop these 'negligent' landlords from circumventing the policy that we implemented to make them keep their property up?". Unfortunately, when landlords don't keep their properties in decent shape we have to have regulations and policies to get them to do this most basic of responsibilities.

    More to the point, I think your article/post was waaayyyy too one-sided/cut and dried in favor of a guy you yourself state is "negligent". I'm not saying you need to be biased the other way, but you do need to present all sides of the issue in your article. Trust me, I live off of H St. and this is a VERY big neighborhood issue. There are a lot of people working very hard to revive this street and this deadbeat landlord is not helping.

  • http://imgoph.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    damnit! h street doesn't need more parking lots. this is terrible news!

  • http://mr-t-in-dc.livejournal.com/ Mr T in DC

    Yes, this building should be renovated and made into a productive retail/housing site again - not razed to make way for a parking lot. This is going to make Richard Layman's head explode.

    BTW as architecture, this has way more merit than the Brutalist church on 16th...

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  • Tom A.

    I used to be on the "save the buildings" side, until I looked at them closely. I say tear them down and put something similar on the site- retail, with 2 stories of decent housing above. Do NOT let the guy develop a parking lot, though! Of course the owner probably can't get the financing to rebuilt- he knows he can make a lot of $$ with pay parking for the Atlas theater next door. As far as I know there is NO public off-street parking on H street currently, nor is anyone about to let that happen.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Wow, my first reaction to your second sentence is completely unprintable. But the two words start with f and y.

    I highly recommend that you read _Cities: Back from the Edge_ to get some background and knowledge about sustainable urban revitalization, which for the most part, is historic preservation based.

    That the DC laws and historic preservation laws have significant gaps is something you ought to be writing about.

    Or the fact that the owners of the specific building haven't taken care of the property for 20 years, and they freely admit it. And that they'd like to keep the buildings, but because of their neglect they can't afford to.

    Or the fact that despite advocates complaints, including the ANC6A, the H Street TIF program only applies to properties in excess of 10,000 s.f., providing no TIF-based means of support to provide financial assistance to situations like these.

    Or the fact that historic preservation of districts has different principles than historic preservation of landmarks, but that DC law provides no middle ground. In a triage sense, the people who wanted to do the right thing were afforded only one course of action (remedy) in DC law, even though there are gaps in the remedy.

    Or even the fact that despite the reality that the classic tome on creating preservation revolving funds to assist in the repair of historically eligible buildings was written in 1976, neither the City nor the preservation community has figured out how to create and manage a preservation revolving fund to assist property owners in maintaining historic and historically eligible buildings.

    The real issue is that many of the buildings on commercial corridors like H Street have been neglected for 20-40 years and the cumulative impact of this neglect means that to rehabilitate the building requires far more money that property owners anticipate.

    You just engaged in a classic example of what I call "blaming the building" and blaming preservationists for what really is the active disinvestment by property owners. The solution to disinvestment is investment, not demolition, and not rewarding of behavior counter to public policy.

    That the city didn't force stabilization of these buildings decades earlier, despite the existence of building habitability requirements in DC laws and regulations is another issue -- and a news story.

    Another book you ought to read, instead of just talking with developers is _Bringing Buildings Back_ by Alan Mallach.

  • H St local

    Everyone wants H Street revitalized but the slumlords and the City itself stop that from happening.
    The slumlords ask prices out of proportion to the value of the current and near future of the commercial strip.
    The City's commercial property tax rates handicap small locally-owned businesses.
    As Richard Layman pointed out, DC's programs such as TIF are designed for large development, not the neighbor-serving businesses that H Street was built for and has traditionally had.
    The vacant property tax penalties were intended to force slumlords to deal with market forces.
    How do we get the City to do the same?
    Neither is accomplished by destroying the historic texture of H Street by tearing down its buildings.

  • Maia

    I will agree that while this row of houses was not worthy of landmarking, neither are they deserving of demolition. There should be a middle ground.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    And in DC, the only middle ground is creating a historic district. But it takes a long time. There aren't enough resources and training to make it happen. And a strong undercurrent of property rights advocacy and developer antipathy makes it very difficult to create a new historic district.

    There was a provision in the technical amendments bill of 2006 to provide for interim protections when demolition came up, in areas where surveying was underway (this is happening on H Street now), and some other considerations.

    I helped to get that provision included. It's something--demolition of eligible buildings--that I had been testifying about since 2002.

    But the building industry very happily takes credit for getting that section of the legislation excised from the final bill.

    And even though Ruth Samuelson adequately conveys the recommendation of the staff report, she doesn't convey the dis-ease of the report in terms of acknowleding the need for buildings such as these to be saved, even though they don't meet the criteria _for a landmark_, the acknowledgement that they do meet the criteria for _contributing buildings_ for historic districts, that the HPO would rather the buildings not be demolished, and the sentiment of the HPRB generally within the hearing that while the law is very clear about the criteria for landmarks, that they have to act within the law, that it appeared as if they were truly distressed about the limitations and constraints of their purview with regard to this particular matter. Comments from members on the dais were very clear that tearing the buildings down was not a recommended nor preferred course of action in the context of preservation policy and maintaining the value of place.

    Disclosure: I ran a preservation overview study for that area in 2001-2, I was a founding board member of H Street Main Street in 2002. These days, I would argue that rather than divert my attention to Main Street, I should have stuck with pushing forward on the preservation study. Although it's not clear that sentiment, especially amongst commercial property owners, would have favored nomination a few years ago.

  • Skinnytree

    No, those are not beautiful buildings (anymore), but I would urge the city to do everything it can so that the owner who CAUSED the eyesore is not rewarded by allowing him to sit on his ass collecting parking-lot revenues for the next 30 years.

    Part of the answer has to be city enforcement of basic housing codes.

  • James

    Using historic preservation to "save" those properties just because you all personally don't want a parking lot there would be an absolute abuse of the "historic designation" process. That some of you are even openly stating that the "real" point of the historic preservation law is to allow neighborhood citizens to force property owners to do/not do something with their properties (other than maintenance) is WAY out of bounds in itself. And if that truly IS the reason for DC's historic designation power, that's grounds enough in my book to throw the whole damn system out.

    What is toubling here is that the historic preservation folks don't factor in property ownership rights ONE IOTA when it comes to their positions. This is readily apparent in situations like here, where there is simply NO historic value to any of these properties to weigh against the owner's property rights, but you all are just pissy about what this owner wants to do with his property, so you are willing to misuse what (arguably) can be a very important tool for a city to maintain its historic identity, in the name of playing city planner.

    If you don't like the idea of a parking lot, come up with some capital yourself, buy these places and put in whatever fancy retail establishment you think H Street is ready to support. People like Joe Englert are doing just that. In the alternative, if a property use is not to your liking, you can feel free to not patronize said business. Don't park there, don't give this guy your money.

    The fact is that H Street SORELY needs parking if we are going to bring higher foot-traffic into this area (since, remember we are NOT NEAR A METRO STOP) and, honestly, if we are going to bring personal preferences into this, I'd much rather have you all lament the site of cars parked on H Street frontage, than to see all the Jettas and Civics in front of my house, forcing me to park 3-4 blocks away on the weekends.

  • ibc

    That some of you are even openly stating that the “real” point of the historic preservation law is to allow neighborhood citizens to force property owners to do/not do something with their properties (other than maintenance) is WAY out of bounds in itself.

    Right, but we do that all the time, in every municipality.

    Or shall we open up a paper plant in your back yard?

    Oh, right. That's completely different.

  • James

    A nuisance is not remotely the same as you just disliking the property usage, IBC, and to pretend differently is quite a stretch. Sure there are laws in place to prevent outlandish usage of property, but they aren't meant to be so restrictive as to give every armchair developer and city planner a say in how people use their properties.

    No one has really put forward a legitimate argument as to why a parking lot would be devastating to the neighborhood (which is different than, say, you wanting to put a paper plant in my back yard). Nor does anyone refute our neighborhood's need for parking. Instead, we either get bs claims to the "historic value" of Charles C. Meade (???), or people's personal opinions about their favored usage of a property they do not own.

  • H St local

    Can the owner get a curb cut for a parking lot?
    The lot would only accommodate about 6 cars anyway under the regs once it's striped off, and H Street would lose the on-street parking and city revenue from at least three meters.

  • James

    By the way--don't get me wrong, I think this is a stupid idea and I'd much rather have something else go into that spot, despite our need for parking. I just don't feel that our wishes about how the owner should be using his property justify abusing the historic designation process.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    we differ in assessing what is appropriate or inappropriate use of building regulations and the regulatory process. If you believe in such use, then you can't raise the primacy of property rights as a lever to oppose the exercise of the regulations.

    Building regulations require building maintenance, the dutiful following of various laws. Historic preservation laws are part of this.

    The real problem is that we kow-towed too much to DC OP when the H Street neighborhood commercial zoning overlay was created.

    We should have asked for a demolition moratorium as part of the overlay. Baring that an automatic stay of raze applications pending a review process. Likely, "hardship" cases due to failure to maintain properties wouldn't be approved.

    After this example, ANC6A should request that Council approve a demolition review process specifically for the H Street commercial district be created by legislation.

  • James


    All regulations have a specific interest (either of the gov or citizens) that they seek to protect. Concerns like the ones many people here are voicing ("a parking lot is ugly", "I want it to be retail") are what the zoning regs are for (and to a lesser extent, your points about the H Street overlay, but only so much as such plans are binding on property owners in the area).

    The historic preservation laws are somewhat "extraordinary" in that they severely limit a property owner's ability to use his property, balancing a unique interest--the historical significance of the property--against the owner's property rights.

    In some ways, its similar to a taking, for which the laws mandate that the owner be compensated. However, there is no similar compensation scheme currently in place for owners of designated properties (the tax breaks are a joke, and DC HPO knows it). Therefore, the government should act carefully and not arbitrariliy when exercising such a power. For this reason, conditions were placed on exactly what constitutes a "historic" property so that the need for its preservation rises above the owner's property rights.

    You cant' simply not give any credence at all to the owner's property rights just because there exist conditions upon their exercise. And where, as HERE, there is simply NO legitimate historical value (and you know full well, if there was even a poor argument for their value, DCHRB would have found it), hearing the preservation folk basically say, "well, so what if there's no value, it's the only means we have to stop a project we don't like" really irks me.

    Development in the city, where you have mulitple property uses in close proximity to one another, is a tricky subject and one that I am ready to admit you (Richard) know a good deal more about than I. However, I'm simply taking issue with the misuse of what I deem to be a "slippery slope" of a governmental power to begin with. My worry being that if an owner wanted to do anything that is "better" (in whatever sense you like) than a parking lot next time, there would still be folks against it, or against development in general, who would hope to abuse this process to block such changes. We see it in this city a fair amount and I'd hate a lot of the progress we've recently seen around H Street to be hampered by over-zealous preservationists.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    The Supreme Court determined that historic preservation laws aren't a taking. That they aren't any different from zoning and building regulations in terms of their legal standing, therefore, no takings reimbursement.

    So we have nothing to debate. You can disagree and I'll respect you for it, but it's completely moot, because the law is very clear. And hey, I understand the takings clause of the 4th amendment--I read it a lot. (If you want to talk eminent domain, I'm happy to do so, but it's a different issue.)

    You might not realize this but the impetus for zoning regulations came from property owners, not "the people" or "government," because they wanted to be protected from callous action or inaction by other property owners, in/action(s) that could cause property values to go down. (The first major issue was the Garment district expanding and threatening the place value of the Ladies Mile shopping district in NYC in the 1890s I think, I'd have to look it up for the exact date.)

    The first preservation law was passed in 1931 in South Carolina. But the preservation movement, starting with the Mount Vernon estate, goes back to the mid-1800s.

    But I am a lot more magnanimous than I sound. I do believe that preservationists/"the govt." should create funds to assist those with greater need if economic issues make preservation difficult. DC did create a tax credit program for homeowners in certain areas. I would have just made it applicable to people according to income level, not place.

    In DC though, generally, preservation regulations means that a property is worth much much more than it might be otherwise. So it's not a hardship if you have money.

    The H Street Overlay actually discourages preservation except for a .5 FAR bonus. But that's not all that significant. Lots in an area like H Street should probably be allowed almost 100% lot coverage and at least 4.0 FAR (four stories for a rowhouse type building).

    But it was very difficult to make headway with OP about this, and I understand far more today than I did back in 2003 when we were first dealing with this.

    BUt I have no sympathy for this particular property owner, who didn't invest in basic maintenance in their property, and now wants to benefit from that. It's a classic demolition by neglect case, and building maintenance regulations ought to mean they should be punished for it.

    The real problem is that there are many gaps in the laws--they aren't congruent. So we have these continuous problems about public policy goals being stated but often unmet in the interstices of law, stated policy, and actual regulations and practices.

    As far as H Street goes, I've written 10s of thousands of words on it, and thought about it more than just about anybody else in recent years.

    Landmarking buildings or the commercial corridor will only help the revitalization of the corridor.

    The reason that H Street sucked for so many years is because of deliberate anti-preservation policies (urban renewal plan). It's lucky that anything was left able to support place values and leveraging economic development.

    and 20% of the cost of renovating the Atlas came from historic preservation tax credits...

  • Phil

    I'm not gonna go as deep into the weeds as the previous couple posters but I walk by these buildings every day and have a pretty strong feeling that my neighborhood would be lessened by their replacement by a parking lot. Sure, these buildings have limited intrinsic historic value, we have to admit that buildings like these, intact or renovated, separate DC from the 'burbs. They are historic in that sense, I think, and the owner's neglect shouldn't be a reason that he gets to turn our neighborhood into parking lots.

    Here's the deal in a capitalist system: you have an asset, and providing that you are willing to value it correctly, you should be able to find a buyer. I strongly believe that if he was honest about their current value, he could find a buyer willing to do repairs and either rent out or use the space. You don't want to or can't afford to fix up your property? Sell it to someone who can. I assure you *everyone* would be more happy that way. I'm tired of these slumlords who are riding other people's investments on H Street. Classic freeriders who should be forced to put up or shut up.

    Don't tear down what remains of classic DC architecture in favor of parking lots--you never get it back.

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