In the Battle of Barney Circle, Could There be a Middle Ground?
Despite the work of a dedicated preservationist contingent in the tiny southeast neighborhood of Barney Circle, it just wasn't in the cards for the Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the area an historic district on June 24.
Housing Complex covered the last Barney Circle Neighborhood Watch Association (BNCWA) meeting before the HPRB vote back in April. Attendees at that particular meeting appeared to favor the historic district designation, but on decision day, a groundswell of opposition from residents and Councilmember Tommy Wells postponed the HPRB's vote.
Recent coverage has thoroughly discussed most facets of the Barney Circle debate: why there shouldn't be a historic district, why residents will get headaches if they live in one, its implications on density, and why it's maybe even a not-so-terrible-possibly-good idea.
Barney Circle has exhausted the options provided by the District, which are, effectively, to be or not to be a historic district. But are there other possibilities?
San Jacinto, TX, is trying out an interesting alternative: There, residents have established a “conservation,” rather than historic, district for their neighborhood. From the city of Galveston's website on San Jacinto:
"...a NCD takes the form of a zoning overlay and can be used to address appropriateness of demolition, new construction, or rehabilitation in both residential and commercial neighborhoods…these standards are developed by the community affected rather than originating at the city level."
The priority that San Jacinto chose to emphasize was the maintenance of the neighborhood's character through strict standards (essentially on the level of a historic district's standards) for new construction. But, residents are allowed to paint and remodel their homes without a board's approval. And, these guidelines were neighborhood-established, rather than handed down by the city of Galveston.
Eight public meetings were held to tease out what the big issues for the neighborhood were, said Brax Easterwood, the city of Galveston’s consultant for San Jacinto. He added, “Some of the negative comments that we got throughout made it better in the end. What we heard throughout the whole process was that people wanted to build or design whatever they wanted…the intent in the end was to mitigate some extremes and to prohibit out-of-scale buildings.”
Galveston's city planning department operates quite differently than the District's. When San Jacinto activists couldn't drum up the necessary 51 percent approval from residents to create the conservation district–despite an aggressive direct-mailing campaign, 2008's Hurricane Ike derailed their efforts, resulting in a mere 23 percent–the planning department pushed the designation through.
Housing Complex doesn't see the HPRB becoming that kind of arbiter, but the San Jacinto model has merit: Because a neighborhood needs to decide what's being conserved, there's no room for miscommunication, a major issue in the Barney Circle debate. And conservation districts aren't as scary and overbearing as historic districts. As DCMud noted, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) has a litany of standards for structures in the Capitol Hill Historic District, such as "If you want to install a fence, make any chances to the porch, garage, or exterior of your building, or even install sculpture in your front yard, you must get a building permit." San Jacinto was able to choose not to include such standards for their conservation district.
If conservation districts were an option for DC neighborhoods, perhaps the Barney Circle neighborhood could have saved itself some trouble. Residents might have felt more included if the implications of the district's designation were to be of their own design. And, the historic district guidelines proposed for Barney Circle were only the second set of standards to be tailored specifically to a neighborhood.
San Jacinto's conservation district includes roughly 1400 structures, compared to Barney Circle's 192. If the HPRB ever wanted to test the potential of conservation districts in DC, Barney Circle might be a good place to start.