Housing Complex

Column Outtake 2: Can the Historic Districts Coalition Re-Start a Movement?

The Capitol Hill Historic District. (Office of Planning)

My column this week asks the question of how the preservation movement can attract new people to replace the original activists. With some organizations, it's a matter of survival.

Take the Historic Districts Coalition, for example. As co-founder, coordinator, and one-time potential Historic Preservation Review Board nominee Nancy Metzger tells it, the group started in the mid-1990s as the scary-sounding Coalition for Greater Preservation Enforcement. Then, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' building inspectors were the only ones checking for historic preservation compliance, and they pretty much care only about safety. So the fledgling coalition lobbied for, and got, two inspectors detailed specifically to the Historic Preservation Office.

The group went dormant until the early 2000s, when Historic Preservation Review Board chairman Tersh Boasberg pushed for more of a grassroots movement to support historic preservation as a priority. The D.C. Preservation League does that, but it has historically focused more on downtown. Also, Metzger says, DCPL has a lot of non-D.C. residents on its board, which lessens its clout with the City Council. The Historic Districts Coalition serves as a loose network of neighborhood-based preservationists all around the city, and weighs in on legislation, HPRB nominees, and in front of the board on cases.

About a year and a half ago, Metzger says, they started working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to figure out a way to institutionalize the group, and it's been less active over the last six months as they think through a way to transition. In the mean time, she realizes they need to learn how to communicate online better.

"I don’t feel like we’ve figured out how to get ahead of the social media," she says, citing rumors about the downsides of historic district designation that spread electronically. "We didn’t have that kind of threat 20 years ago. You went to your neighborhood association, and you maybe talked with your neighbors, but you didn’t have this instant thing, and people jumping in from all over the city to a discussion in a neighborhood."

George Washington University professor Richard Longstreth, who edited the book on housing in Washington, would like the re-invigorated Historic Districts Coalition to  become a much more forceful presence, bringing in people from all over the city to make preservation a consideration.

"I would like to see that coalition a lot more politically active," Longstreth says. "It’s always been a small, intelligent, very active group of people who’ve turned things around. But I’m talking about building up a big constituency citywide."

That will take some doing, because of the structural problems I've described. But learning the social media couldn't hurt.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    By all means, the preservationists should learn social media - but they should be careful about misdiagnosing their shortcomings as mere communications issues.

    Maybe it's not that online communications are working against them, it might be that people just disagree with their position on things. As noted, the structural issues are the important ones.

  • Hillman

    DC historic groups need to learn when an individual battle isn't worth fighting. I'm thinking for instance of the 'shotgun house' battle on Pennsylvania Ave SE, and other similar battles to 'rescue' dilapidated, insignificant structures at enormous cost.

    The public sees this (moreso now with instant media), and the average person thinks the historic groups are being inflexible and living in some sort of shellacked version of what they think DC used to be like 100 years ago.

    Fight the big battles, provide resources, but let idiocy like the 'shotgun house' die a little death already.

  • M. F. McCoy

    I am so glad that Nancy and Rick are thinking about these things. Washington is in great need of a real city-wide grassroots preservation organization with the clout of the old Don't Tear It Down.

  • http://blog.inshaw.com Mari

    I agree with Hillman. Sometimes it seems there is no disernment between something that is actually important and something insignificant, because everything is significant, and when every structure is significant than none of them are.
    As time marches on almost every building, and piece of crap public art in the District will be over 50 years old. But with the gad ugly makes you wanna slap somebody 3rd Church of Christ Scientist building, that POS isn't even 50 yet. That does not help their cause, it shows they can fight, not that they can determine what's worth fighting for.

  • Thayer-D

    Preservation should be imbued with a conservation ethic much like the environmental movement. In other words, it shoud be as much about promoting a healthy and sustainable human habitat as it is about preserving our history. Right now the negative feedback I most hear is about restricting peoples rights to maintain their homes in an economical way. Preservationists should loosen rules on things that can cosmetically be re-done (if someday it was deemed necessary) such as allowing vinyl windows in residential districts and signage restrictions in commercial districts.

    Everyone assumes cities like Rome where always preserved in amber, but it has always grown and changed over time. It was after Modernism's assent that advocated the whole sale destruction of existing fabric that it began to have that frozen in time look. Buildings should be given more leaway to adapt and be re-used at the same time we could preserve more of the fabric that, being built before everyone had a car, air conditioning and electric light, has design features that promote healthy living.

  • Lisa

    People seem to miss the point that the big battles have been faught and many have been won and even some lost. Preservation can be a tough thing to understand but it has really worked for Washington. The most saught after neighborhoods are most likely an historic district, this gives residents comfort that their investments are sound and that their neighbor can't just tear down the rowhouse next door and build from lot line to lot line. Or even pop the top of the building. I don't want to see that on my block!

    It now comes down to outreach and education. Which definately could use some work - but some of you should look at the preservation league's website - it has some interesting programs. They are even hosting an open house next week where homeowners can get individualized attention from experts on problems they are having with their house. It's free and you don't have to be a member. Sounds pretty useful.

    Finally, there is criticism of the DC Preservation League not being grassroots enough - but if that organization wasn't sitting down and working with developers now we'd all be complaining that they are too old fashioned in their tactics and need to work WITH the developers. It's a lost cause arguing about it.

  • JBL

    The article fails to mention that the Coalition for Greater Preservation Enforcement was the product of a DC Preservation League conference where many HD organizations came together and the cultural tourism folks and decided there needed to be better enforcement. DCPL then spearheaded the effort until it went dormant after successfully advocating for the "preservation police". I remember it quite well even if some like to forget how it actually got started.

    Everyone's always all about what DCPL doesnt do yet they don't give them credit for what they have done! God knows they don't get it right all of the time - but who does?

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    The most saught after neighborhoods are most likely an historic district, this gives residents comfort that their investments are sound and that their neighbor can't just tear down the rowhouse next door and build from lot line to lot line. Or even pop the top of the building. I don't want to see that on my block!

    But don't you see how that also makes preservation a victim of its own success? As Lydia noted in her piece, the preservation movement got started when all of these wonderful old homes were still affordable places to live for residents and homeowners. You've succeeded in preserving these places, but those restrictions on supply have also made it un-affordable for all but the very wealthy. That alone erodes the base of support that the preservation movement needs.

    So, yeah - it worked. It might have worked too well - and now 'preservation' needs to adapt and find out how to remain relevant in the context of a growing city of today instead of the shrinking city of the 60s and 70s.

    The fundamental point is that you need to change the scope of 'preservation' in order to grow those grassroots. You cite an example of free advice and expertise for homeowners. That's great, but the very fact that it focuses on homeowners in a city where homeownership is increasingly unaffordable is precisely the problem.

  • http://www.ncpc.gov William H. Herbig

    Balancing preservation with new development is large part of Architect Bing Thom’s talk on Oct. 18. At the NCPC Speaker Series session Mr. Thom will discuss his Arena Stage project; the Southwest neighborhood; and how future developments can build upon the community’s legacy of mid-century modern design.

    You are all invited to join the conversation, but space at the Embassy is limited. Here’s all of the details: http://conta.cc/oN5Av5

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    We need Housing Complex Daily!