Column Outtake 3: The Weaponization of Landmarking is Bad for Preservation
A final thought on last week's column about the future of preservation in D.C. (for which you'll find additional supporting evidence in notes from the Historic Preservation Office's steering committee on the next five-year plan).
Back in 2008, the residents of Chevy Chase, D.C. rejected a proposed historic district. That's fine—the prevailing philosophy at the Historic Preservation Office is that neighborhoods ought to be invested in their historic protections; it is their property, after all. But recently, some residents have tried to use the preservation law to prevent other people from doing what they wanted with their property.
The site in question is the 1920s-era 3901 Jocelyn Street NW, which developers wanted to raze to make room for two new houses. Neighbors mobilized against the plan over the summer, posting signs, contacting elected officials, and circulating a petition against the raze. But the thing that finally succeeded in dissuading the developers? A landmark application that would have designated the house as historic, forcing them to preserve the house, and likely make even fewer alterations than they'd otherwise be able to make. In order to file the application, neighbor David Nygaard formed "Chevy Chase Heights Historic Preservation Inc.", which he told the anti-internet Northwest Current would probably go dormant "until he perceives another threat to the community."
That kind of thing—also on display recently in Brookland and at the Georgia Avenue Walmart site—twists the preservation law into a tool in the NIMBY toolbox, empowering people who couldn't care less about historic preservation to simply stymie change. Not only does that give historic preservation a bad name, it's also fundamentally unfair: Without shared historic protections, anybody can prevent someone from significantly altering their property through slapping it with a landmark application, or at least delay the process enough to make the prospective developer give in.
Just another argument for a more relaxed historic designation that would prevent tear-downs without dictating everything a homeowner can and can't do with their property.