Housing Complex

Column Outtake 3: The Weaponization of Landmarking is Bad for Preservation

3901 Jocelyn Street, historic when convenient.

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.

  • Skipper

    Easy solution: When these sorts of astro-turf historic preservation groups file a landmark claim and lose, they have to pay everyone's attorneys' fees. Problem solved.

  • CoHo1

    I remember years ago when people were buying homes in Chevy Chase, MD only to tear them down to build new, beautiful homes. During an interview on ABC7 one of the new homeowners said he felt most of the current residents were simply jealous they couldn't afford to do the same.

    Truer words were never spoken.

  • DC Guy

    The point is, either a property is historic or it isn't. Either a neighborhood is historic, or it isn't. If the people of Chevy Chase are willing to use Preservation as a blunt instrument against infill development, then it ought to simply adopt being a historic district.

    Otherwise, the hypocrisy is simply unctuous.

  • drez

    It's not whether the astro-turf groups win or loose, it's whether they can increase the carrying-costs of the property enough to make the entire transaction unpalatable to the developer, who will then seek higher ROI elsewhere.
    This tactic needs no lawsuit to work, only the credible threat of one.

  • In MD

    If only the NIMBYs could find something other than historic preservation to hang their hopes on. Chevy Chase seems to have a greater concentration of preservation zealots than other parts of the District: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/8470/albert-schulteis-baker-and-preservation-flashpoint/

  • ScottRoberts

    Lydia: I don't like your watered-down version of historic preservation of controlling demolitions but otherwise remaining silent on renovations -- including pop-ups -- of existing buildings in a designated historic district. Sort of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. If historic designation doesn't include * some * sort of required design review, then the designation has no teeth. But keep your ideas coming! And thanks for promoting the discussion!

  • EH

    The piece you are missing is that they would not have been able to simply slap a historic designation on the property without review by the HPRB. So far, nearly every attempt in CC to do so for individual houses has failed, because they do not tend to meet the criteria for individual listing. So, really, this whole thing, IMHO is a pretty empty threat and argument.

    Does the threat itself carry weight? Apparantly enough to make the developers reconsider, although had they looked into the issue further, they probably would have prevailed. But what is important here is that it does provide a community an opportunity to try to protect their investment, and what they hold as important. At the very least, it forces discussion of the issue - even if unsuccessful.

    I know there are many people who fall on the "it's my property I should be able to do whatever I want" theory, but frankly - you already can't do whatever you want. Unfortunately being a property owner, particularly in a city or town, carries with it responsibilities that are not always direct. What you do does have an impact on others - and as such, even if you find it annoying, there needs to be legislation that provides enough flexibility for the consideration of multiple viewpoints.

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

    The point that you miss is that people are driven to this because they have few options in working to maintain neighborhood character in the face of no capacity for review.

    In DC law, historic preservation provides the only significant additional means to weigh in on such issues.

    What it is is an indicator that there are problems with lack of design review and the failure to manage neighborhood character (except in historic districts) can cause problems for which there are no remedies present in DC law.

    I also think you mischaracterize what happened in Chevy Chase. Residents never got a chance to vote on a nomination, because of how the process was handled there, and issues with the level of organization and approach on the part of the organization that was responsible for the preparation of the nomination document. So I wouldn't call it a rejection, but there is definitely a stalemate.

    Anyway, I've wanted to do a roundup on preservation issues, including your piece, a piece by Steven Semes, and 3 pieces or so from the Financial Times, but I just don't have the time right now due to work responsibilities.

    I do wish though that you'd consider this topic with mnore breadth and look at the issue of minimal input opportunities afforded citizens when it comes to significant changes to houses in their neighborhoods, when the changes can have significant impact.

  • Fong Fong

    @ Richard Layman is partly correct on the Chevy Chase historic district issue. Some would say, particularly the pro-development ANC members at the time, that the process for "polling" the residents was, in fact, a vote on the issue. Others will say the process was co-opted by the very strident, and disagreeable, group of anti's. No matter, HPO was not going to move forward with the application for historic district designation without the perceived support by the neighborhood.

    I completely agree that the folks who put forth the designation were naive in anticipating the vitriol and scare tactics that would come from those against the designation. There were plenty of ways to attack this issue by choosing a smaller area for designation where there was great support. Alas, too late for that, at least for now.

    Hypocrisy Alert: That fella named in the article as forming the one-house preservation society was perhaps the loudest opponent of a Chevy Chase historic district. A real-life neighborhood bully where the rules for the many don't apply to him.

  • Ben

    Who on earth has the time to go to the trouble to form an LLC and spend countless hours working to slap a landmark status on a house simply to prevent it from being torn down?

    I want whatever job that guy has.