Housing Complex

ANC Fights Preservation Group Over Designation of AU’s Tenley Campus

American University has been fighting the neighborhood on several fronts to get approval for a campus plan that includes moving its law school to the former Immaculata Seminary at Yuma Street and Nebraska Avenue NW. Naturally, one of them has to do with preservation: The Tenleytown Historical Society has submitted a landmark application for the entire block, and even though it hasn't yet come before the Historic Preservation Review Board, AU has had to plan with the expectation that nothing may be able to change.

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, thinks the preservationists have gone overboard. Last week, it passed a three-page resolution with 26 Whereas clauses outlining the ways in which the landmark application is excessive and has unnecessarily confined AU's ability to design an attractive, useful campus. "While there is little dispute that Capitol Hall merits designation, the balance of the campus, including the reconstructed Dunblane House, have little historicity meritorious for designation," it reads. Other dubiously valuable buildings include three 1950s-era residence halls and a chapel constructed in 1921, the preservation of which complicates the creation of inviting campus spaces.

Along the way, says commissioner Jon Bender, State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney plays an outsized role in the development of the new campus, which ends up influencing outcomes in ways the public may not understand. The ANC's resolution also complains that having to plan around a landmark application has also "adversely affected" modernization of the Tenleytown Fire Station, Janney Elementary School, and Wilson High School.

"What ultimately happens is that David Maloney becomes a senior design partner. David Maloney works with these folks to shape something that he believes—and usually correctly believes—is going to pass muster with HPRB," Bender says. "It's kind of a black box for the rest of the community why some things are foreclosed. It's bad public policy to have a situation where this stuff takes place in the shadows."

American University itself is more diplomatic. Assistant Vice President for Facilities Development and Real Estate Jorge Abud says that since they've known from the beginning that the campus was likely to be designated as historic, they were able to plan around it, with a few changes. "If we had a blank slate, the law school would be in one unified building," he says. "What we're doing now is doing three buildings. One an existing historic structure, and two others connected to it."

On the flip side of Bender's frustration: Maloney's involvement is also a way to smooth the road towards historic designation, preventing a situation where a development application is rejected entirely by the Board, which adds time and expense. The bigger problem, it seems, comes with allowing the preservation of buildings with little historic value in a configuration that makes little sense get in the way of enlightened urban design.

There may also be an element here of the famous Tenleytown tendency to try to minimize development just for the hell of it, which would be another sad abuse of the District's historic preservation law.

  • RT

    Something's gotta give. We are going backwards as a city. I am now convinced. The NIMBYs are winning. It's because the silent majority are not politically involved, and the tiny, powerful, and politically connected groups with a vested interest in seeing something *not* happen can do it through shrewd contributions, lawsuits, and "historic preservation". They should be ashamed of themselves, but they won't be.

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  • Anon

    I think a comparison of Deal's renovation with those at Janney and Wilson suggests that historic preservation made a very positive difference. In all three cases, Allen Lew was in charge of the project. At Deal we got a bunker because fast, cheap, reliable, and functional were the only imperatives in the mix. Design review is a good thing, especially in contexts, like these and like AU's Tenley campus, where there's something valuable that could be lost without it.)

    And there's no black box re historic preservation -- the laws are on the books and the hearings are open to the public. Certainly if AU could just do it's own thing with no HPRB involvement, the public would have less insight and input into the decisionmaking process.

  • DC Guy

    @anon 11:12

    It seems to me that the black box is that the University and the SHPO are acting as if the campus, by virtue of the designation are already landmarked. One can understand why the University would want to negotiate with the SHPO to arrive at a result likely to pass HPRB muster, but is that really the way the process should work?

    The resolution linked in the article cites, for example, the structure on the far western end of the Tenley campus. According to the resolution, the structure has been significantly altered and rebuilt in the 150 years since it was originally constructed. It is unclear that the structure has any historic value whatsoever, yet we are led to believe that somehow this structure is to be given the status of a landmark. That is a joke, and a simple ruse to prevent the University from expanding its footprint on their property now or in the future.

    That is an abuse of the historic preservation laws.

  • Soviet Sam

    I thought the black box was all the discussion in the shadows. Shadows are black, after all.

    I can see why the historic office would want to do this out of the public eye. They can be Design Gods that way. Maybe there are 100 ways that the campus could be designed and pass muster with the board. The Design Gods can pick the one they think is prettiest, and nobody outside the box can say boo about the other 99. Being a God is good deal for a bureaucrat.

  • Anon

    So what you're saying, DC Guy, is that the landowner and the historic pres people are working together to reach a mutually agreeable plan for the Tenley campus. And this is objectionable how? Because the ANC (and/or Soviet Sam) want to impose their visions instead?

    It's just silly to say "the Design God" imposes vision selected from among 100 available options. The landowner presents his vision and Maloney decided whether or not it conforms to HP guidelines. There aren't 100 different images on the table. And whatever image is on the table didn't come from HPO.

    Landmark applications have been in the works for that site for years. It may seem tied to development because HPO has enough applications pending that they seems to triage based on the imminence of likely changes to the property or site. But the people who asked for historic designation at that site did so long before and for reasons unassociated with any plan to relocate AU's law school campus.

    Re building that's been altered over the years. Isn't it the case that designations can be tailored to protect some aspects of a building (or site) and to allow others to be removed (e.g. you can tear down this newer wing, but these historic exterior walls need to be preserved)?

  • Soviet Sam

    Anon how do you know whether the image on the table came from AU or was the Design Gods idea. Were you part of the negotiations with the Design Gods and AU, or are you making things up?

  • DC Guy


    So are you saying that a house that was once there in the 1800's but burned down and was essentially rebuilt in the 1990's is worthy of historic preservation landmarking? According to the ANC resolution, the Tenleytown Historical Society application suggested that nothing about the house was historic, except for maybe the door frame.

    Is this worthy of historic preservation? Do you seriously think the HPRB should be asked to landmark such a structure?

    What about the 1950's concrete buildings. What is historically significant about them? Objectively, nothing, but it is clear that for what ever reason and at whatever time, a landmark application was filed on this property, and much of it appears to be, at best, frivolous.

    It is obvious, as someone who doesn't have a dog in the fight, that the University is catering to the SHPO because they simply want to move forward with their plans.

    Why doesn't the HPRB act on the landmark application and, once it is determined what is significant, and what isn't, let the University design plans that account for the Board decision? That seems to be a much better process than having the SHPO dictate his views on the process, outside of the public light.

  • Anon

    Re the source of plans. No, I haven't been involved in whatever "negotiations" went on. I just know that HPO doesn't hire architects to design projects for landowners. They review designs that are brought to them by landowners. And landowners don't pay for architects to make 100 different designs. So your whole premise that there's 100 possibilities out there and some "Design God" narrows it to his personal favorite is just BS.

    Honestly, it sounds like Bender got into a pissing match with Maloney and lost and now he's bitter. The ANC resolution itself supports some degree of historic preservation at the site.

    As the article points out, the landowner has the option of just waiting for HPRB to decide what's protected and then proceeding accordingly. To the extent that AU is working with Maloney, presumably they think it's in their interests to do so (e.g. it increases the odds of an HPRB decision they can live with and that doesn't send them back to the drawing board).

  • Cassie

    Better order me a Hemp Burger, supersize! LOL!

  • Bob

    Before anyone starts hyperventilating about NIMBYs and preservationists, it's good to remember the saga of the old Sears, now Cityline and Best Buy in Tenleytown. Not to many years ago, locals and preservationists landmarked the building. Oh, the howls of protest about NIMBYism and "hysterical preservation" from some quarters, including Marc Fisher, then a Post columnist. If the building hadn't been landmarked, it's likely that that visible corner would have ended up with a clone of Van Ness Center or perhaps at best something really mediocre like 4000 Wisconsin. Instead the adaptive reuse of the landmarked property resulted in something that is creative, well-situated and preserves the old architecture et seems very modern at the same time.

  • DC Guy


    The old Sears, nee Cityline is a matter of taste in terms of successful adaptive re-use. There are many in the neighborhood, across the city and elsewhere who think the sleek spaceship on top of the art deco facade is butt ugly.

    To each their own.

  • Maeve

    @DC Guy

    The really Butt Ugly comments from ANC Commissioner Jon Bender reflect the attitude of ANC 3E and you seem to continue in the same vein.

  • DC Guy

    While I don't know Bender, it sounds like the refrain is not unique. Like I said, to each their own, but the subjective nature of historic preservation leads to some extolling the virtues of such design, while others deride it.

  • Maeve

    2DC Guy

    Hold on -- I need to get my boots!

  • Maeve

    @DC Guy

    Hold on -- I need to get my boots!

  • Anon

    Bender is the same Commissioner who, at a recent ANC meeting on the Wilson pool's configuration, asked the police officer to shut people up. She declined.

    From the NW Current's coverage (available at

    "Many audience members left in the midst of debate, expressing disgust at the meeting's tone and at chair Bender's move to limit each attendee to one comment.

    The police officer, who had attended the [ANC] meeting to present a crime briefing, rebuffed Bender's request for intervention against residents Bender said were speaking out of turn. 'I thought an ANC meeting is where they can share their opinions,' the officer said. She, too, left early, saying, 'If somebody gets assaulted, call me.'"

  • David NW

    You are wrong about there being only an element here of the famous Tenleytown tendency to try to minimize development just for the hell of it, which would be another sad abuse of the District's historic preservation law. That is the whole thing. These Tenleytown NIMBYs want their mattress stores and dilapidated or boarded up buildings on Wisconsin Avenue, thank you very much. Wisconsin Avenue, a quiet country lane. I'm surprised they haven't tried to landmark the whole avenue above Tenley Circle.

  • Typical DC BS

    Historic Preservation, for that crap there? The whole HP process needs to be revised. So much time and energy wasted on telling someone else what to do with their property.

    After having to go through numerous DC agencies just to get anything built in DC, there are numerous ways the DC government can influence design and construction. Historic Preservation just gives another busybody a say in how you build / renovate your property.

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