Housing Complex

Historic Preservation Cases Get New Decider

J. Peter Byrne, the new Mayor's Agent. (Historic Preservation Office)

In particularly contentious historic preservation cases—mostly when property owners wants to raze their historic buildings and the Historic Preservation Review Board says they can't—the mayor is formally the person who's supposed to decide. Recent cases of note that have gone to that next level of appeal (and sometimes even higher, to the District's Court of Appeals) include the Takoma Theater, the Third Church of Christ Scientist, houses on New Jersey Avenue, and the Heritage Foundation's building at 227 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

But the mayor usually doesn't know much about historic preservation, so he appoints someone to make the determination for him, called a "mayor's agent." For the past few years, it's been Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. Several preservationists–from the same quarter as those who demanded that Mayor Vince Gray replace her—have been upset about that, grumbling that Tregoning isn't a lawyer and comes from the city government's economic development agency, prejudicing her in favor of development rather than preservation.

I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive, and I'm not sure I'd disagree with many of her decisions. But the rankled preservationists are at least correct in one sense: the Office of Planning director has a lot on her plate without rendering voluminous legal decisions in historic preservation cases, and it makes sense to have someone more independent.

That just happened, with the appointment of J. Peter Byrne, who has just about the most impeccable qualifications one could ask for, including having started the excellent database of District historic preservation decisions—to which he'll soon be able to add.

  • rt

    Another Vince gray step backwards,placating those who despise progress

  • WHAT??!

    Lydia, While I normally agree with you I think you've got the facts wrong on this one. First, this is the same man that wrote "Two Cheers for Gentrification" - see http://www.ll.georgetown.edu/faculty/pubs.cfm?id=14. He also co-teaches a law class with Tersh Boasberg - http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/hpps_papers/ - the very same person you cited as a strict constructionist (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2011/03/02/strict-constructionists-is-the-heritage-foundation-a-threat-to-historic-preservation/). This is the first time the duties of the Mayor's Agent have been delegated to a non-governmental official. There are a number of questions about conflicts, his opinion, and whether this is even legal. Changing the Mayor’s Agent has HUGE implications for the preservation program. I really wish you would check the facts before issuing what seems to be a press release on behalf of the Office of Planning. This is a serious step backwards.

  • Brian

    Add another 3-5 years on to anything getting done

  • Lydia DePillis


    Admittedly, I haven't done a thorough review of the issues here, but I don't think the things you cited present serious problems. Have you read that piece on gentrification? Also, why would co-teaching a class with Tersh Boasberg make Byrne guilty by association? And is there a legal problem with someone being a non-governmental official? I'm open-minded to the presence of conflicts here, but don't think you've demonstrated any.

  • Hill Feller

    I am not a lawyer but have spent some considerable time reading the District's historic preservation law and many of the decisions in the Georgetown database.

    My problem with this appointment is that it perpetuates a fallacious understanding of the Mayor's Agent's role. I have always thought of the Mayor's Agent as a kind of executive safety valve that can cut through the Gordian Knot of historic preservation politics.

    Legally, the Mayor himself could make these decisions, and presumably on a political basis.

    I have never thought of the Mayor's Agent as making strictly legal decisions --the Mayor's Agent allows these decisions to become, in part, political.


    On a related topic, we're coming up on almost a year without a decision from the DC Court of Appeals on the Heritage Foundation case which will help clarify just how much authority the Mayor's Agent has.

  • WHAT??!

    @ Lydia DePillis

    Yes, I did read the article on two cheers for gentrification. The article made me red in the face and is completely insensitive to the negative repercussions of gentrification. It characterizes the displacement of people who have lived in the City for years as a cost of doing business (essentially, an oh-well, so what, sucks for you attitude). Particularly in the case of historic preservation, this is a REAL problem. The Georgetown historic district, created in the 1950’s, is largely attributed to the displacement of African Americans from the area. They could no longer afford to maintain their properties at the standards required under the strict preservation laws and therefore moved away. People are still passionate and upset at the displacement.

    The problem is a lack of sensitivity to the very real impact of such restrictive rules on a broad base of residents. Isn’t this still a problem in the City?

    Also, while I will agree that the close association with Tersh Boasberg does not make Mr. Byrne guilty –I think it’s a least worth noting in an article that discusses his experience and ties with the preservation community. The article glosses over how he was selected (in a sole source contract) to serve in the position. It also doesn’t question why he – out of all of the highly qualified preservationist and land use attorneys – was the only person considered for the job.

    Finally, I am no expert, but have to question why my tax dollars are being to pay a non-governmental employee to serve as a judge – rather than the governmental officials whose job it is to make decisions for the government. Is he subject to the same conflicts of interest rules? Why not have an impartial governmental official serve in the role? Does this mean that Harriet has no role or say in the cases? What happens if he disagrees with Harriet, whose opinion trumps? Will he make more conservative decisions (no 3rd story additions allowed on the Heritage Foundation’s Pennsylvania Ave. offices) or will his approach mimic Harriet’s? What happened to the questions surrounding Harriet’s conflicts of interest? Can Harriet still weigh in on HPO’s staff review before cases go to HPRB as well as the Mayor’s Agent process? How is Mr. Byrne held accountable for bad decisions? Did the Mayor’s office have to take official action to allow this? Was the City Council informed before hand? What’s next? Mr. Byrne is an academic, so how will he approach very real issues like “economic hardship” and projects of “special merit”? Has the Mayor discussed his vision of the preservation program with him so that he can appropriately determine projects of “special merit”? Why make the announcement (via a Housing Complex article I might add) after the fact rather than in an official OP statement? I could go on, but will spare everyone…..

    All that to say – there is no perfect answer and reasonable minds can disagree as to whether his appointment was the right move. Either way, my point remains that there are a significant number of questions not even raised in the article. I really hope you do a supplement article on this.

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