Nancy Metzger and Historic Preservation’s Public Relations Problem
At last week's confirmation hearing for Historic Preservation Review Board nominees, preservation groups and hyperlocal elected officials—even the board's former chairman, Tersh Boasberg—lined up to support the appointment of Nancy Metzger, who's been the Capitol Hill Restoration Society's point person on preservation for 16 years now. She's a fierce advocate for historic districts around the city, a patient mentor to those who want to understand Capitol Hill's historic fabric, a tireless volunteer, etc. etc. (Read everybody's testimony here.)
In the midst of that boosterish parade, a few voices dissented. Capitol Hill artist Laura Elkins read a short statement of opposition to Metzger's appointment. Her full story would have taken the entire hearing.
In a nutshell: In 2001, Elkins and her husband—himself a preservation official at the Department of the Interior—applied for permits to renovate a run-down house at 20 9th Street NE. The Historic Preservation Office and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs approved them. But after construction began, a neighbor complained that a roof addition visible only from an alley was incompatible with the historic district, sued in D.C. Superior Court, and lost. The HPRB agreed with the neighbor, however, and the Historic Preservation Office tried to revoke Elkins' permits. The office even had a building inspector search Elkins' house, seizing construction documents in violation of their search warrant. Over years of legal wrangling, which Elkins estimates have cost her more than $500,000 in attorneys fees, an administrative court denied the District's attempt to revoke her permits. The couple then sued for damages on the grounds of violation of due process, and are waiting for a decision.
What does Metzger have to do with this? According to Elkins, she kept pursuing the case, sitting in on many of the court proceedings, without ever having come to speak with her personally about the issue (Metzger declined to comment). "I think Nancy Metzger and the rest of them saw it as a threat to their power. As soon the [neighbor's] case was done, and they lost, just started in and tried to stop the process any way they could," Elkins says. "That's why she shouldn't be in that position. She just makes up her mind regardless of the facts, and that's it."
Councilmember Tommy Wells knows Metzger and CHRS' reputation, and during the hearing, asked her what she'd say to people who see her views as "rigid," as well as about her philosophy on increasing density in transit-accessible neighborhoods. Metzger basically responded that the Historic Preservation Office has been flexible enough. "I do think that we're all very aware of the hope that people have that they can live their lives in their houses, or that they can start a new family and find more space. And I do think historic preservation has been adaptable to many of those issues," she said.
Metzger is certainly dedicated and knowledgeable. And I don't buy ANC 1D's argument, represented at the hearing by Commissioner Jack McKay, that the citizen member of the board should be someone who's outside of the preservation community entirely. It just would be nice to have seen a citizen member who is less, as Wells put it, "rigid."
ANC 6D Commissioner David Garber, while supporting Metzger's nomination, issued a challenge in his testimony that I think sums up the issues well.
I know that these nominees are qualified to be official advocates for the District's built heritage. But I also want to challenge them to see our old and historic places both as important aesthetic and cultural artifacts and as the patterns and teachers for a built future that might not look just like what's come before. Celebrate history, but encourage contemporary design in its interpretation. Require a village scale where appropriate, but allow for greater density where our infrastructure is built to handle it. Be vigilant about context and scale, but allow our library of good urbanism to be shaped by best practices sourced from around the world and across centuries and styles. See change as an asset to be worked with instead of as an enemy to be guarded against. Old is important, but so is eclecticism, environmental sustainability, and urbanizing development.
There likely won't be enough opposition out there to derail Metzger's nomination, so I hope she takes Garber's statement to heart.