Housing Complex

Nancy Metzger and Historic Preservation’s Public Relations Problem

Metzger testifies.

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."

It's quite possible that Elkins' roof addition—just one piece of an otherwise sensitive restoration of a house that really needed it—didn't conform to the letter of the preservation law. But Metzger and the Historic Preservation Office's determined prosecution of this case after the District itself had screwed up is an example of the kind of preservation policing that gives the discipline a bad name, without much real gain. In the same vein, Metzger appealed the Heritage Foundation's third-floor addition past the Mayor's Agent to the D.C. Superior Court, where a decision is still pending. She's also pressed for the Hine School development at the Eastern Market Metro station to stay at the existing 58 feet, instead of 90 feet. In Metzger's view, even sensitive restorations and new construction don't count unless they make the neighborhood look exactly as it did before.

Elkins' rooftop addition, visible only from an alley.

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.

When Wells asked about restrictions on the height of buildings, Metzger replied that most of the time increasing height isn't necessary. "I think there are a lot of ways to get get higher density without necessarily making things all eight stories," she said, offering the division of rowhouses into multiple units as an example. "There are different ways to increase density without building way up."

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.

  • DC Guy

    So the mayor appointed someone who is suing the city?

  • Pencils

    Was that a photo of the Altamont? Goodness, I hope no one touches that. Probably Lydia sees an opportunity for more lux condos,though.

  • RT

    This old hag is going to be a disaster. A Committee of 100 puppet if I ever saw one.

    Good job, Mayor Gray! Another real winner- really moving the city forward here!

  • RT

    Also, density and height are NOT historic preservation issues (or at least, should never be). That's a load of bullshit. Zoning is entirely different than preservation, though certain dinosaurs use historic preservation to limit zoning.

  • Hillman

    Agree with RT. Density and height are not historic preservation issue. Or they shouldn't be.

  • Pencils

    Oh, but they absolutely are!

  • New Preservationist

    What a missed opportunity. The Gray Administration seems to be playing to the 65 and over crowd, getting embedded in debates that have no positive impact on the growth of the City, and overlooking preservation issues that are important to the general population in the District (such as incentives that promote the incorporation of sustainable and new technologies into older properties). U Street has been working on branding efforts that highlight its historic features. H Street would so not be as interesting without its historic properties (ranging from the Atlas Theater to the H Street Country Club). Neighborhoods ranging from Mt. Pleasant to Anacostia have become the hip places to live because of their beautiful architecture.

    We have moved away from the days where big time developers are knocking down our most precious historic resources without consequence. We no longer only care about preserving the wealthiest of neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, Cleveland Park and Capitol Hill, while other communities deteriorate. Arguing about someone’s rear addition, which is barely visible from public space, seems to be a complete waste of time and tax payer dollars.

    There are so many preservationist that have a more practical view of historic preservation (while being active and thoughtful, all of the things that Nancy Metzger has been complimented for). The fact that Mayor Gray picked the most conservative person he could find either means he doesn’t care (which is possible) or that he wants to see the preservation program regress about 3 generations.

  • Curious

    Has anyone noticed that Tersh Boasberg is behind Nancy’s nomination and the appointment of the new Mayor’s agent? Is this concerning to anyone?

    Just connecting the dots.....

  • DR

    Nancy Metzger will be a great addition to the HPRB. She is extremely well qualified and has provided excellent advise on several projects in ANC 6A (most notably, the H Street Connection Redevelopment). Also, I have not found her to be "rigid". She is a very approachable person, easy to work with and points out real concerns with projects.

  • http://dcjack.org Jack

    What are the "public members" of the HPRB for, if not to represent "the public"? Not the preservationist community, but the people.

    Such a radical notion. But DC law says that "all appointments to the Historic Preservation Review Board shall be made with a view toward having its membership represent to the greatest practicable extent the composition of the adult population of the District of Columbia with regard to race, sex, geographic distribution and other demographic characteristics." Clearly someone is supposed to speak for the people, not just the preservationist community.

  • Brian

    As a preservationist more familiar with the federal preservation law and regulations, I think the growing public consensus about the 'severity' of local ordinances' requirements is well grounded and may indeed give preservation a bad name. The trouble is in finding the middle ground, as always.

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

    The definition of the middle ground from the standpoint of someone who wants to do whatever they want to their property is to let them. It's not about give and take.

    It's about this to this

    - forlorn but definitely fixable, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/3010387942/
    - http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/2929367368/

    or this to this
    - it looked like this, but this is the next door house,
    - this now, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/5867008359/in/photostream/http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/5867008361/


    I am not saying that these houses are high art, but that they have been drastically changed. These are the kinds of things people do when there are no limits on what they can do.

    I just don't see many examples in the city of where preservation regulations don't exist of people going beyond and doing something particularly well. Hell, not even just ok. Mostly people do boneheaded shit and feel quite good about it.

    I'd love to see some examples of high quality work in areas not with HP regulations. Show me...