Here’s a tale about undemocratic process.
It’s not so much about Big Government sticking it to the little man. It’s about a promiscuous relationship between hyper-local interest groups and the city's Historic Preservation Office.
Some months ago I learned that a cabal of neighbors had been gearing up to apply to the city for “historic designation” for my tiny street. I surmised this when a neighbor inquired about whether I’d be willing to sign a petition. “Historic designation”, my neighbor told me, would keep folks from building third-story “pop-ups” on their homes. Wouldn’t that be great?
I had to pause to think. It occurred to me that building pop-ups on our small homes seemed more than a little ambitious. Are pop-ups really a concern, I asked? If someone really wanted more space, wouldn’t it be easier to sell out and move into a bigger house? And, besides, don’t we already have zoning rules that would frustrate such things? The height limit, after all, is 35 feet. To this my neighbor suggested that “historic designation” had other benefits. It would relieve uncertainty about the permitting of renovations. Folks would know what they would have to do to conform. Further, it would require that renovations, the replacement of windows, or the replacement of doors accord with the “character of the street”. That would mean “1890’s Victorian”. So, no Mission-style doors, no picture windows, no stained glass in the transom above the front door. (No individuality, really.) Wouldn’t that be great?
I admit that I started to become skeptical. Was the business about “pop-ups” not a little over-sold? And, even were pop-ups a real concern, did the whole business about “historic designation” amount to overkill? No one had ever built a pop-up since the 1890’s, and what about those zoning rules? Further, did “historic designation” amount to little more than a cabal of neighbors seeking to use the weight of government to compel their neighbors to conform to their parochial preferences? Would a Mission-style or Craftsman-style door really do violence to the street?
I also suggest, however, that a good rule for getting along with people, especially when big disagreements might become manifest, is to not impugn their motivations. At least not until they demonstrate that they’re not acting in good faith. Give folks a chance to explain their concerns, and other folks might even find that some accommodation can be made. A little forbearance could neutralize the prospect of misunderstanding.
In the spirit of don’t-impugn-the-motivations-of-others, I indicated that I could not yet commit to sign the petition, but I thanked my neighbor for the opportunity, and I thanked the proponents for organizing a pair of “informational meetings.”
I attended one of those meetings. I was disappointed, however, to find that the meeting was less about information and more about marketing. Personnel from the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society showed up to extol the benefits of “historic designation”. “Historic designation” would be great, because it would block pop-ups and prevent Godzilla scenarios – scenarios by which developers would tear down some number of adjacent homes and replace them with multiple-unit dwellings.
I did have an opportunity to meet more of the proponents of “historic designation” and to inquire about their motivations for pursuing it. Two folks volunteered that they had fallen in love with the street when they had first seen it. Pop-ups were a real concern, but, more generally, they wanted to maintain the character of the street.
Our street, Emerald Street, is a single-block, one-way street. Before the 1890’s the block remained undeveloped, but in the 1890’s a cabal of developers secured a block, ran a street lengthwise down the middle of it – thus breaking the one block into two smaller blocks – and put up row-houses that are hardly wider than a 1970’s Cadillac is long. These developers expected to recoup their investments by selling these homes to government employees, for recent Civil Service Reform had induced an influx of new residents.
Flash back to the present: The marketing of “historic designation” extended beyond informational meetings. Our friends at the Capitol Hill Restoration Society went ahead and organized two “Historic Tours” of my tiny street. Folks gathered at one end of the block on a grey Saturday or Sunday morning and took an hour or so to stroll to the other end while one of the Society’s people, the leader of the tour, extolled the “Queen Anne” architecture and other precious features of the street.
It was not obvious where all this marketing was going until a week later. I happened to learn from a neighbor on the street that two of the proponents had attended a monthly meeting of an “Economic Development & Zoning Committee” to press for “historic designation”. They had represented to the Zoning Committee that they had ascertained the will of the community and that a majority of households favored the idea of securing “historic designation.”
My neighbor illuminated many things about the process. The proponents of “historic designation” had to secure the imprimatur of the Zoning Committee before advancing their application to an entity called the “Advisory Neighborhood Commission.” If they could then secure the blessing of the Commission, they could advance the application to the Historic Preservation Review Board. The Board is composed of something like nine (unelected) “experts” in preservation. The experts would accept the endorsement of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission as evidence that the community largely supported the application, and the Board could then be expected to rubber-stamp the application.
It was after that illuminating discussion that the question of impugning the motivations of others once again came to mind. I looked up the minutes of the meeting of the Zoning Committee (when they finally became available), and, sure enough, things unfolded just as my neighbor reported they had: A pair of neighbors went in there purporting to represent the will of the community. These were the same two folks who had “fallen in love” with the street. They represented to the Committee that the community maintained broad support for “historic designation”.
How they ascertained preferences on the street was a mystery. I myself had nothing more than a drive-by chat with a neighbor across the street, but I hadn’t signed anything indicating my own preferences. My skepticism turned to surprise and disappointment.
I wasn’t the only one. A coalition of concerned neighbors spontaneously coalesced. Friends talked to friends. An informal network of friend-of-friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends lit up.
This was a diverse network. I ended up meeting quite a number of thirty-something couples, and I got to better know some folks I’d known for some time. I came to understand that the block had changed more since I first moved in 13 years ago than I had appreciated. Over the last few years we had lost the last of our Korean War veterans. We also lost Mr. B., who old time neighbors had recognized as "The Mayor of the Street". Meanwhile, the drug dealers who used to occupy the east end of block had already been gone for some years. They were jolly folks – I think they used some of their own inventory – and the cluster of homes they had occupied had been renovated and occupied by couples of young, handsome thirty-somethings.
Much of our informal coalition, a band of brothers and sisters, showed up at the next monthly meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. That meeting followed the meeting of the Economic Development & Zoning Committee by a week, so there was not much time to respond. But we did. We showed up. Folks spoke up. Folks spoke well. And then the eight commissioners voted.
The first commissioner, who lives on the street in one of those homes vacated by our drug dealing friends, voted affirmatively for “historic designation.” The second commissioner proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of converting neighborhoods to “historic” status. He voted affirmatively, and so did the chairman of the commission. They all gave pro forma statements about how great “historic designation” is and about what a great job the proponents of “historic designation” did in motivating community support.
Two of the remaining five commissioners abstained, and the remaining three voted against the proposal to advance the application for “historic designation” to the Historic Preservation Review Board. The vote to advance the application failed 3-3 and 2 with one of the commissioners giving a short, impassioned speech about democratic process – or the apparent lack of process.
It was a beautiful thing. Best of all, the process was over. The minutes of the meeting, which were posted weeks later, indicated as much: “The motion to sponsor an application to the [Historic Preservation Review Board] did not pass by a vote of (3-3).” If the proponents of “historic designation” were to proceed, they would have to restart the process with a vote of the Economic Development & Zoning Committee.
So, we all went home. We all got back to getting on with our day-to-day. We got back to anticipating the holiday season, making travel plans, contemplating gift purchases. We got back to not having to worry that some cabal of neighbors was working out of sight to undermine all other neighbors’ property rights. All was well. Or so it seemed.
I had noted that the president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society had attended the meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. At the time I could only guess that she had some type of affiliation with the Society, but I did some homework and determined that my guess was right.
That she had attended was no accident, for what we’ve learned since is that the Society has had a hand in motivating the application for my tiny street for “historic designation”.
The story goes back a long way, but let me pick it up in 2014. The Society had a big hand in motivating and staffing an effort to expand the existing Capitol Hill Historic District. The Capitol Hill Historic District encompasses over 200 blocks. It encompasses the larger, nicer homes near the Capitol building, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. The proposed expansion would have virtually doubled the size of the District, and it would have encompassed my own neighborhood.
One person from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society explained that “historic designation is analogous to a ‘defensive move’” vis-à-vis “developers”.
A distressing bit about all of this is that no one had known about the proposed expansion. But in 2015 the plan fell apart. How is a mystery in that one can’t find any news about the plan’s demise in the local news, and it is not obvious where on its website, if at all, the Historic Preservation Office indicates the final disposition of the project.
Back on Emerald Street, two months pass, and they are at it again. The same folks who had organized the campaign to market “historic designation” for our tiny street organized two more “informational meetings”. They made a perfunctory show of engaging the community by going around placing notices in our mailboxes. Again, I attended one of those meetings.
The first time around the marketing involved bringing in a representative from the Historic Preservation Office. This person had the decency to imply that she preferred to see the street apply for “historic designation”, because, after all, she is a committed “conservationist”. She didn’t pretend to be a neutral party. In the second wave of marketing the proponents supplemented the usual cast of characters with more outside parties. One fellow carried on about how great his experience had been living in an historic district. Another fellow had been set up as a moderator but proved to be immoderate in that he endeavored to suppress debate. A third fellow had something to contribute. He showed up as an “expert” on the city’s zoning processes. He volunteered something many of us had surmised. He volunteered something to the effect of, “Your street is lucky in that the lots are narrow and shallow. Developers build ‘pop-ups’ in order to accommodate multiple units on the footprint of a single house, so it’s not obvious that a developer would be interested in building on your street.”
In other neighborhoods, like Lanier Heights in Adams Morgan, “condo conversion” and the pop-ups that enable condo-conversion had been realistic concerns. In that neighborhood, developers had been able to build as high as 50 feet on larger lots. Residential homes in that neighborhood are now limited to 35 feet under the “RF-1” zoning designation. RF-1 also applies to Emerald Street. Moreover, the narrowness and shallowness of the lots render pop-ups an unrealistic concern.
I did not attend the second of the two supplementary “informational” meetings, but I did get this report from a number of folks who did. The same person who had organized the “Historic Tours” of our street had also attended all of the informational meetings. In the second meeting she volunteered that her outfit, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, perceived Emerald Street as a “guinea pig” in the Society’s larger effort to extend “historic designation” beyond the bounds of the Capitol Hill Historic District. Having failed in 2015 to double the size of the Capitol Hill Historic District, the Society changed tactics. Could it pick off small neighborhoods one by one? Emerald Street would be the Society’s first test case.
Upon hearing news of this “guinea pig” business, I couldn’t help but joke sarcastically to myself that “These people are so charming. And you can stick a fork in that.”
And, yet. Why prey on Emerald Street and not some other small neighborhood? Part of the reason is that the proponents of “historic designation” had invited the Society to support its effort – kind of like the communist regime in Afghanistan inviting the Soviets to rumble in and prop it up in 1979. Moreover, the Society had already catalogued all of the homes on the street as part of its big initiative to expand the Capitol Hill Historic District. All that work and documentation could be applied to an effort to subsume Emerald Street.
While the proponents of “historic designation” were getting on with their second wave of marketing, a few neighbors and I endeavored to do something that no one had yet bothered to do: Survey preferences on the street. We endeavored not to petition but to neutrally survey opinion. We wanted to make it easy for folks to indicate approval or disapproval for “historic designation”. We wanted to make it easy for them to offer no opinion or to just tell us to leave them alone.
Seventy-five households would be swept in to the Emerald Street Historic District. Surveying 75 households might take some time, but surely most households could be reached within the space of a week-and-a-half, right? And we would have to reach folks on short notice. Proponents indicated in their notice that they would again “seek sponsorship from the Advisory Neighborhood Committee” for “historic designation.” The Commission posted its meeting agenda a week ahead of time, but it did not list the matter of “historic designation”. Even so, there was concern that the Commission might spring the matter on us with just a few days’ notice. Which is what it did. With two days to go, someone amended the agenda. More on that below.
The survey was illuminating. Some folks favored the idea of applying for “historic designation”. Others did not. Others seemed a little embarrassed to be asked to offer an opinion. And, finally, others were just very hard to get a hold of. For example, I eventually got a hold of J. after many attempts. Her elderly mother answered the door on my third attempt. Her mother indicated that J. often worked irregular hours at the Washington Medical Center. J. should be back around 9 pm, she said. I could stop by some time after that.
I was particularly interested in speaking with J., because there were indications that her house could stand for some repairs. Last winter, for example, an ice storm ripped down a segment of the gutters. Some of the windows could also stand for replacement. Making repairs could prove to be more costly under a “historic designation” regime.
I had a pleasant chat with J. and her mother in the living room. The interior of the house was cozy and welcoming. Like my own house, there was much art on the walls.
J. observed that she had been living on the street since 1983, so she’d seen it through the Crack Wars of the early 1990’s. She has been following the stream of notices folks have placed in her mailbox, and she was not happy about the idea of being swept into an "historic district". On our survey in the check-box labeled “disapprove” she indicated “Absolutely Not!”
I can’t tell you that I know that making repairs, much less repairs that conform to 1890’s standards, would be something that J. could handily accommodate, but it did occur to me that the demands of “historic designation” could put pressure on folks of more modest means. Specifically, "historic designation" amounts to a tax on homeowners in that it raises the costs of maintenance and repairs going forward. Consider, for example, the prospect of replacing windows. The regulations will require a homeowner to replace windows with more costly options than he or she may otherwise have considered. Anticipating higher costs, some folks may decide to delay replacing windows at all. Instead, they may try to get a few more years out of their existing windows.
Note that delaying repairs amounts to allowing windows (and the rest of the house) to deteriorate – not exactly the objective of historic preservation. But, it gets worse. Folks of modest means might decide that they can't keep up and may end up giving up, selling out, and moving out to a more affordable place. We thus end up with less diversity on the street and with more self-segregation as folks of more modest means find themselves squeezed out. Fewer younger folks and young families buy in and stay in. Fewer older folks remain neighbors with their friends. Who wants to live on that kind of street?
Meanwhile, you can get an idea of what replacing windows can entail by examining the 20-page Windows Guidelines policed by the Historic Preservation Review Board.
Parallel with efforts to survey the street, some other folks met with proponents of “historic designation” to discuss alternatives. They brought up the Lanier Heights experience, observing that that neighborhood’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission had engaged an earnest process to ascertain preferences and to implement a compromise. The neighborhood imposed zoning restrictions that would make it harder for developers to pop-up existing homes and convert them into multiple-unit dwellings.
In an email a proponent suggested to me that there would be no use to seeking a compromise. The proponents, I was told, were “committed to historic designation.” We exchanged niceties, and that was that.
By the time the December meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission rolled around, a few neighbors and I had managed to contact about half the households on the street. “Disapprove” of “historic designation” had maintained a plurality of surveyed households. “No Opinion” was holding second place, and “Approve” was in third place. At the meeting of the Commission, however, proponents had their own numbers. They persisted in insisting that they had secured approval of a majority of households.
How to square their numbers with our numbers remains a puzzle, but one couldn’t help note certain obvious problems such as the fact that their affirmative numbers included the preferences of residents who no longer own a home on the street. Those people don’t even live in DC anymore.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but note that, again, the president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society ("a prolific knitter") attended the meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. She sat at a table right in the middle of the room, blithely observing the proceedings while she got on with her knitting like Madame LaFarge in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities awaiting the fall of the blade.
At the December meeting proponents advanced the audacious assertion that they were merely following the instructions of the Advisory Neighborhood Committee in engaging a second round of “community outreach”. They claimed that, after the vote failed in October, the Commission instructed them to make more effort to engage the community. Proponents further argued that “The Opposition” – meaning us, we band of brothers and sisters – had made no “outreach” to “the community” those last two months.
“The Opposition?” As in the “Loyal Opposition” to “Her Majesty’s Government?”
Again, my friends, the “opposition” is nothing more than an informal network of neighbors who haphazardly came together over this “historic designation” business. It’s a bunch of folks who understood that in October, “The motion to sponsor an application to the [Historic Preservation Review Board] did not pass.” The “opposition” is a bunch of folks who went home confident that they would not have to worry for the foreseeable future that anyone would be threatening to undermine their property rights.
I note that “Property Rights” may not sound as sexy as “Intellectual Property Rights” or “Civil Rights”, but they are still rights. Rights are the things people use to organize their lives the way they want to. They’re the things people use to protect themselves from the arbitrary rule of government. But that’s what the cabal wants: to bring down the weight of government on their neighbors so that they (the folks in the cabal) can impose their parochial preferences on the rest of us. Unbelievable.
As it was, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted 5-3 to advance the application for “historic designation” to the Historic Preservation Review Board. One former abstainer voted against. One voted in the affirmative. Another commissioner who had voted in the negative now decided that there had been enough deliberation on this matter and voted in the affirmative. So now we wait to hear what the Historic Preservation Review Board will do.
One neighborhood-uniting thing did come of that December meeting. I had gotten up during that meeting to speak. I spoke about the efforts of a few neighbors and myself to survey (not petition) opinion on the street. I said we made an effort to make it easy for folks to agree, disagree, offer no opinion, tell us to leave them alone, etc. And right after that one of the casual proponents stood up to say one thing: One person on the block had taken time to talk her about these issues and to survey (not petition) her opinion. And that was me she was talking about. And then another strong proponent (who rents out a house on the street) stood up to support the proposal, but he also indicated that one person had taken time to talk with him about the issues. And that was me. I had ventured out to his house in another neighborhood, and we had an entertaining, friendly chat in his own kitchen.
So, I was glad to see that some of my neighbors, whether opponents or proponents, could be cool about all of this.
Being able to be cool with agreeing or disagreeing with folks is what process should be about – about enabling folks who may not be able to agree on a matter to come to some sort of resolution knowing that not everyone will get his or her preferred outcome. But that is not the process that had unfolded here.
As of the posting of this essay, we await news of a hearing before the Historic Preservation Review Board. We’d been assured in those “informational meetings” that “experts in conservation” will review the matter. We don’t doubt it. By this stage, however, we can discern much of the structure of what has been going on:
- The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has been on a crusade. It’s been working assiduously to colonize the entire Capitol Hill, endeavoring to subsume all of it in a grand agglomeration of historic districts.
It does this, because the folks over there really are concerned about “developers” changing the character of the city.
I think we all get that, but I urge the Society to articulate limits to “historic designation”. There must surely be limits, otherwise we end up with the absurd proposition that the Historic Preservation Office should regulate construction and maintenance across the entire city. Alas, is there no scope for “development”? And, finally, does our tiny street tucked away in the periphery of Capitol Hill really merit “historic” status?
- The proponents of “historic designation” and their friends on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission have been too cute with the process.
The charitable interpretation of the process – or lack of it – is that proponents really do believe that they’ve earnestly engaged the community. But, they:
(1) over-represented their results,
(2) over-represented their efforts to engage the community,
(3) purported to represent the will of the community,
(4) strategically mischaracterized “the opposition”,
(5) engaged community outreach that has amounted to no more than marketing,
(6) secured approval from the Economic Development & Zoning Committee without notice to the community, and
(7) ran in a week after that (also without notice) to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to secure sponsorship for their application for “historic designation”.
Amazingly, they were found out. More amazingly, they lost that vote. Yet, after losing that October vote, they:
(8) made a perfunctory show of engaging in process by organizing another pair of “informational meetings”.
Further, they and their supporters on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission:
(9) ambushed “the community” with a two-day notice of an “amendment” to the Commission’s agenda, and
(10) manufactured this fiction that the Commission had instructed proponents to come back for another vote after making a more earnest effort to engage the community.
And thus it was that the Emerald Street matter would be on the block again.
And nary too soon, we learned, for:
(11) one of the three principal proponents of “historic designation” was going to leave the Commission. He wouldn’t be around to vote after December.
Finally, I note that:
(12) another one of the three strong proponents of "historic designation" on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission lives on Emerald Street. A conflict of interest is an obvious concern. One can easily argue that she should have abstained from voting.
- The folks from the Historic Preservation Office know the game, but they attempt to preserve plausible deniability.
At the informational meetings the representative from the Historic Preservation Office – a member of the regular cast of characters – had been asked about how the Office ascertains the will of the community.
Good question. But the Office leaves that kind of thing to “the community”. It doesn’t demand an affirmative vote of a majority of households. It doesn’t demand anything.
It is the case, however, that the Office will sometimes discourage proponents from advancing an application for “historic designation” to the Historic Preservation Review Board.
We can speculate why: The Historic Preservation Review Board doesn’t want to find itself voting to reject applications for “historic designation”. Voting things down would set precedents. The Board wants to avoid setting precedents that folks can use against the Board in subsequent applications.
Further, the Historic Preservation Office can’t tolerate too much bad press. Bad press could motivate demands for reform.
* * *
One thing I had learned by the age of four is that folks have to keep an eye on “developers” and “city managers”. I learned this by listening to talk around the dinner table. My mother had always been involved in local politics, and I came to appreciate at a young age that these mysterious people, “developers” and “city managers”, could be willing to game processes to get what they want. These people weren’t necessarily bad people, but one had to keep an eye on what they were up to.
This “historic designation” business amounts to another case study. It’s a study in how various parties have attempted to game processes to impose their preferences on a community even if most other folks in the community don’t want what they want or can’t be bothered to express a well-informed opinion.
And what do most folks want? I’ll venture that most folks want to be able to go home, share dinner with friends and family, and not have to worry that anyone is working to degrade their property rights or impose costs on them. They want to be left alone to peaceably get on with their lives.
Live and let live, friends.
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