On March 11 I participated in a panel discussion organized by the Friends of Kingman Park Civic Association about historic districts in the District of Columbia.  The day before the discussion I composed a three-minute opening statement:

I am going to make two points.  But, first: Truth in advertising: I am not a fan of “historic designation” for neighborhoods out in the periphery of Capitol Hill.  “Historic” status imposes costs on people and makes it harder to live in the city.  If you want a city that works for everyone – and that includes young people buying their first homes or long-time residents who wish to keep the homes they already have – then leaving people who live out in the periphery alone can be a good idea.

This sets up my first point: If you listen to folks talk about the advantages of “historic designation,” you might begin to think that it could make sense to declare all neighborhoods “historic districts”.  That would involve ceding authority to the Historic Preservation Office to regulate the entire city.  But would that really makes sense?  I mean, if everything is “historic,” then is anything “historic”?

One way to think about the question is to recognize that there are a mature alternatives to “historic designation.”   They are “Zoning Regulations”.  The houses across the street, for example, are zoned “RF-1”.  RF-1 means you can’t just go ahead and build higher than 35 feet.

So, there’s a question.  Isn’t zoning regulation adequate?  And before you say it isn’t, consider the tradeoffs that “historic designation” involves.  You give up some of your property rights and flexibility in order to submit to more rigid regulation by the Historic Preservation Office.  Now, “Property Rights” may not sound as sexy as “Civil Rights” or “Intellectual Property Rights”.  But they are still rights.  And rights are the things people use to organize their lives the way they want to.  Do you really want to just give those rights away, because you’re never going to get them back.  Submitting to “historic designation” is irreversible.

My second point pertains to the process that has unfolded in the Emerald Street experience.  The principal point is this: In October our Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted on whether or not to sponsor an application to the Historic Preservation Review Board for “historic designation” for Emerald Street.  “The motion to sponsor an application to the [Historic Preservation Review Board] did not pass.”  That’s what the minutes to the October meeting read.  The process was over.  (You can look it up online.)  And, yet, two months later the proponents of the “historic designation” manufactured the fiction that the ANC had merely asked them to go back to do further “outreach” to “the community”.  And with two days notice before the December meeting of the ANC, the meeting agenda was amended, and the Emerald Street business was suddenly back on the chopping block.  In this second vote the motion to sponsor an application narrowly passed.

So, is this how “historic designation” gets foisted on people?  If you don’t get the vote you want, you ignore it and ambush your neighbors with another vote?  And is this the kind of process that the Historic Preservation Office is going to rely on when ascertaining the “will of the community”?  I would hope, instead, that the Historic Preservation Office would require a process that has much more integrity.