Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold Library Community Meeting Record

On Wednesday, February 24th, Ward 5 for All held a community meeting to discuss the proposed new library to fill the service gap for the Stronghold, Edgewood and Eckington neighborhoods in Ward 5. DC Public Library assistant director of communications and community engagement, Martha Saccocio was on hand to present and answer questions.

You can watch a partial* recording of the meeting and read the chat here:

*Unfortunately, due to user error, the first half of the meeting was not recorded. The recording picks up at the start of the Q&A and covers all of the community discussion.

The unrecorded portion was general background on the Library’s Next Libris report, and a short review of potential location ideas outlined in this presentation deck.

Letter Requesting North Capitol Redesign Concept Study in DC FY22 Budget

Mayor Muriel Bowser
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Charles Allen
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20004
Councilmember Mary Cheh
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20004
Interim Director Everett Lott
District Department of Transportation
55 M Street, SE, Suite 400 Washington, DC 20003
Director Andrew Trueblood
Office of Planning
1100 4th Street, SW, Suite 650 East
Washington, DC 20024

February 18, 2021

Mayor Bowser, Councilmember McDuffie, Councilmember Allen, Councilmember Cheh, Interim Director Lott, and Director Trueblood:

We, the undersigned Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, community associations, churches, business and individuals, are writing to ask you to fund a concept study for the redesign of North Capitol Street between Massachusetts and Michigan Avenues in the FY 2022 budget. The current design of this corridor falls far short of its historic status and enormous potential and fails to meet the Mayor’s commitment to Vision Zero. North Capitol Street is unsafe, it divides adjacent communities, and it is hostile to the economic and cultural vitality of the mid-city. 

In the coming decade, the North Capitol Street corridor will be crucial to the city’s growth and sustained affordability. The adjacent neighborhoods of NoMa, Bloomingdale, Stronghold, Eckington, and Mount Vernon Triangle are thriving, and thanks to your leadership, private and public development will add thousands of market rate and affordable housing units as well as new retail to Northwest One, the McMillan Reservation, and other locations along the North Capitol corridor. We believe that the District should begin planning now for a North Capitol Street that will provide a safe way for these new residents to get to and from their homes as well as create an accessible, appealing commercial corridor to attract visitors to the existing and coming small businesses.

A concept study is needed to gather input from those most affected by this dangerous and divisive corridor and assess the feasibility of major improvements to the streetscape. Among the questions this study should answer are: 

  • How should the District redesign North Capitol Street to discourage speeding and other forms of dangerous and aggressive driving behavior?
  • How should the District improve the safety, comfort, and accessibility of east-west connections across North Capitol Street for pedestrians and people on bicycles?
  • How can current bus lines and supporting infrastructure be modified to improve the speed, frequency, and on-time bus service for residents and visitors?
  • Should the District add transit priority lanes to the corridor to improve bus service?
  • Should the design of the streetscape better prioritize the needs of local businesses and the safety of those who patronize them? 
  • Should the District fill in underpasses that encourage speeding and cut off adjacent communities? 
  • How can the city leverage private investment to address infrastructure deficiencies in a fiscally responsible manner? 

We understand that this year’s budget will prioritize the city’s recovery from the pandemic, associated economic consequences, and the critical needs of residents who have been hit hardest. Nonetheless, we believe that a relatively small investment in planning for the future of this corridor will pay massive dividends in the coming years as our city recovers. We simply cannot wait to begin the process of better connecting our communities by improving the safety and vitality of North Capitol Street. 

Response to this letter may be directed to ANC Commissioner Alex Lopez (SMD 6E02) at 6E02@anc.dc.gov.

Sincerely, 

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E
Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C
NoMa Business Improvement District
North Capitol Main Street
NoMa/H Street Civic Association
Eckington Civic Association
LeDroit Park Civic Association
Sibley Plaza Townhouses Residents’ Association
Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA)
Ward 5 for All
Pub and the People
Republic Cantina
Jeffery A Shapiro, Owner, K&B Sodas
Karim & Associates Financial Services
7DrumCity

A wishlist for where the DC Public Library should build its Ward 5 expansion

new report from the DC Public Library charts a course for future expansion of the library system, including a proposed new facility in the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold area. Here’s an early look at some potential locations for such a library, and how that might impact surrounding areas.

New decade, new vision

In the last decade, the DC Public Library system engaged in a half-billion dollar capital campaign to expand and modernize its facilities, a campaign that is being capped off by the reopening of the flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library this year. Now, library system officials are looking ahead to the next decade for how they can build upon their success.

The new report, Next Libris, outlines priorities for continued renewal and refreshing of existing facilities, as well as priority areas for building additional libraries. Those locations were identified by evaluating both where residents face a geographical gap in service, as well as where existing libraries are too small to service the community. They were then divided into three tiers based on whether they address both an operational issue and service gap (Tier 1) or just one of those criteria (Tiers 2 and 3 respectively). The recommendation is to proceed with expansion sequentially, building the Tier 1 facilities in 1-3 years, Tier 2 in 4-6 and Tier 3 in 7-10.

Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

As a crucial bonus, the report shares DCPL’s preference that, where possible, these new libraries be built as part of mixed-use developments which would include housing — including affordable housing — and potentially commercial space as well. This would replicate the successful model of the West End Library opened in 2017 as part of a multi-use building. Combining housing with libraries represents a real win-win, helping the city address two major needs with each project while giving the new facilities dedicated customer bases who are likely to be high-frequency users.

One of the Tier 1 gaps identified is the combined Ward 5 neighborhoods of Edgewood, Eckington and Stronghold. A significant distance from existing libraries, DCPL data confirms that there are a disproportionate number of residents in these communities who do not currently use the system at all. And many of those that do visit the crowded Shaw library, so officials see an additional benefit of relieving some of the pressure on that high-traffic location.

A map from the Next Libris report shows existing library locations and service gaps. Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

So far no specific locations are being proposed, but as a very excited Edgewood resident, here are some potential locations I think the city should look into. This list is hardly predictive; I have no particular insight into the likelihood of any of these locations at all; rather, it’s an initial overview of some places that might come into the conversation.

First, here are the factors I considered when evaluating these options:

  • Size: As the library has made clear, bigger is better. Communal public space is increasingly hard to find. Combined with the increasing breadth of services and resources the library provides — and the unique needs of different age groups — a larger footprint can provide disproportionately large value.
  • Capacity for housing: The library’s vision to combine housing with these locations is truly a game-changing move to help us make another dent in our housing and affordable housing needs. These two things go together so well it’s a wonder it took us this long to prioritize it. Capacity here means both the aforementioned footprint and the existing zoning. Some zoning can be amended, but it’s easier if that step is unnecessary.
  • Public or privately owned land: With the right long-term lease, the library could be a great addition to any number of private developments coming to the area, though it does reduce some of the impact of adding net-new housing (on top of what’s already planned), particularly because housing developments on District-owned land are subject to higher affordability minimums.
  • Accessibility: Maximizing usage of the library starts with making sure it’s convenient and safe to get to — particularly for families, who are a key customer demographic. These neighborhoods face a number of transportation barriers already, from deadly arterial streets to the impassable train tracks to a lack of protected bike lanes. Finding a site that is best located to help residents from across the entire service gap visit is a priority.

Here are a few potential locations that check a number of those boxes:

The Lemuel Penn Center

1709 3rd Street NE, 52,231 sq ft

Currently serving as the temporary site of DCPL’s Operations Center while they search for a long-term home, the Penn Center is sufficiently large that a new building on the site could potentially offer room for Operations, a neighborhood library, and housing (though they would presumably need to find a new temporary home during construction).

Sited directly on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, proximate to the NoMa Metro stop and the P6 MetroBus route, and adjacent to the new Tanner Park and thousands of residents in the mid-rise buildings of East Eckington, the location would benefit from significant network effects. Though currently zoned for production and technical employment use (PDR-2), the proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map (FLUM) pending before the Council would allow for residential use as well.

At the Southern end of the service gap area, this location would be most convenient for Eckington residents, though the trail adjacency makes it fairly accessible for Edgewood neighbors as well.

Fifth Street Terminal

2115 5th Street NE, 63,102 sq ft

Only slightly up-trail from the Penn Center, the Fifth Street Terminal lot is a city-owned property currently serving as a parking lot for the District’s Special Education bus fleet. Accessibility wise, the location is about a ten minute walk along the Metropolitan Branch Trail to the Rhode Island-Brentwood Metro station. Also the same as the Penn Center, the zoning is currently PDR-2 with a proposed amendment to add in residential.

Engine 12 Fire Station

2225 5th Street NE, 30,574 sq ft (including parking lot)

One block north of the bus lot, the Engine 12 Fire Station is interesting not just on its own, but as part of a comprehensive re-development in the works. Last year, developer Jair Lynch (in coordination with the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church which owns a number of the relevant properties) submitted a zoning map amendment for the group of lots abutting the fire station on the south side of Rhode Island Ave NE between 5th St NE and the railroad tracks. The Office of Planning followed suit this month with their own map amendment for the station itself. The library’s early inclusion in the project (whether on the Engine 12 site itself or elsewhere in the development as a long-term tenant) could serve as something of a flagship component the rest of the plan could be built around.

This location would represent one of the more central options, again along the trail, roughly equidistant from Eckington and Edgewood, but with the added benefit of direct adjacency to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station and the G8 and P6 MetroBus routes.

Bryant Street/Rhode Island Center Development

630 Rhode Island Ave NE

Bryant Street development by MRP Realty used with permission.

Directly across the street from the fire station, the first phase of the Bryant Street development is already underway replacing the shopping center that once housed Big Lots and Forman Mills. Six more phases remain, however, with tens of thousands of square feet of retail to be leased out. With no public land involved, the Library would likely look to sign a very long-term lease guaranteeing their use of the space for the lifetime of the building.

This location would bring all the same benefits of the South Rhode Island one with the additional bonus of even more direct access to the Metro (the pedestrian bridge across the tracks empties out onto the site) and even more immediate adjacency to the cluster of public and affordable housing at the Edgewood Terrace site.

Other options

This is by no means a comprehensive list; there are a number of other planned or potential development projects in this area that might make good fits. By allocating funding to a new library in the budget, the city can offer some certainty about the project that may surface a number of interested partners.

Replace or supplement?

The choice of location is not just important in how a new library will best serve new communities, but also for how well it will continue to serve existing ones.

One crucial detail of the Next Libris report is that it recommends closing the small Northwest One Library in conjunction with opening the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold library (as well as re-opening the nearby MLK location and expecting decreased pressure on the similarly nearby Shaw library). That’s in line with a general plan the library has to upgrade these low-square-footage facilities (most of which were replacements for even smaller, limited-service kiosks) in order to meet the growing need for meeting and study rooms, program space, and access to technology and collections.

Next Libris report by DC Public Library.

Because these small locations predominantly serve low-income communities, replacing them is a key part of the Library’s commitment to equity in their system. That’s true of the Northwest One facility as well, which is located within the redeveloping mixed-income housing complex of the same name and is immediately adjacent to Sursum Corda (also currently being redeveloped into a mixed-income community).

But for the Eckington/Edgewood library to serve this community, its location needs to be sufficiently accessible to local residents. A transit and trail-adjacent location in Eckington may work, but one further north is unlikely to satisfy the needs currently met by Northwest One.

Not just straight-line proximity, accessibility is also measured by the comfort and safety of the path between the old and new locations. Unfortunately in this case, that’s particularly difficult as the borders between the Northwest One area and the expansion neighborhoods — New York Avenue, Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street — are some of the most treacherous streets in the city, acting as both physical and psychological barriers. Even a relatively close location may functionally see fewer visits from residents on the other side of these streets. That’s certainly what the Library’s data already suggests when it shows low utilization of the Northwest One location by residents in Eckington, Edgewood, and Stronghold.

Still, there are three factors in favor of the relocation. The first is the relatively close proximity of the Northwest One area to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which functions as something of a cheat code to cross Florida Ave and New York Ave. North Capitol would remain a problem — but improvements to pedestrian crossings and the construction of protected bike lanes on K street NE/NW could help.

The second is that North Capitol Street is relatively well-served by the 80 and P6 bus lines, both of which function as safe and relatively affordable ways to travel between Eckington and near-Northwest. (Transit lanes on North Capitol Street could make that access more efficient and reliable during rush hour.)

The third is that Northwest One is fairly close to both the Shaw and MLK library locations. With the re-opening of the latter in particular, residents who currently use Northwest One may be able to replace their service at those facilities instead. Library customer data may be able to help determine the percentage of customers for whom that’s true.

That said, there’s another option as well, which would be not to close the Northwest One location at all. The Library’s recommendation for replacement is undoubtedly related to budget considerations. With staff costs one of their greatest expenses, shifting that investment to a full-service library certainly provides better bang-for-the-buck. But if the Mayor and the DC Council felt like a new library would not sufficiently serve the previous community well enough, there’s no reason that they could not increase DCPL’s operational budget in a sufficient amount to cover the cost of both.

Ultimately, the budget process is the next step for this project either way. Right now all of these plans are entirely theoretical; elected officials will need to allocate the required capital and operational budget to make this plan a reality. As FY22 budget season approaches, now is the time to reach out to the Mayor and your council member if you are interested in seeing that happen.

New Library Envisioned for Eckington/Edgewood

A DC Public Library report released last week recommended building a new facility somewhere in the Eckington/Edgewood neighborhoods — an area they identify as a Tier 1 gap in the network.

Adding a library here would be a major boon for our communities. More than just books, the library’s resources, programming, and physical space provide substantial opportunities for students, families, seniors, job-seekers, and more.

Even better, the library’s report outlined two additional goals to maximize the impact of this project:

1) To include affordable housing at the site
2) To pick a location that emphasizes accessibility, particularly given the number of dangerous major roads in the area that act as barriers.

These two additions would supercharge the benefits of this facility, and make this new library a triple win.

This report is just a vision to start; it’s now up to the Mayor and the Council to include funding for this expansion in the budget.

Sign our petition here to encourage them to fund this proposal and bring a new library to our community!

DC preservation officials: You don’t want a historic district? Too bad.

This post was originally published at Greater Greater Washington

At their confirmation hearing last month, four Historic Preservation Review Board Commissioners confirmed that community opposition to a historic nomination does not play a role in their decision, and that they only evaluate applications based on whether or not a nominated building or district is historic.

That stands in stark contrast to other city agencies that are mandated to incorporate community feedback. The fact that historic preservation is excluded from the same standards gives a green light for abuse of the system.

A recently-exposed loophole in the system

Neighborhood debates around historic designation in Bloomingdale and Kingman Park this year have revealed this unresolved tension in the District’s historic preservation guidelines about the role of community input. While neighborhood opinion is listed as “essential” and prioritized at all steps of the application process, legal language about the centrality of the written historic criteria in the final decision instead suggests a less critical role.

The Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) recent decision to designate Kingman Park over the objections of many local residents sent a strong signal about how current commissioners seem to weigh this tension. At their re-confirmation hearing last month, four of the board’s nine commissioners, including the chair, affirmed that interpretation by formally testifying that they believe community input should have no role in determining whether to designate a landmark or district.

Prompted by Chairman Phil Mendelson’s question about the role community input should play in the designation process, Commissioners Marnique Heath, Brian Crane, Andrew Aurbach, and Gretchen Pfaehler all declaratively agreed that community opposition should not affect designation decisions.

Chairman Mendelson: “What should be the role of community input? So if a majority of the district says yes or no, should that be determinative?”

Chairwoman Heath: “No. Unless the community’s feedback to us is telling us why they think it doesn’t meet the criteria.”

While it’s nice to get some resolution to this critical question, it may come as a surprise to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staffers who have spent years telling neighbors the exact opposite.

Here’s what State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney said about an unpopular application to designate Chevy Chase in 2008:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that [Chevy Chase] has a good chance of meeting the designation criteria. The sense I get is that most people are not contesting that, they agree it’s a wonderful suburb. What they are contesting is whether it’s something they want to deal with in their daily lives. And that is an issue for us.

And again about a failed historic district application in Barney Circle from 2010:

“As was clear in,for instance, the situation in Barney circle, if there’s not enough community support for an application, then it really doesn’t move through the system”

This messaging was unchanged up through at least last fall, when HPO’s Kim Williams told a meeting of neighbors in Bloomingdale that the one thing that could stop the designation process was a strong show of community opposition. That type of guidance spurred the Bloomingdale Civic Association to conduct a comprehensive survey of neighborhood opinion, at the cost of $2,000 of the organization’s own funds.

What does this mean for the future of historic preservation in DC?

This clear rejection of community input has strong ramifications for neighborhoods across the city. Under the prior paradigm, the number of applications and historic districts was, in part, managed by the explicit and implicit hard work of making a persuasive case to bring neighbors on board.

In Chevy Chase and Barney Circle, well-organized coalitions failed when met with community opposition. Those applicants followed the HPO-recommended, months-long community engagement process, made the case to their neighbors, and then withdrew when they did not have enough support. But now it seems that being responsive to the opinions of their neighbors was their big mistake. If they had just persisted past the opposition, apparently their applications would have faced no penalty.

Combined with the District’s broad designation criterion, under which a lot seems to qualify, the path is clear: if you want a historic district, do the research (which is no small feat, but as was the case with Kingman Park, HPO will help you with it if it’s not sufficient the first time), file the application, and sit back.

When I presented this loophole to Chairman Phil Mendelson while testifying at the HPRB commissioners’ confirmation hearing, he expressed skepticism — outlining the disincentives he believes would keep abuse in check:

“So if I were to file an application to make a historic district out of my street and I don’t talk to my neighbors and they get angry at me, my life’s going to be pretty miserable. And maybe I can win on the application, on the other hand, maybe my next-door neighbor will sue me and sue the Historic Preservation Review Board and sue the mayor’s agent and all the council members start weighing in and saying what’s going on. There’s a lot that can happen with the turbulence that’s not so good.”

As a matter of governance, relying on ex post facto outrage and litigation in place of legislative action to produce good policy outcomes seems like a dangerous tactic. But we don’t even need to imagine a hypothetical to see the flaws in this system. In Kingman Park we have an example of applicants (the Kingman Park Civic Association) with an already contentious relationship with their neighbors, made only worse by an incredibly divisive historic designation debate. That divisiveness prolonged the process but ultimately had little effect on the outcome.

An even more obvious workaround to those disincentives is not to be a neighbor at all. DC regulations do not require that applicants live in the nominated district; historic preservation organizations can nominate any building or district in the city on their own.

Whether neighbors or not, it’s clear social norms aren’t preventing motivated individuals and organizations from taking advantage of the law as written. So Mendelson is right about one thing — we need councilmembers like himself to ask what’s going on, and get behind serious legislative reforms to this broken process, reforms like the ones many of us in the GGWash community have suggested.

To vote or not to vote

Throughout the hearing, Mendelson kept returning to a rhetorical question that he felt captured this debate: if the Washington Monument were nominated, should residents be polled on whether to approve the designation?

This is a straw man exercise for a number of reasons, most obviously because nobody lives in the Washington Monument. The problem isn’t the designation of obviously historic individual landmarks. No one is trying to lower the ceiling of designation criteria; we’re trying to add a floor.

Because the reality is that, contrary to Mendelson’s characterization, our current process is already democratic, it’s just not very representative. Residents with strong opinions are heard— so long as they are in favor of historic designation. It’s only people who disagree who currently get shut out.

Should the whole city vote on designating the Washington Monument? Of course not. Should a couple thousand neighbors have a say before an unelected board designates their homes? That seems like a question at least worth asking.

Mendelson’s concern is that a direct popular vote may be an over-correction that could sometimes negate the city’s historic preservation goals. That’s fair; a future in which a few strident opponents could stop almost any preservation nomination would be as undemocratic as the status quo.

The ultimate answer is probably somewhere in the middle. At the least we should expect the same standard other agencies like DDOT and DC Water are held to when they’re considering projects that will affect the lives of residents.

HPRB should have to weigh the public benefits of preserving certain areas with any costs and concerns and then justify their decision. (And applications to nominate districts affecting thousands of residents’ homes should have to clear a higher bar of scrutiny than individual landmark nominations). That would be a fairer version of democratic governance than we have now.

Without reform, the path we’re on will just continue to add more and more neighborhoods to our city’s already sizable stock of historic buildings without any consideration of the spillover impact that might have on the city’s other goals of adding housing, improving environmental sustainability, combating unaffordability or others.

Stepping back to balance all of these goals in a comprehensive way is the real solution here, but closing this runaway train loophole seems like a good immediate first step.

The Costs of Historic Districts: More Than Just Property Values

This past week, Bloomingdale resident and real estate agent JC Blount and Bloomingdale Civic Association board member and ANC representative Dr. Bertha Holliday published an analysis purporting to show that designating Bloomingdale a historic district will not lead to a rise in housing prices in the neighborhood.

I’m very appreciative that Dr. Holliday and Ms. Blount are engaged in this analysis. I agree that trying to answer the question of how designation will impact our neighborhood’s already pressing affordability crisis is central to this debate. Unfortunately, I disagree that this particular analysis and data set are sufficient to answer this major question, or that it’s the right question to ask in the first place.

Chart from the Holliday-Blount analysis

The first issue is that the sample size considered here is exceedingly small. The LeDroit data set contains only 14 sales. At that small of a number, a couple of outliers one way or another can greatly impact the results.

Second, the analysis does not attempt to control for some of the obvious variables that could lead to said outliers — variables like condition of the property, amenities, lot size, relative location on the block (corner lot vs. mid-row), etc.

But most importantly, this analysis is looking at the wrong time period. If ultimately we’re trying to measure the impact of designation, we need to look at the changes that took place at the time of designation. In this case, LeDroit earned its designation in 1974, so I don’t think prices from the last six months are particularly applicable to answering that question.

More broadly though, I think it’s important to address the genesis of this analysis in the first place. The authors make clear that they feel like opponents of historic designation such as myself are misleading neighbors by claiming HD will “cause the cost of houses to soar.” (A similar concern was expressed last month by former BCA president Pat Mitchell when she  described my initial post and our flyer as fearmongering akin to a zombie apocalypse.)

Both of these critiques seem overly concerned with an argument I’m not particularly making (property values) and somewhat silent on the one I’m highly focused on (repair and renovation costs).

The reality is that trying to find an academic consensus on the impact of historic designation on property values is notoriously difficult This search of scholarly literature, for example, brings up 3,500 results.  A large number of those studies do find an upward pressure on prices, while others don’t. I think it’s safe to say that the housing market is a complicated dynamic and none of us know for certain what will happen if designation goes through. To that end, I’m also perfectly comfortable conceding that it is unlikely the impact of this singular change alone will lead to “soaring” prices or that “lots of people will lose their homes.” The reality is the answer to that argument is not central to the case against historic designation.

Because while we don’t know exactly what will happen with home prices, we do know with 100% certainty that more neighbors will face more costs (both monetary and in terms of time) when trying to repair or renovate their homes. Depending on the scope of work, that may be a few hundred dollars more or it may be tens of thousands of dollars more. As long as the rules limit options and require additional layers of approval, there will be some increased hardship on some people.

That’s obviously true of all regulations, though, and I’m not attempting to argue for laissez-faire homeowner rights. We don’t let homeowners use lead paint because we’ve collectively decided children’s health is more important. We require buildings conform to certain energy efficiency standards to limit our collective impact on our environment. And I’m sure builders could make houses cheaper if they didn’t have to follow proper fire code standards, but we rightly value the safety of the whole neighborhood more.

My point is that the question is not whether there will be a burden, but whether the benefit is worth that burden. To me, ensuring that the houses on my block look a certain way just doesn’t rise to the same level of something like the health and safety of our citizens and environment. In this case, I’d rather prioritize helping keep the costs of home-ownership as affordable as possible for everyone in Bloomingdale, particularly our low-income neighbors.

I think reasonable people can disagree on that, but I think we should be honest that’s the debate we’re having.

BCA Survey Results Show Majority Oppose Historic Designation

At last month’s Bloomingdale Civic Association meeting, BCA President Teri Janine Quinn revealed the results from the organization’s survey weighing community opinion about the pending historic district application for the neighborhood. With 516 votes counted, the respondents were opposed to designation 282 to 234*, a 55-45 percent margin.

The survey was conducted over two weeks in January via a postcard mailed to each of 3,107 property owners in the neighborhood (as determined by DC tax records). It presented recipients with two response options:

  • I would like to pursue historic designation of Bloomingdale
  • I do not support historic designation for Bloomingdale
This is the survey sent out to Bloomingdale residents. Image by Bloomingdale Civic Association.

On the backside, the postcard informed neighbors that an application had been filed and that the results of the survey would be used to inform the BCA’s vote on it, and directed them to the BCA and Historic Preservation Office websites for more information.

The BCA paid for the production and mailing of the survey, though recipients were required to affix their own postage to send it back.

*An additional 48 votes were received, but postmarked after the voting deadline. BCA members voted to exclude those votes from the total (prior to hearing any survey results) by a vote of 21 to 10.

Bloomingdale Historic District Survey Hits Mailboxes

The Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA) survey is arriving in neighborhood property owners’ mailboxes this week, and residents who want to make their voice heard on this issue should make sure to fill out the survey and return it.

Bloomingdale Civic Association Survey Card
Bloomingdale Civic Association Survey Postcard

Unfortunately, as I’ve laid out before, this survey has some weaknesses that make it hard to feel like it will do an adequate job  assessing the opinion of the neighborhood.

The biggest weakness, however, is that it’s coming much too late. Though the survey asks neighbors if they “would like to pursue historic designation,” the reality is that choice has already been made by a small group of neighbors who filed the application this summer before surveying the community or soliciting the support of the BCA and ANC. That decision went against both the recommendation of the BCA Historic Preservation Committee and the Office of Planning themselves.

Slide from Office of Planning presentation on Kingman Park Historic District
Slide from Office of Planning presentation on Kingman Park Historic District

Worse, it may have eliminated the possibility for community input at all. The Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) which is scheduled to rule on this application in the next couple of months specifically states that — while community support is “beneficial,” — “by law, [the board] makes its decision on the basis of the written designation criteria.” That means it may not matter anymore whether the community supports it or not.

There’s enough ambiguity in the law that hopefully that’s not the way they’ll choose to interpret it.  If they do decide to weigh community input, it’s important to make sure large numbers of neighbors are on record with their opinions both through the survey, but also through the broader tools of petitions and letters to the ANC and HPRB.

Quick List: Downsides to Historic Designation for Bloomingdale

Downsides to Historic Designation

  • Homeowners lose freedom to modify their homes to fit their family’s needs or match their personal taste.
  • Homeowners will face higher costs in the form of more expensive allowable materials, higher architect fees, and extra time needed to prepare for and receive approvals
  • Limitations on owners attempting to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by installing solar panels – if they are visible from the street they may not be approved.
  • All of these added expenses would be particularly harmful to low-income neighbors who may already be feeling the pressure of rising property taxes and other costs in our neighborhood.
  • There is risk that rents could be impacted upwards as well if landlords pass-on the added costs to tenants.

Concerns About the Process of this Application

  • The application was filed before a survey could be administered to gauge community input. As such, there is no current information on whether the neighborhood at large supports this designation, or even if they know about it at all.
  • A survey is only now being sent to the community, but the rushed timeline means it will only be in homes for a couple weeks over the holidays before the deadline to return it.
  • The survey only contains a yes or no “do you support historic designation” box and the url of a site with information in favor of designation. It does not provide a summary of the arguments on both sides.
  • Because of those two elements, neighbors who may not even have been aware this is happening will have very little time to receive the survey, search for information to develop an informed opinion, and cast their vote.
  • The survey is not going to all ~6,000 residents this change will affect, but just the ~2,000-3,000 property owners in the neighborhood.

Extra Context

  • Even without designation, the community will continue to have the ability to nominate individual buildings of particular historic or architectural significance for protection.
  • Changes to zoning commission policy in 2015 already curtailed the ability for property owners to add “pop-ups” in rowhouse neighborhoods including Bloomingdale. Ie, some of the egregious offenders many are concerned about are already restricted.

Why I Oppose Historic Designation for Bloomingdale

This summer, a group of Bloomingdale residents applied to designate our neighborhood as a historic district under DC law.

If the application is accepted by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), new construction and exterior alterations to all properties in Bloomingdale will be subject to a historic preservation review to determine if they are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, this effort may sound like a good one. With a policy proposal of this magnitude, however, we need to weigh the impact it will have on the community at large. I’m in favor of celebrating and preserving DC’s history, but attempting to do so by creating a historic district will come at a cost.

A historic district will inevitably add costs

Bloomingdale homeowners who want to make changes to the exterior of their homes could see that process become more (potentially much more) expensive and time-consuming. That in turn could lead to higher prices for renters as well.

The cost starts in the design phase. One neighborhood architect testified at a recent meeting that he charges multiple thousands of dollars more when he works on projects in historic districts, in anticipation of the extra meetings and revisions he has learned to expect.

Then comes the cost of the materials. All revisions must be made using approved lists of materials – many of which are significantly more expensive than similar alternatives.

The final cost is time and hassle. Not only do building permits require an extra level of review for historic compatibility (requiring an in-person trip on a weekday), preparing for that review necessitates more research, often including consulting with Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff in advance of the actual application. If the alterations are of significant enough scope, that escalates into a full hearing in front of the HPRB, which only meets monthly. Any rounds of revisions, therefore, can mean a multi-month delay.

The impact of these added costs — particularly on lower income residents — is one of the main reasons our next-door neighbors in Eckington decided against applying for historic designation last year. As one neighbor testified at the Eckington Civic Association meeting where residents voted against moving forward with the process:

My conclusion is that [historic designation is] overtly anti-poor. Anything that increases cost even slightly, pushes them out of neighborhood. [I] understand [the] need to preserve heritage, but part of what makes neighborhood is diversity of ethnicity and income. [I] want to see that stay, that’s part of why we love the neighborhood.

Proponents of preservation spend a lot of time assuring residents that most alterations are minor and get approved quickly. They also emphasize that the Historic Preservation Office is making an effort to add less-expensive materials to the approved lists. Those are good steps, but they don’t cover all use cases. It’s the more complex cases that present the greatest potential for homeowners to get stuck with significant hassle and costs.

Proponents also enthusiastically draw attention to a city-sponsored fund (the Historic Homeowner Grant Program) that helps subsidize the costs for low- and moderate-income residents. However, this competitive fund only helps 10-15 people citywide per year, and is only available to residents in some of the historic districts. Bloomingdale would not automatically be added to this list; the neighborhood would have to go through a separate legislative process after historic designation to attempt to qualify.

This isn’t the only way to preserve history

History is important — who doesn’t want to preserve it? I certainly do. As the research in the application highlights, Bloomingdale has an extensive, interesting history that makes me appreciate living here even more. The application tracks the neighborhood’s significant people, places and events — like the lawsuits against racial covenants on Bloomingdale houses that eventually became a part of the landmark Supreme Court case finding such covenants unenforceable. With stories like these, the document makes an excellent case that Bloomingdale has an invaluable history that should be appreciated and preserved.

However, historic designation is a very clunky tool to try to achieve this goal. Architectural facades are one visual reminder of history, but they’re far from the only or most important aspect. Research and scholarship, markers and monuments, tours and lectures — all of these help us appreciate and learn from the past. The self-guided walking tour recently installed in the neighborhood is a fantastic example of the ways we can preserve and promote our local history.

And yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t protect buildings too! The great news is, there’s already a process for doing so. Preservation advocates will continue to be free to nominate buildings of special historic and architectural significance. We don’t need a neighborhood-wide historic district to preserve important locations and great examples of what makes this neighborhood notable.

If preserving history is your goal, we’re pretty well covered. Insisting that we actually need a blanket rule covering 1,692 properties in the neighborhood is something of a drastic measure — one, it seems to me, that offers little added gain.  

This is more about looks than history

The key to understanding why advocates believe they need such a blunt tool is to look past the nominal talk about history. From the arguments I’ve seen put forward by supporters of the application, most are motivated — at least in part — by a desire to stop the dreaded “pop-ups” (houses with additions that raise them higher than the roofline of their neighbors). Pointing to some of the infamous examples around the city, they suggest the choice is historic designation or a proliferation of these egregious eyesores.

However, that ignores the fact that anti-pop-up advocates already won a major victory in the city two years ago when they persuaded the Zoning Commission to adopt stricter rules in rowhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale. The allowed height was lowered from 40ft to 35ft, the number of residential stories limited to three, and the number of allowable units a home can be converted into limited to two. The scope of pop-ups allowable without needing special permission has already been significantly curtailed.

Other proponents of designation go even further to say they are aiming to protect the streetscapes of the neighborhood. They assert that visually uniform blocks are a collective good  for which homeowners should be required to sacrifice their rights to make the changes they want to their own houses.

I don’t mean to be glib. Based on the seriousness of the testimonies given by some of the application sponsors at a recent neighborhood forum, I can tell that they are genuinely and deeply upset about visual changes in the neighborhood. They described how Bloomingdale has become “unrecognizable” because of the “desecration” that’s happened to some houses that have been renovated; one went so far as to say it’s nothing short of “architectural rape.”

Hearing their experiences helped me understand why they feel so passionately about supporting this application. But it hasn’t yet persuaded me that those concerns from a handful of neighbors are worth burdening everyone in the neighborhood with more hassle and cost.

Asking neighbors to sacrifice their right to fit their homes to their own families’ needs and preferences is a big request in its own right. But asking them to incur extra cost, time and hassle as well is a particularly severe one — especially when so many neighbors are already feeling the pinch of rising costs.

The whole community should be able to weigh in on this, and they’re not being given the chance

The more troubling problem is that supporters of this application aren’t even really asking at all. We’re a few short weeks away from passing a massive change to our neighborhood, and we don’t even know if most of the neighborhood knows about it — let alone if they support it.

According to HPRB’s own guidelines, community opinion is an important factor in whether the board will approve this nomination. Historic district applications in the past that have not been accompanied by a clear sense of community support have not always succeeded. Most prominently, a nomination for Chevy Chase was preemptively withdrawn after a neighborhood survey showed broad opposition.

Importantly, there was a plan in place to gauge the community’s opinion in advance of an application ever being submitted. The Bloomingdale Civic Association’s (BCA) Historic Preservation committee organized initial outreach and recommended that a representative community survey be administered to understand whether or not support existed for the historic designation application.

Before that survey could be conducted, however, an independent group of neighbors who didn’t want to wait for community input jumped the gun and filed an application anyway — creating the rushed process we’re having to react to right now.

This rush (the review hearing could happen as early as February) is straining the normal democratic process. An important step in historic designation is having the relevant ANC pass a resolution either in favor or opposed to the change. Last year, when Eckington considered this process, some ANC commissioners laid out an expectation that historic designation would need to garner the support of 51 percent of neighborhood homeowners in order to earn their endorsement.

With no completed representative survey to point to, supporters of the Bloomingdale application have come nowhere close to determining if that level of consensus exists. And they have only a handful of weeks left if they’re going to attempt to answer that question.

Even if they get the survey done, as designed it won’t tell us much.

The application filers seem to be hoping that the still-in-production BCA survey (remember, which was supposed to precede the application) will check the community input box for them, but their hastiness has significantly crippled the value of this survey. As of last week, the survey was still not ready to be mailed. With a response deadline of mid-January, that means the survey will only be in households for a couple weeks at best. That’s a very short period of time for neighbors to get up to speed on the debate, form an opinion, and return their ballots.

What’s more, that narrow window will fall over the holiday break. All told, the chance that this survey will generate a sufficient volume of responses — let alone consensus among 51 percent of the neighborhood — seems incredibly unlikely.

Additionally, the text on the survey is going to be limited to an up-or-down question asking property owners whether they support or oppose historical designation. No information is set to be included on the postcard outlining the impacts of the decision or a breakdown of pros and cons. A url directing users to visit the BCA website’s historic preservation page is supposed to be included, but that page only represents the viewpoints of neighbors who support the application. A fair summary of the opinions of neighbors who are not supportive of the application won’t be reflected at all.

Finally, the survey is not being sent to all residents, only to property owners — which means renters (something north of 50 percent of residents) are being excluded off the bat. While property owners may face the most immediate impacts of historic designation, the potential for increased renovation costs of rental properties to be passed onto tenants is something we (and the ANC members who represent all residents) shouldn’t dismiss lightly.

Not to mention, if supporters of the application are going to cite a desire to regulate visual streetscapes as motivation, there’s no reason renters’ opinions on neighborhood aesthetics should matter any less.

Mismatched buildings aren’t the biggest threat facing Bloomingdale. Affordability is.

The reality is that while some neighbors are focused on pop-ups, Bloomingdale is facing a more acute threat: affordability.

As an attractive, centrally-located neighborhood with beloved local businesses, demand for housing in Bloomingdale continues to climb – pushing prices higher and higher each year. Median home prices in the neighborhood crossed $800,000 this year, that’s a 73% rise from even just 4 years ago. The subsequent higher property taxes and rents put us on a clear path towards becoming a neighborhood exclusively available to residents with higher incomes. What good is it to keep the building facades of the neighborhood if we’re not keeping the neighbors inside them?

To be fair, there are bigger market forces at play in this specific conversation. The impact of historic designation on affordability one way or the other will be moderate at best. But given the scope of the challenge, I think we should be doing everything we can to avoid making it worse at the least. How much historic designation would raise costs for residents remains to be seen, but it’s certainly far more than the $0 increase rejecting this application would cost.

If you’re a Bloomingdale resident who feels similarly, I invite you to sign this petition put together by some of your neighbors expressing ours concerns and looking to bring more community voices to this process.