Felix Gillette told an important story about misuse of government power to serve the selfish ends of D.C.’s preservation elite (“Dwelling in the Past,” 11/1). What the story didn’t do is explain how this outrage works. Nor does it indicate how very costly it is to the city’s economic-development effort. Allow me to elaborate.
Politicians talk endlessly about the problems of insufficient affordable housing, derelict properties falling apart for lack of maintenance, and inadequate income- and property-tax revenue to run our government. At the same time, D.C.’s Historic Preservation Division (HPD) in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) carries on a guerrilla campaign to block efforts to rebuild some of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods. Along the way, the HPD has distorted the original intent and spirit of the historic-preservation laws beyond recognition.
Federal legislation enacted the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 purposefully to promote the redevelopment of historically significant sites. Local legislation subsequently instituted policies to encourage rebuilding D.C.’s crumbling core and ultimately to spur social and economic growth in the city. How could such a potent local and federal alliance fail?
Easy! A classic guerrilla campaign of a special-interest group (mostly architects and architectural historians) who view our nation’s older neighborhoods as museums rather than places to live, have captured control of construction permitting in “historic districts.”
How does it work?
While the great majority of construction-permit applications in D.C. are reviewed and approved in a matter of hours, all applications for work in a historic district must go to the HPD for clearance. If the applicant proposes to spend $100,000 on interior renovations, the HPD will sign off, indicating that it has no authority. If, however, the applicant wants to make any exterior improvement, the HPD will exercise its authority and put the entire project on its own special-review schedule. As a result, permit reviews normally performed within hours are often delayed for months, even years, causing a crippling effect on our city’s rehabilitation projects.
The keys to the HPD’s ability to “sandbag” permitting within historic districts are (1) an alliance with like-minded (neighborhoods as museums) staffers at the federally funded Fine Arts Committee, (2) a system of volunteer review committees that meet monthly to provide reinforcement of the HPD’s inclination to block change, and (3) an astoundingly overzealous interpretation of the Historic Preservation Act.
The 1966 act calls for regulation of changes to historic buildings that are visible from public thoroughfares. The HPD defines alleys as public thoroughfares. The 1966 act suggests that window replacements should be similar in appearance when viewed from public thoroughfares. The HPD interprets this clause to mean that replica windows made of vinyl, by far the most efficient, long-lasting, and least expensive windows in today’s market, are completely prohibited. Even worse, the HPD actively imposes criminal sanctions on homeowners and city renovators caught in violation of this warped and baseless interpretation of the act.
It is time for our political leaders to put an end to this campaign against redevelopment of D.C.’s deteriorating historic neighborhoods. A few simple steps would suffice:
1. Require the HPD to operate with the same efficiency as the remainder of the Office of Permitting. Impose a two-day limit on reviews (except in the case of important public buildings), after which concurrence would be assumed.
2. Subject the HPD guidelines to review by objective public officials charged with taking a balanced approach to neighborhood redevelopment, and settle on clear and sensible guidelines that will enable HPD staffers to make prompt decisions.
The economic impact of ending the HPD’s permitting mischief will be dramatic. The era of multiyear construction projects, held up because of permit reviews, will end. The cost of rehabilitation in historic districts will be reduced. As a result, there will be a new impetus to transform neighborhoods such as Shaw and Columbia Heights from the dreary and depressing ruins they have become to living, dynamic communities of hardworking, tax-paying citizens. Isn’t that the remedy for a healthy city? Isn’t that also what Congress had in mind when it passed the Historic Preservation Act of 1966?