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When Patrick Macfarlane was looking to buy a house last spring, Northern Virginia looked like the obvious option. He already lived in Arlington, was used to playing there, and worked in the 703 area code. But instead, Macfarlane found himself charmed by the tree-lined streets and row houses of the District. “There’s a character about this area that I think the suburbs lack,” he explains. Though his own block’s architecture remains pretty disjointed, Macfarlane was particularly impressed with two across-the-street houses, 1427 and 1429 Rhode Island Avenue, sturdy buildings that could be found on just about any street in pre-World War II Washington.

For a guy who liked looking at the architecture of old D.C., Macfarlane made a pretty good bet—at least on paper. Preservationists in the Logan Circle area three years ago had the two houses, as well as apartment buildings on either side of them, designated historic properties. The designation bars developers from tearing down or altering a building.

But the designation has a strange way of preserving decay as well as history. Despite their new legal designation, the houses have spent their first three years of preserved status languishing behind boarded-up doors and windows. “They’ve been a haven for the homeless,” says Macfarlane. “There’ve been fires; you name it. Architecturally, they are beautiful buildings, but they’ve suffered from years of neglect.” Even the street addresses have fallen off the buildings’ front doors. Closed and silent, they seem to have disappeared from the block.

Another notch in urban abandonment’s gun barrel? Not this time. Neighboring apartment buildings on the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue teem with residents. Across the street and throughout the neighborhood, traditional and not-so-traditional fix-me-ups have lured in new residents. Not far away, the house at 1 and 2 Logan Circle is currently under renovation. Lights are on at night there for the first time in memory. Rather than the ordinary cycle of abandonment, the fate of the block’s two historic ruins looks like the product of a strange loophole in D.C.’s historic preservation laws. Activists call it demolition by neglect.

The concept is fairly simple. Owners of historic properties are not allowed to demolish them. However, they’re under no obligation to maintain the buildings. The result, some say, is that people who own designated properties but want to erect profitable new developments simply let the buildings fall to pieces. Eventually, the logic goes, the old building will be condemned—safety hazards are safety hazards, no matter what their history—and the property cleared for redevelopment.

It’s a process that has neighbors and preservationists steaming. “Someone who’s not able to get a building destroyed through the normal permitting process can just let it fall apart,” explains Richard Nettler, a lawyer for preservationists.

A couple of years ago, Nettler worked on the case of the President Monroe Building, at Massachusetts Avenue and 4th Street NW. He says the owners held lots of desolate property around the site but were prevented by a historic designation from redeveloping it. Under the pretext of working on the façade, they tore down the entire front of the building, hoping the damage would lead to a condemnation order and a lucrative shot at a brand-new building.

Instead, preservationist busybodies moved in. The case has been tied up in court for years, and the building stands like an empty dollhouse in the Massachusetts Avenue no-man’s land just west of Capitol Hill. Nettler says other historic buildings—from Anacostia to Georgetown—suffer the same degradation as the Monroe. And neighbors often don’t even gain the partial victory that Nettler won.

The impassioned appeals of preservationists, for instance, don’t amount to much when the structure in questions is deemed a threat to the public. Last spring, an early-19th-century house on O Street was demolished after locals complained that its decrepit condition imperiled children at a neighboring school. Developers now have the potential to make megabucks on the vacant lot. Activists described the condemnation order as a lucrative reward for nearly two decades of neglect.

Things haven’t quite gotten to that point on Rhode Island Avenue, yet. Though they’ve been damaged by fire, the two houses remain a ways from imploding. In the meantime, Macfarlane says that he and other neighbors plan to step up efforts to get the owners—historic preservation documents list 1427 as being owned by J.C. Associates and 1429 by the Rhode Island Limited Partnership; both share a single address—to maintain them. Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Helen Kramer would only say that she was trying to set up a meeting with the developer to discuss questions about the properties. (J.C. Associates did not return calls for this story.)

The heart of the matter, though, is the obligation that comes along with owning a piece of history. Residents of places like New Orleans’ French Quarter understand that they’re not buying a canvas onto which they can paint anything they want. The area’s preservation laws thus act as something of a social compact, preserving an intangible architectural quality for the good of all.

D.C. has oodles of historic architecture to protect. According to the D.C. Preservation League’s Patrick Lally, two-thirds of District houses date from before World War II. The city’s row-house style still charms buyers like Macfarlane. But perhaps because the city’s uniqueness is less dramatic than that of a place like New Orleans—people visit the Crescent City to see the French Quarter; few visit Washington for its charming neighborhoods—many landowners feel entitled to make a killing on generic, Rockville-style developments. And it doesn’t much help that so many landlords are absentees.

For the most part, strong historic preservation laws foil most would-be suburbanizers. And later this year, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans plans to introduce legislation that would plug up the legal gaps that allow demolition by neglect. According to Evans staffer Lyle Blanchard, the bill would erect some minimum maintenance requirements and also put some teeth into intervention efforts against preservation-dodgers.

Blanchard says the law, which is in part modeled after similar ones in New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., will also grant enforcement authority—such as the power to write tickets—to the city’s historic preservation office. But whether unscrupulous landlords who are willing to wait decades while capital-intensive investments crumble would be scared off by the prospect of a ticket is another issue entirely.

Lally says Evans’ law is fine but argues that those who put too much faith in it miss the real point. He claims that the District’s preservation laws and staff are far superior to comparable cities’, but that cutbacks in enforcement budgets—coupled with a lack of municipal vision about preservation goals—are the real culprit. “The laws on the books worked well when there was a mimimum infrastructure for enforcement,” he says.

Whether it happens by new laws or as a result of some regulatory ass-kicking, a crackdown on historic-property abusers won’t come a minute too soon for Macfarlane—and the houses across his street. “When people think about D.C., they think about row houses,” he says. “There’s a charm that attracts people to town, because, let’s face it, for the amount I paid I could have gotten a bigger house and better city services by staying in Arlington. Now we’re losing what brought me to the city.” CP