Credit: Jessica Sidman

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It’s got Maketto. It’s got the streetcar (not to mention the X2). And now, the H Street NE corridor has a D.C. Zoning Commission case about the preservation of its decades-old facades.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C, which covers H Street NE between North Capitol and 8th streets NE, filed a petition with zoning officials earlier this week seeking to clarify regulations that govern the design of commercial sites along the corridor. Citing a 2006 Zoning Commission ruling that provided the framework for permissible redevelopment there, commissioners say the District has “not consistently respect[ed]” facade preservation rules for two- to four-story brick buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Developers have incentives to preserve such facades: floor-area-ratio bonuses. But, the ANC claims, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has approved new storefronts that “ignore” or “defy” the rules.

“The purpose of those regulations is that developers need to meet requirements to preserve historic facades if they want to go bigger than zoning would otherwise allow,” says neighborhood commissioner Mark Eckenwiler. “It’s a fundamental rule-of-law issue, and of good governance.”

Neighbors say one “especially egregious” example of DCRA’s allegedly arbitrary enforcement of codes is the Ben’s Chili Bowl that opened last July at 10th and H streets NE. According to them, DCRA let a developer count all four exterior walls of the corner store as “facade,” back and party walls to the south and east included. Yet in another case, the ANC contends, DCRA adjudicated a facade-preservation bonus for a corner property by relying exclusively on a front-facing wall.

“The new facade at 1001 H St. [NE] is constructed of entirely new materials except for an ungainly, ahistorical corner portal with no architectural ornamentation or detailing of any kind,” the ANC says in its filing. It goes on to characterize the storefront of Ben’s Chili Bowl as a “gross misapplication” of facade-preservation statutes, showing the old store side by side with the new:

Credit: ANC 6C

Credit: ANC 6C

A representative for DCRA says its zoning administrator reviews thousands of applications each year, and that the determinations cited in the ANC’s filing were not challenged to zoning officials.

The petition and amendments proposes to limit changes to the corridor’s commercial character, specify how much of a facade needs to be preserved, “require that all character-defining architectural features be retained,” and clarifies what a facade is.

The six-member ANC unanimously voted to support the petition in December. ANC 6A—which covers H Street NE from 7th to 15th streets NE—also unanimously supported changes.

Asked about some of the more prominent developments planned for H Street NE like the Apollo apartments between 6th and 7th streets NE, Eckenwiler notes that ANC 6C “strongly supported” that final project, which included community benefits and replaced a “stretch of dead streetfront.”

The Office of Zoning has not yet set a hearing for the case. ANC 6C’s statement in support of the petition can be read here.