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When a developer submitted plans to erect a two-story building on a parking lot in Spring Valley, some neighbors objected. Their wariness of new development in their proverbial backyard wasn’t unusual, but their reasoning was. The parking lot, they contended, was a historic landmark.

The construction of the surrounding complex, the Spring Valley Shopping Center, took place near the midway mark of the last century, at a time when auto-centric retail development was catching on across the country. The shopping center itself received landmark status in 1989, and neighbors tried to argue that the parking lot, ordinary though it looked, was likewise historic because it contributed to that development trend.

But so far, the city’s historic preservation authorities are having none of it.

Because the shopping center has historic designation, any alterations have to secure the approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board, which will review the case on April 30. But before the HPRB hears a case, the Historic Preservation Office delivers a staff report recommending approval or denial, which typically guides the HPRB decision. The HPO’s Steve Callcott delivered that report for the Spring Valley case yesterday. His conclusion: Losing a few parking spaces won’t wreck the site’s historic character.

An aerial view of the site from 1949, showing parking clustered in the center, rather than facing Massachusetts Avenue NW

“While the inner block parking has been visible from Massachusetts Avenue since the complex’s construction, it is arguable as to whether this is an important and intentional characteristic of the site that is worthy of preservation or merely an existing condition,” he writes. “In the absence of documentation, evaluating an existing condition and ascribing to it a specific intent is problematic and open to interpretation.”

There’s reason to believe the intent was for future development to occur on the parking-lot site, he argues. The side walls of the adjacent bank probably weren’t intended to be unobstructed in the long term, he writes, because—and here he employs a masterful bit of jargon—”visual analysis reveals that they are unfenestrated.” (Translation: They don’t have windows.)

“However,” Callcott continues, “whether a building was ever intended for this location is less relevant than whether a building in this location is compatible with the complex or compromises important characteristic features. Rather than compromising the character of the landmark, the project has the potential to enhance and improve the complex. As it has evolved over time, the parking lot is not particularly efficient or attractive, and the proposal provides the opportunity to improve the lot visually, environmentally and in terms of pedestrian safety.”

An unfenestrated wall

But Callcott doesn’t go so far as to suggest that parking lots can’t be historic landmarks. The historic Massachusetts Avenue Parking Shops across the street, for example, have parking “front and center” in their design, unlike at the Spring Valley Shopping Center, where parking exists throughout the site. That means that at complexes like the Massachusetts Avenue Parking Shops and the Metro-adjacent Cleveland Park Park & Shop, even if it’s in the neighborhood’s best interest to construct new buildings or parks or plazas on the parking lots, the developers will have to clear a higher bar in making their case to the HRPB.

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery; bottom two photos from the HPO report