We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

On Aug. 14, 1942, the Washington Star announced the arrival of a new D.C. retail landmark, a “tastefully designed pioneer in the fast growing movement to make adequate shopping facilities available to Washingtonians in suburban sections.” Garfinckel’s, which had already established itself as the city’s premier downtown department store, was following the move of people and dollars to the suburbs, opening its first outpost on the District’s margins. In its advertising, the store promised “all the charm of old Williamsburg set down at the edge of a dark, cool forest. It’s way above the average as suburban stores go.”

The developer of the new store, the W.C. & A.N. Miller Development Co., had also been responsible, starting in the 1920s, for building much of the surrounding Spring Valley neighborhood. Just inside D.C.’s western boundary, Spring Valley did feel much like a suburb. It was spacious, it was new, and it was exclusive: Racial covenants prevented Spring Valley homeowners from selling their houses to blacks or Jews.

Fast forward 73 years. Spring Valley is no longer new and the racial covenants are gone, but it’s still exclusive. It has the city’s lowest property and violent crime rates, as of 2011, and one of the wealthiest citizenries: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income, measured from 2007 to 2011, was $379,276. Though D.C. is a majority-black city, the neighborhood is still just 4 percent black. (Data on the neighborhood’s Jewish population isn’t  available.) In a telltale sign of its remove from the city’s mainstream, it was also the only precinct where a majority of voters opposed last year’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.

And developers are still seeking to add retail—on the same site, in fact, where the Miller company built the Garfinckel’s store. Last fall, Miller sold the Spring Valley Shopping Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW, anchored by the Crate & Barrel that took over the old Garfinckel’s space, to the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust. WRIT, as it’s known, recently announced plans to erect a two-story building on a portion of the parking lot between Crate & Barrel and Capital One Bank, with ground-floor retail topped by offices or additional retail.

Not so fast, said some neighbors: That parking lot is an historic landmark. 

Let’s be clear about this: The parking lot in question doesn’t have any architectural flourishes or embellishments that separate it from the city’s other surface parking lots. It’s just a run-of-the-mill asphalt slab. No one’s claiming otherwise.

But what some neighbors do claim is that because the parking lot was built at a time of car-focused retail development, it is an historic landmark.

The shopping center that surrounds the parking lot received landmark designation in 1989, after four neighborhood groups nominated it for historic status. The question is whether that status also applies to the parking lot.

Tom Smith thinks so. In a five-page letter to his constituents last month, the chair of Spring Valley’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission argues that the historic designation “makes clear that the adequacy of parking is also a factor in determining the property to be historic.”

That’s not really clear at all. It’s a matter for the Historic Preservation Review Board to resolve when it takes up WRIT’s development application later this month. But it raises a more fundamental issue: Can a parking lot truly be an historic landmark? And more broadly: Should something that was once important to the city be protected in perpetuity even if the passage of time has rendered it obsolete?

* * *

D.C.’s foray into auto-oriented retail began in Cleveland Park in 1930, with the opening of the Park & Shop on Connecticut Avenue NW. There followed 13 more parking-intensive shopping centers in the District by 1941, and 35 in the region—the highest concentration of this trendy new retail form in America. That’s according to the 1989 testimony of Richard Longstreth, a George Washington University professor of architectural history who at the time was working on a book on the impact of cars on suburban retail development. Longstreth was speaking in favor of an historic designation for two such developments: the Spring Valley Shopping Center and a complex across the street that preceded it, the Massachusetts Avenue Parking Shops.

“Shaped by the automobile, these shopping centers were uniquely American,” stated the landmark application for the Massachusetts Avenue complex. The same groups that sought the designation for the Spring Valley Shopping Center filed this application. “As an early example [of these shopping centers] with off-street parking provided by a forecourt, the Massachusetts Avenue Parking Shops was cited in national planning publications as a model and appears to have influenced subsequent projects elsewhere in the nation.”

The Spring Valley Shopping Center application didn’t have nearly the same emphasis on parking—which makes sense, given that its parking isn’t integrated into the complex’s design, as it is for the Massachusetts Avenue Parking Shops and the Cleveland Park Park & Shop. All three complexes are now landmarks. But it remains unclear whether the parking at the Spring Valley Shopping Center is protected.

WRIT is convinced it isn’t. “Our understanding is really quite unequivocal,” says Paul Weinschenk, a WRIT managing director who heads the company’s retail division. “We’ve looked at this very carefully with the help of our law firm, which has an architectural historian on staff, an individual who’s extremely familiar with historic designations, who agrees with our conclusion. And that is that the parking lot itself is not a protected element of the landmark.” (Smith did not respond to requests for comment.)

Should a parking lot ever be considered a landmark? It depends on what makes a space historic. Certainly parking was integral to the District during the decades, in the middle of the last century, when the car began its dominance, suburbanization took off, and the city fell into decline. But if we preserved all the parking lots that were representative of that era, we’d still have a downtown dominated by surface parking.

A similar preservation effort arose recently when the D.C. Council, seeking to stem the decline in the number of gas stations, passed a bill that bars gas-station owners from altering service at the stations or discontinuing their use without the approval of a Gas Station Advisory Board. In an editorial ripping the law, the Washington Post conceded that the bill’s authors were correct in stating that the number of gas stations has declined over the past 25 years—“not surprising,” the paper pointed out, “given that the District’s population and car registrations also fell, while auto-service chains such as Midas and Jiffy Lube emerged. The District has fewer corner bakeries and groceries than it used to, too. And don’t get us started about newsstands.”

The changes that the city has undergone ought to prompt a reconsideration, at HPRB and elsewhere, of some of the spaces that preservationists have long held sacred. The Connecticut Avenue Park & Shop surely holds an important place in the city’s history, but an even more important development came to Cleveland Park 51 years after the retail complex: a Metro station. Must the neighborhood forever maintain a parking lot directly behind a Metro entrance? Might the neighborhood not benefit more from a public space and additional retail?

The Spring Valley Shopping Center lacks the benefit of Metro accessibility, but the owners of the property think the retail outfits will get by just fine without the parking spaces that will be lost. (Not so, according to whichever neighbor circulated a flyer last week warning, in all caps and underlined, that “THERE WILL BE NO NEW PARKING!”) Who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

“Would we cut off our nose to spite our face in terms of parking?” asks Weinschenk. “No. We’ve looked at that, and we think what we’re proposing will work.”

Last week, the ANC passed a package of motions opposing WRIT’s plans and suggesting a few changes. Nan Wells, whose single-member district includes the shopping center, says there were two basic concerns: the historic compatibility of the designs and the “severe” parking issues. These are standard and legitimate neighborhood concerns, and city officials should take them seriously as they weigh the development proposal. Zoning officials will need to rule on the loss of parking, and historic preservation officials will judge the appropriateness of the new development in its context.

But let’s not confuse the two issues. Parking lots are as historic to the city as horse-drawn streetcars and telephone booths—which is to say, sometimes they should be consigned to history.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery