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In July, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly filed an application to designate a historic landmark at 501 I St. SW.

The building there was initially constructed in 1948 as the Metropolitan Police Boys Club No. 4, then expanded by prominent modernist architect Charles Goodman to become the private Hawthorne School, and finally bought in 1972 by Southeastern University, which shut down in 2010. Now, the Shakespeare Theatre Company plans to convert the property into its new headquarters and artist space by tearing it down and erecting a larger building in its place.

SWNA (pronounced “swah-nuh” by the select few who pronounce it) objected, arguing that the Hawthorne School building is historic and deserves to be protected as a landmark. “The Hawthorne School occupies a unique position within the contexts of both Charles Goodman’s oeuvre and the architectural portfolio of Southwest Washington,” SWNA wrote in its application to the Historic Preservation Office. “It also represents a unique transitional step in the development of environmentally-concerned architecture.”

And then, in September, SWNA withdrew the application. Goodman hadn’t lost respect as an architect, nor had environmentally concerned architecture become passé. Instead, SWNA had struck a deal with Shakespeare and its development partner, one that gave SWNA $60,000.

Typically when an application is filed to nominate a building as a historic landmark, the case goes before the Historic Preservation Review Board, which weighs the importance of the building as an individual structure and a representative of its historic context. If it becomes a landmark—as most do: last fiscal year, nine applicantions were approved while two were withdrawn and one denied—it can’t be torn down or substantially altered without the approval of the Mayor’s Agent in the Office of Planning. The designation of historic landmarks and districts is, in many cases, to thank for the preservation of the city’s streetscapes.

But in cases like the Hawthorne School, the HPRB is cut out of the equation, because the application never makes it that far. A developer and a community organization strike a deal that’s beneficial to both parties—sometimes financially—and the question of preserving the building is dropped.

Which means landmark applications can sometimes become little more than a bargaining chip in negotiations between developers and the surrounding community.

“There is potential for abuse there,” says a former HPRB member who requested anonymity because he still deals with some of these cases. “It’s obvious that the landmarking duty is given to the Board as a citywide agency with preservation expertise. And they’re the ones that should decide the landmarking.”

Gretchen Pfaehler, the HPRB chair, says there’s “no vehicle” to prevent developers and organizations from circumventing the board. “I don’t have any control over real estate deals that happen,” she says. “Certainly it would be better to have it go through that process so it could be evaluated and decided whether it’s significant or not.”

Using the landmarking process to head off unwanted development is nothing new. Neighbors leery of proposed development projects often file landmark applications just as the development is set to get underway. Even if the applications aren’t approved, they still serve to delay the projects, sometimes enough to induce the developer to cut a deal.

In this particular case, SWNA’s landmark application for the Hawthorne School was born out of neighborhood frustration with a perceived lack of transparency from Shakespeare. Andy Litsky, a member of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, says his colleagues were upset the theater didn’t present its plans to the commission, as organizations planning major developments often do. “It was peculiar,” he says. “And it raised suspicion, quite frankly.” (Shakespeare Managing Director Chris Jennings counters that his team has met with multiple community groups and says, “I think we’ve been completely transparent.”)

As a result, the ANC voted to oppose the raze application that had been filed by the property’s current owner, Graduate School USA, which took over the struggling Southeastern University in 2010. But when it comes to questions of historic preservation, says Litsky, the ANC often delegates to SWNA. With all the development taking place along the Southwest Waterfront and in the Navy Yard area, Litsky says the ANC has the most zoning cases of any in the city. “So we said, ‘SWNA, knock yourself out. You’ve got historic preservation.’”

Generally, Litsky says, SWNA has been successful in helping Southwest maintain what he calls “probably the greatest collection of Mid-Century modern architecture of any place in the country.” In this case, though, the landmark application was largely a tactic to get the elusive Shakespeare company to negotiate with the community.

Ultimately, Shakespeare and its development partner, Erkiletian Development Company, offered a generous package of benefits if SWNA would withdraw the application. Shakespeare confirmed that these included free and discounted tickets to certain events for local residents and students, annual donations of up to $2,500 to SW ArtsFest, regular paid advertising in the Southwester community newspaper (run by SWNA)—and two cash payments of $30,000 each to SWNA.

“Ostensibly they’re mitigation funds to withdraw the landmark nomination,” says SWNA president Kael Anderson. “But we recognize that the funds may not necessarily be used specifically for the historic preservation agenda, if you will. It’s the nature of a community organization. We frankly don’t have a website. So we think there might be value to applying some of the funds to general organizational uses.”

Jennings clarifies that the $60,000 came from Erkiletian because it’s not “appropriate for Shakespeare as a not-for-profit to be making contributions,” although Shakespeare provided the other benefits. “SWNA is very interested in preserving some of the architecture and history of that community,” Jennings says. “As part of the agreement, they forewent their application on this particular building, but the contribution was made for the ongoing effort so they can really make some positive efforts to preserve some of that history.”

Anderson believes the building is deserving of landmark status and stood a good chance of receiving it had SWNA taken the case to HPRB. But withdrawing the nomination, he feels, brought considerable benefits to the community—not least ensuring that Shakespeare would follow through on its plans amid fears the theater would walk if it couldn’t build a new headquarters from the ground up. (Jennings says “there was no way we were going to be able to proceed” if the building had to be preserved.) In the end, the landmark process was less an effort to preserve a historic building than a negotiating tactic.

“The landmarking process is sometimes misused or overused,” Anderson concedes. “But there really are very few tools to manage development in the city from the community’s perspective. The Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission are arguably fairly pro-development.”

For SWNA and like-minded neighbors and for Shakespeare, the outcome was a win-win. But for the historic preservation process, deals like these are potentially more problematic. Landmark nominations can be abused in two ways. First, they can be filed frivolously to bring developers to the negotiating table and extract money or other concessions from them. And second, otherwise valid nominations can be withdrawn for the right price, leaving worthy historic buildings facing demolition. (HPRB can theoretically take up a landmark case on its own, but in practice this happens very rarely.)

The Hawthorne School is hardly the first case of a side deal around the historic preservation process, nor will it be the last. The D.C. Preservation League, the city’s leading preservation group, has made several similar arrangements. Construction crews began dismantling the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a distinctive and sometimes reviled Brutalist structure at 16th and I streets NW, earlier this year, after DCPL agreed not to oppose the redevelopment plan in exchange for donations from the developer of up to $770,000 to a preservation fund managed by DCPL. Under the terms of the deal, DCPL could take up to 20 percent of the donations as an administrative fee.

The total donations came out to around $720,000. In August, DCPL announced eight recipients of grants from the fund, ranging from $3,000 to $50,000, to help preserve historic religious buildings in the city.

DCPL also received $10,000 from Douglas Development to help put together a brochure on the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood as part of a deal whereby Douglas preserved and actually moved historic buildings at a development site near the corner of New York Avenue and 7th Street NW in 2012. And back in 2003, DCPL dropped its opposition to the demolition of a pavilion at a historic Southwest building in exchange for a $450,000 payment from the developer to a fund managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to promote preservation efforts in the District.

“The cash payout sounds so dirty,” says DCPL president Rebecca Miller. In reality, she says, the funds go toward grants directly targeting preservation. DCPL prefers to landmark properties, but particularly when it appears they’re going to lose, they try to strike deals that will further their mission.

“It’s really no different from the community benefit packages that are put together for zoning,” she argues. “There are agreements where they’re paying for ANC Christmas parties.” (SWNA has cashed in on these arrangements, too: A plan to redevelop the former Randall School on I Street SW into a museum and residences, approved by the Zoning Commission earlier this year, includes a $20,000 donation from the developer to SWNA to study a potential historic district in Southwest.)

So did the Hawthorne School deserve to be landmarked? Some neighborhood leaders don’t think so.

“That building?” Litsky says with a laugh when asked if he thought the Hawthorne School was landmark-worthy. “No, I never did.”

“It’s a debate in the community,” says Marjorie Lightman, who was elected to the local ANC this week and conducted SWNA’s study of the potential historic district. “It’s acknowledged it was done by an architect of note, and it’s acknowledged that it made a statement. Whether it’s a statement you like or don’t like varies by personal aesthetics.”

She adds, “I think, as a building, it’s served its purpose.”

It certainly served its purpose for SWNA’s budget, at least. The money changing hands in the deal lends the appearance of something more nefarious, even if the motive is above-board. That’s why, even if Litsky believes SWNA’s move on the Hawthorne School was a worthwhile effort to counter Shakespeare’s perceived obfuscation, he considers the group’s approach “ham-handed” and worries SWNA didn’t come across as an honest actor.

“I do not deny that it doesn’t make SWNA look great,” he says. “It makes it look like they are thugs. They are not.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery