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Historic Preservation Review Board chair Catherine Buell is stepping down to lead a city development project and will be replaced by HPRB member Gretchen Pfaehler.
Buell was appointed to the board in 2008 and became the first female HPRB chair in 2010. After two and a half years, she’s leaving both HPRB and her paying job as an attorney at the law firm Patton Boggs (HPRB members receive just a nominal stipend) to oversee the development of the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8, where she resides. She begins her work at the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development on Monday.
Pfaehler is a relative newcomer to HPRB, having just been appointed to the board in April, but she’s no stranger to historic preservation: She worked on preservation review boards in Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s also no stranger to the District, having lived here for 15 years. And she serves as director of preservation at an international engineering and consulting firm, the Michael Baker Corporation.
When it comes to historic preservation, there’s always something of a tug-of-war between pro-development people who want preservation to be incorporated into a changing city and anti-development people who seek to use preservation as a tool to prevent changes. Most HPRB members, of course, fall somewhere in the middle. Buell’s predecessor, Tersh Boasberg, was an imposing force in the field, a 10-year chair who wrote several books about preservation and headed just about every relevant body in the city; he was considered something of a conservative. Buell sought to bring a bit more flexibility to preservation and to “keep preservation relevant and cool.”
So where does Pfaehler fit into the spectrum? She’s studiously neutral in a phone interview.
“I think there’s always a tradeoff,” says the Capitol Hill resident, who previously lived on the Southwest Waterfront. “We’re not keeping the District as a museum. It’s a functioning international and global political city.” She believes that preservation should be wielded in such a way as to allow for “development and sustainability and creating a walkable smart-growth city.”
However, a case that came before HPRB in May indicates that Pfaehler may be critical of sustainability if it comes at the expense of longstanding aesthetics. The case concerned a homeowner in the historic district of Cleveland Park who wanted to install rooftop solar panels. The initial HPRB vote was a 4-4 tie, with Buell voting to allow the panels and Pfaehler voting not to allow them. Buell, as chair, then abstained to allow for a conclusive vote, and the solar panels were rejected.
“I don’t think that sustainability and preservation are mutually exclusive,” Pfaehler says. “I think it’s imprtant to look at sustainability as part of a larger spectrum.” Speaking specifically of solar panels, she adds, “We need to make sure they’re integreated in a way that’s responsible.”
Pfaehler believes she’s taking over at a particularly important juncture for the city’s preservation efforts. “I’m excited by the challenge that’s coming with some large projects in the District,” she says. “I think about St. Elizabethss and the potential of what could happen in that community. And I think about places like the McMillan Reservoir and Walter Reed. There’s some interesting projects that have a larger influence.”
Pfaehler says she isn’t sure when the announcement of her appointment will be made publicly, nor does she know when she’ll officially take over as chair. Tanya Washington, chief of staff at the Office of Planning, which oversees HPRB, tells me, “We expect the new chair of HPRB to be named in time for the Dec. 20 meeting.”