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History in the District can move in circles. Once-vibrant neighborhoods emerge from decades of poverty and again find themselves at the center of the city’s attention. The heroes of the past find their names on shiny new condo buildings. The streetcar, until 50 years ago a centerpiece of Washingtonians’ daily lives, makes a comeback. And people fight it every step of the way.
If you’d told Joel Elias Spingarn that 73 years after his death, a bitter political battle would be fought over a centerpiece of the long-dormant streetcar’s resurrection on a D.C. school campus bearing his name, he’d have called it schmegegge. For one thing, the segregated black school’s white, Jewish namesake lived and died in New York. For another, when the school opened in 1952 in the middle-class black neighborhood of Kingman Park, the streetcar was on its way out of D.C., with just 10 years until its final demise at the hands of cars and buses. Now, decades later, the new streetcar is being hailed as the key to the rebirth of the struggling Benning Road NE.
But a cyclical history sometimes runs into crosscurrents as circumstances change. In the 1890s, when a streetcar barn was constructed at 15th Street and Benning Road NE—just 10 blocks from the proposed car barn at 2500 Benning Road NE that now has the neighborhood up in arms—there was little neighborhood there to speak of. Likewise at 4615 14th Street NW, where the Capital Traction Company Car Barn was erected between 1906 and 1907 to cheers from the Washington Times, which declared it “equal to any building of its kind in this country.”
And this is where the cycle comes to a halt. The Capital Traction Company barn on 14th Street, which now houses Metrobuses, was recommended for landmarking by the Historic Preservation Office on Sept. 27, a step that would preserve its stately edifice after more than a century of transit service. The proposed Spingarn car barn is being held up—and may never materialize—as a result of the same historic preservation process.
On Sept. 21, the Kingman Park Civic Association filed an application to the Historic Preservation Office to landmark Spingarn High School and its grounds, on one of two potential corners of which the car barn would be built. The timing of the application is interesting, as it coincides perfectly with the dispute over the car barn—it wouldn’t be the first time preservation efforts have been viewed as an attempt to stave off nearby development—though the Office of Planning notes that Spingarn has long been known to be a candidate for landmarking. (The president of the civic association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
No one denies that the school has historical merit. The application for landmarking notes its “brick walls and massive columns reminiscent of the Neo-Classical Revival or Georgian/Federal style of construction.” The school anchored the thriving Kingman Park community, “the only neighborhood specifically designed and constructed for African-Americans in Washington, DC,” with a golf course for black golfers who weren’t allowed on other city courses.
But preservation shouldn’t freeze a site in time; rather, it should allow for an evolving and functional neighborhood that incorporates the historic structure. Cardozo High School on 13th Street NW, for example, is a landmarked building that’s undergoing a massive renovation to incorporate a huge new athletic facility into its historic grounds.
And so the question is: Are efforts to preserve the Spingarn campus in its current form an attempt to include a piece of the area’s past in its future? Or are they a means to put the brakes on the future altogether?
If the streetcar barn does eventually go to the Spingarn site, maybe one day next century it’ll wind up the subject of another preservation fight, like two former trolley garages in Northwest. One, the Capital Traction barn at 14th and Decatur streets NW near Petworth, has undisputed architectural merit and has so far received little opposition to its landmarking. The other, on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights, is seen by its critics as an unexceptional building, a health hazard, and an impediment to smarter development in the area.
“The Petworth place and the Wisconsin Avenue place are perfect examples,” says Tom Hier, chairman of the smart growth advocacy group Ward 3 Vision. “One has true distinction and is worthy of preservation. The other is four walls and a marginally interesting façade.”
The Wisconsin Avenue site in question is the Western Bus Garage, a former streetcar barn that, like the Petworth barn, now houses a swarm of Metrobuses. In 2005—just three months, it should be noted, after WMATA issued a request for proposals to develop the site—the Tenleytown Historical Society applied to have the garage landmarked.
“This site has been a transportation site for over 100 years,” says Jane Waldmann, president of the Tenleytown Historical Society. “It was a trolley barn and that was removed when buses became the dominant form. It’s part of our local history. That it happens to sit on a very large site is what has some saying let’s just get rid of it, let’s develop the site.”
Additionally, the site is directly next to the Friendship Heights Metro station, a valuable piece of real estate that could contribute to a pedestrian- and transit-anchored neighborhood. Right now, though, it’s not doing that at all—it’s just hosting buses.
“One of the core rationales offered in the application is that this has always been part of the transportation system,” says Matt Frumin, chairman of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E, which formally opposed the landmark application last month. “Ages ago it was a streetcar barn and then it was a bus garage. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense for it always to be used as a bus garage. And the way it’s been used as a bus garage, an above-ground bus garage with the fumes out in the open, we now know that’s not a good way to do a bus garage.”
Waldmann counters that landmarking can mean “a more attractive result” if development does occur. And of course she’s right that critics of the landmark application have their sights set on redevelopment of the garage.
Hier calls the Western Bus Garage a “really good site for redevelopment.” But he also points out that landmarking advocates tend to be broadly skeptical of additions to their neighborhoods.
The same dynamic appears to be at play on the Spingarn site. Bernice Blacknell, the commissioner for ANC 5B12, where the school is located, is opposed to the car barn, largely because the planning process has been a mess (a charge Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh backed up at a hearing last week when she said D.C. officials were “sort of doing this on the fly”).
“I’m very upset about the whole thing,” Blacknell says. “I’m the ANC commissioner for Spingarn. I was not notified about this taking place. I didn’t really find out it was going on until March of this year.” She’s also concerned about the safety of the children on a campus with streetcars pulling in and out.
But Blacknell is no fan of the streetcar in the first place. She thinks it’ll give a boost to nearby nightlife, but not to her community.
“There are a lot of clubs down on H Street,” she says. “I think it’s a luxury thing for the ones that go down there and party on H Street late at night and everything.”
Is Spingarn the right place for a car barn for the inaugural H Street-Benning Road streetcar line, set to debut late next year but almost certain to be pushed into 2014 given the landmarking holdup? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the rollout has been botched badly, and there’s strong community opposition; on the other, the alternative potential locations all appear problematic, and the Gray administration continues to back the site on the grounds of cost and convenience.
But city officials do seem to consider it something of a foregone conclusion; Dara Ward of the District Department of Transportation tells me flatly, “The Spingarn site is the site of the Car Barn Training Center.” So neighbors who are fixated on the preservation aspect of the plans should take note of the other changes the streetcar is likely to bring—or at least has brought in the past. The first incarnation of the H Street-Benning Road streetcar more than a century ago helped turn the neighborhood from a sleepy residential area to a bustling commercial zone.
“H Street NE started as a residential street,” says Laura Trieschmann of EHT Traceries, who co-authored a lengthy study of the city’s streetcar history. “As soon as the streetcar came, commerce came in.”
Though not all neighbors will welcome the streetcar, the city expects similar benefits this time around. A January study commissioned by the Office of Planning predicted that property values would rise by 5 to 12 percent along streetcar corridors, with some of the strongest growth along the H Street-Benning Road segment, while demand for office development would increase by 15 percent.
And the city, for its part, should also learn a lesson from the past as it designs its car barn: If you want your barn to stand the test of time, at least make the thing pretty.
Photo of the Capital Traction Company Car Barn by Darrow Montgomery