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The Historic Preservation Office has had to deal with some gnarly demolition-by-neglect cases recently. In deciding whether to grant a landlord’s request to take down their decrepit building, staff have to weigh how much historical integrity the structure retains, how egregiously the owner has allowed it to deteriorate, and whether it would be possible to rebuild.
For its November meeting, the staff have come out with recommendations on two notable raze applications. On one, the Third Street Church of God has asked to demolish three houses on New Jersey Avenue NW in order to make room for more parking. On a second, the District wants to raze one house on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE that it bought from the negligent Kushners last year and plans to redevelop. Both are second attempts; the Board had denied raze applications for each property in the past.
The preservation office held firm on the New Jersey Avenue buildings, arguing that the facades are intact enough to be worth preserving, and that giving in to the Church’s desire would send the wrong message:
The Board has always stood against approving razes of buildings brought to a state of dilapidation by lack of maintenance, as approval would not only result in the loss of historic fabric and character in the particular, but would reward and encourage such neglect in general. Just as reconstruction is an appropriate remedy for unpermitted active demolition, so is rehabilitation the appropriate remedy for passive demolition. Demolition of this structure is contrary to the purposes of the preservation law, and specifically its intent ‘to retain and enhance those properties which contribute to the character of the historic district and to encourage their adaptation for current use.’
On the MLK property, however, even though it’s a more historically significant structure, staff are recommending that the District’s application be granted. The building is mostly gone, but more importantly, the perpetrator is out of the picture. “The requirement of the replacement of a building that has already been essentially demolished by neglect is a remedy only appropriately applied to the owner who allowed it to reach that state, just as the owner of a property actively razed without permit can be required to rebuild it,” staff wrote.
In these two recommendations—-which the Board may disagree with, but likely won’t—-the preservation office is taking into account the prospects for redevelopment of the two sites, and the goodwill shown by each applicant, not just historical merit alone. The Third Street Church of God may see it as unfair that one city agency grants another city agency permission to raze a building it bought from someone who had let it deteriorate beyond repair, while punishing a religious institution for doing the same thing. In this case, though, I think that’s probably reasonable. And if the Church doesn’t want to deal with rehabilitation, it can just sell the properties, like it should have done years ago.