American University has been fighting the neighborhood on several fronts to get approval for a campus plan that includes moving its law school to the former Immaculata Seminary at Yuma Street and Nebraska Avenue NW. Naturally, one of them has to do with preservation: The Tenleytown Historical Society has submitted a landmark application for the entire block, and even though it hasn’t yet come before the Historic Preservation Review Board, AU has had to plan with the expectation that nothing may be able to change.
The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, thinks the preservationists have gone overboard. Last week, it passed a three-page resolution with 26 Whereas clauses outlining the ways in which the landmark application is excessive and has unnecessarily confined AU’s ability to design an attractive, useful campus. “While there is little dispute that Capitol Hall merits designation, the balance of the campus, including the reconstructed Dunblane House, have little historicity meritorious for designation,” it reads. Other dubiously valuable buildings include three 1950s-era residence halls and a chapel constructed in 1921, the preservation of which complicates the creation of inviting campus spaces.
Along the way, says commissioner Jon Bender, State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney plays an outsized role in the development of the new campus, which ends up influencing outcomes in ways the public may not understand. The ANC’s resolution also complains that having to plan around a landmark application has also “adversely affected” modernization of the Tenleytown Fire Station, Janney Elementary School, and Wilson High School.
“What ultimately happens is that David Maloney becomes a senior design partner. David Maloney works with these folks to shape something that he believes—-and usually correctly believes—-is going to pass muster with HPRB,” Bender says. “It’s kind of a black box for the rest of the community why some things are foreclosed. It’s bad public policy to have a situation where this stuff takes place in the shadows.”
American University itself is more diplomatic. Assistant Vice President for Facilities Development and Real Estate Jorge Abud says that since they’ve known from the beginning that the campus was likely to be designated as historic, they were able to plan around it, with a few changes. “If we had a blank slate, the law school would be in one unified building,” he says. “What we’re doing now is doing three buildings. One an existing historic structure, and two others connected to it.”
On the flip side of Bender’s frustration: Maloney’s involvement is also a way to smooth the road towards historic designation, preventing a situation where a development application is rejected entirely by the Board, which adds time and expense. The bigger problem, it seems, comes with allowing the preservation of buildings with little historic value in a configuration that makes little sense get in the way of enlightened urban design.
There may also be an element here of the famous Tenleytown tendency to try to minimize development just for the hell of it, which would be another sad abuse of the District’s historic preservation law.