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Whenever you hear about some ridiculous form of historic preservation overreach, it’s probably from the Old Georgetown Board, the three-member panel that reviews and approves every significant architectural change and new development in that historic district. There was the long, drawn out process of getting an Apple Store design that would look no different from the buildings to its left and right. There was the absurd remark from one board member about how there should be no activity on the roof of EastBanc’s new development on the Exxon station for fear of “fat people in bikinis.”
Most recently, the OGB has objected to plans for a two-story window on the M Street facade of the Shops at Georgetown Park, saying that “it’s not appropriate for this facade, or for Georgetown” (despite the fact that at least one other retailer, Cusp, already has one). Large windows are the kind of thing that large-format retailers are looking for these days, but apparently Georgetown can’t handle anything that wouldn’t have been built in 1900.
But let’s put aside the substance of the board’s requirements of architects and developers. Why does Georgetown have an additional level of review anyway? Remember, it’s only one of the several bars a project has to clear: There’s also the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, often the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and sometimes the Historic Preservation Review Board as well.
The Old Georgetown Board’s three members are appointed by the seven-member Commission on Fine Arts, of whom are themselves appointed by the President of the United States. But the OGB, established in 1950 by an act of Congress in response to the demolition of many historic waterfront buildings to make way for the Whitehurst freeway, has much broader authority than its parent organization, looking at facades and small additions to private buildings rather than just large public projects and monuments.
Twenty eight years later, the District passed its own comprehensive historic preservation legislation, currently enshrined in Division 1, Title 6, Chapter 11 of the D.C. code. From that, historic districts have been created in dozens of neighborhoods, and none of them has any special protection like Georgetown. The District’s Historic Preservation Office and Historic Preservation Review Board have proven themselves more than equal to protecting the city’s historic resources. Why should another federal body be needed? Why make businesses and residents kowtow to the aesthetic whims and preferences of three people appointed by seven people who were probably too far down on the chain of appointments for the president to even notice?*
* Edited to reflect the fact that District residents do, in fact, vote for the president, thanks to the 23rd Amendment.