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Standing across the street from an old, boarded-up house on Martin Luther King Avenue SE, Catherine Buell looks disapproving. “It’s almost like a smack in the face for the neighborhood,” she says, surveying the neglect. At ease under the blazing midday sun in a gauzy white top and pearl earrings, Buell—a Patton, Boggs attorney who moved to Anacostia in 2005—then picks her way across a debris-strewn parking lot into the historic district she’s made her home.
A graduate of Spelman College and Georgetown Law, Buell, 30, grew up in Silver Spring, not Anacostia. But she fell in love with a little house on Pleasant Street SE and soon found a community in the form of the half-social, half-civic Historic Anacostia Block Association.
In 2008, the group discovered a broken-down neighborhood’s El Dorado: the Historic Homeowner Grant program, a fund that releases up to $35,000 to owners of historic houses for renovations. Sixty-seven people applied and got funding, prompting a spate of upgrades across the once dignified locale. As a lawyer, Buell helped her neighbors work through the tax issues. And she served as an informal liaison between the neighborhood and the city’s Historic Preservation Office—which she found uniquely impressive.
“Typically when people come out to Ward 8, they don’t follow up. A month ago, we’ve had a string of burglaries, and the police officers were like, ‘It could be worse,’” says Buell (who was robbed at gunpoint in front of her house in 2007). “But the Preservation Office was very different. It was like a breath of fresh air….Finally, someone came out and took us seriously.”
Someone at the Wilson Building took Buell seriously, too. In 2008, she was appointed to the powerful Historic Preservation Review Board, which controls everything from small residential additions to the largest commercial developments. This week, she will take over as chair—a first-among-equals position roughly analogous to that of the Supreme Court’s chief justice.
She’ll have big shoes to fill. The departing chair, Tersh Boasberg, is a giant in the world of historic preservation. By 1990, the attorney had written three books on the subject, founded three organizations, and created an historic district around his house in Cleveland Park. In 2000, when Mayor Anthony Williams appointed him to chair the board, he was heading the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an influential advocacy group dedicated to protecting Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original D.C. plan from the would-be freeway builders and parking-lot moguls who might debase it. He’d also done a stint atop the city’s Zoning Commission, earning the enmity of developers by rezoning much of downtown to require the construction of housing and retail, not just office buildings.
Over the past 10 years, Boasberg pushed to amend the Historic Preservation Act seven times for greater strength and clarity, expanded the body of regulations from seven pages to 100, and helped pass a “demolition by neglect” statute that forces owners of historically designated buildings to keep them in good repair—just a few of the accomplishments on a list he’s also turned into a PowerPoint presentation for the classes he teaches at Georgetown Law and Goucher College.
The 75-year-old Boasberg, who’d crusaded unsuccessfully for term limits for board members, had planned to retire in July. But many in the preservation world were surprised to hear that Buell would take the reins a month early. As a newcomer to the perpetually wary preservationist community, she remains a relative unknown—and, therefore, a target of significant skepticism.
“I was not particularly pleased about the transition,” says Denise Johnson, a former director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who served on the Review Board until 2008. “I don’t feel that Catherine Buell has the level of experience to chair the board. I know she has a very strong interest in historic preservation, but it’s not her field.”
Others—especially those who will go before the board to argue for or against new projects—are more charitable, if somewhat reserved.
“She has experience in the community, which is always very good,” says Nancy Metzger, who leads the city’s Historic Districts Coalition. “I feel very good about the process that I’ve seen her going through, trying to educate herself.”
Still, many preservationists worry that nobody with a full-time job—like Buell—could match the hours Boasberg dedicated to the nominally paid position. As chair, he visited every project the board reviewed, sometimes making it a field trip for board members. (Boasberg himself says that the chair should probably be a paid, full-time position).
It’s not just Buell who’s making D.C.’s tribe of preservationists nervous. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s appointments to the board, critics say, lack the stature of their predecessors. Fenty ignored recommendations from groups like the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100, which had to lobby for Boasberg’s reappointment. When the mayor named design-build firm owner Chris Landis to replace the board’s sitting architectural historian, the National Park Service warned that the District was in danger of not meeting legal requirements for board member’ professional qualifications. (Meanwhile, Fenty has appointed two more developers to the five-person Zoning Commission, which has preservationists feeling under attack.)
“This board is one of the most powerful in the city, and you would want the most qualified people,” says Charles Robertson, a former board member who currently chairs the Committee of 100’s Historic Preservation committee. “Many of the people he appointed had never attended a meeting of the Review Board, had never read the act, to say nothing of the regulations.”
Boasberg, who says he’s never met Fenty, recommended Buell. After his departure, she will be the only attorney on the Review Board, which he says is important for keeping the body accountable to the law, as well as for pushing through applicants’ procedural arguments. He praises her intelligence, enthusiasm, and work in Anacostia. But Buell’s ascension is also about putting the best foot forward for a movement that’s always vulnerable to charges of elitism.
“I think she has a very nice presence,” Boasberg says. “She’s much more photogenic than I am. And I think she can be a spokesperson for historic preservation in general.”
Living in Anacostia has given Buell a different view of preservation than Boasberg’s Cleveland Park—in a developing neighborhood, historic preservation is a means of revitalization rather than a tool for maintaining the status quo. At the same time, restoring a house to its former glory can make it a target of crime as well as admiration (“You want it nice, but not too nice,” Buell notes.)
And being too hard-line in a place like Anacostia—or in Congress Heights, which Buell thinks is next in line for historic designation—can scuttle progress altogether. “What you don’t want to do is make it cost-prohibitive, because then you end up shooting yourself in the foot,” Buell says. “I think I’m going to be a lot more sensitive to it. I live it every day.”