Why Should The Character Of Streets Be Constant?

Historic preservation, as I used to understand the term, is about the idea that cities contain structures that are worth preserving. It might be more economically efficient to do strip-mining in the Grand Canyon, but aesthetically it would be a scandal. By the same token, you don’t want to just tear down beautiful old buildings willy-nilly. The block that my office is on features a very nice old church whose space could probably be more profitably occupied by a boxy DC office. The case that the district should forego some economic benefit in order to preserve the aesthetic benefit of maintaining the church seems perfectly cogent, even if not persuasive in all cases. But in practice, an awful lot of what our Historic Preservation Review Board does seems to me to be quite different. They look not at old structures, but at proposals for new ones that happen to be near old structures. And then they issue decisions on the basis of the alleged principle that new things should all be made to resemble old things, and neighborhoods should always look the same.

So you get stories like this. The following decidedly non-historic structure is located inside a “historic district”:

The owner wants to replace it with something like this:

Meh. But apparently that’s what they want to do. And it’s not like the loss of the Capital Carpeting building or Yum Carryout entails some kind of monstrous aesthetic loss. What’s more, this is a great neighborhood. I used to live in the vicinity, but I don’t anymore because I couldn’t afford to live there without roommates. We should all applaud the construction of a sizable structure there that will increase the number of people who can enjoy this great community. But the HPRB says we can’t because everything has to be the same forever:

HPRB asked architect Eric Colbert to redesign the project, with particular attention to the Wallach Street setback. HPRB chair Catherine Buell told me that the board felt this “will change character of this narrow street in particular,” and that the board “has consistently ruled that buildings have to be set back.”

David Alpert mounts the case that the “character” of the street will survive. But, really, what’s the principle operating here? How did the street get to be how it is now in the first place? Surely not via rigorous enforcement of the rule that nothing is allowed to change.

Neighborhood busybodies Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein who are against the project are at least more honest. They don’t actually care about preservation or history or anything else. Instead what happens is that they currently enjoy access to public land at sub-market prices and they don’t want to share that subsidized parking with other people. “Traffic whizzing down Wallach will increase,” they whine, “and street parking (which is to say what barely exists now) will evaporate.” It would be much healthier if we could actually debate these kind of issues within these kind of parameters rather than based on made-up aesthetic principles. Johnson and Brownstein’s desire to maximize their access to government-provided subsidies and their hesitancy to share those subsidies with anyone else is very understandable. At the same time, the subsidized access to DC-owned land that they don’t want to give up is being provided to them by the city as a whole. I live a mile away from there and don’t benefit at all from giving Johnson and Brownstein privileged access to subsidized street parking. But I would benefit from adding more taxpaying members to the overall community. And obviously people like me far, far, far outnumber people like Johnson and Brownstein who currently enjoy cheap parking on that block. Indeed, the city’s poor residents — the ones who really depend on public services and who seriously feel the pinch when the city needs to cut spending — are the ones who really lose out here in the quest for rich people to hold on to their subsidies.