Community Home & Style News — 20 October 2011
Has preservation impeded progress?

When Bradley King tore down the aged chain-link fence in front of his Earl Street row house last spring, he thought he was removing blight, but city staff saw King’s action as destroying a piece of the neighborhood’s history.

King, who lives in Alexandria’s Parker-Gray historic district, was called before the Board of Architectural Review, which ultimately let him off — but not before forcing him to pay the $250 appearance fee. For his troubles, he received a nine-page city report detailing the historic significance of his former fence.

“Anyone who I [tell] that this is regulated historic property, their first reaction is to laugh out loud,” said King, whose home dates back to 1955. “The things we preserve in society — we preserve things that are old, things that are unique and special and things of extremely high quality or connected to historic people or events … My home meets none of [these standards].”

Yet the city government deems King’s chain-link fence historic because it is a “character defining feature of these minimally-designed vernacular buildings,” according to the report he received.

Now King and several of his neighbors are questioning the city guidelines regulating changes to homes within the district’s boundaries and the BAR’s purview over homeowners. Roughly two dozen of them, many upset with the status quo, complained about what they see as governmental overreach during a fiery meeting with City Preservationist Al Cox hosted by the West Old Town Citizens Association last week.

It’s reaching a boiling point among community residents, said Leslie Zupan, association president. When the historic district was created in the early 1980s — a contentious proposal, according to the Washington Post’s coverage of its passage — the idea was to limit the development residents feared would come with the newly opened King Street and Braddock Road Metro stations.

These days, some homeowners complain the presence of the district, which requires residents get approval for anything from replacing their home’s windows to uprooting a rusting fence, is overly burdensome.

“The issue goes back to [this]: Are the rules fair, are they common sense, do they make economic sense and what is it we’re trying to preserve?” Zupan said.

PRESERVING WHAT?

When he appeared before the BAR, King recalled looking at the giant, faded map of Alexandria on the rear wall of city council chambers with a touch of irony: his street was nothing more than an empty field when cartographers drew it up.

What is the government trying to preserve in Parker-Gray? That question is a source of confusion for homeowners wondering why City Hall has a say in their home improvements.

The neighborhood, an eclectic mix of American architecture from all eras, is recognized as one of the city’s traditional black neighborhoods. While it’s celebrated as a black enclave, the roughly 40 blocks comprising the district also were home to whites, several mayors and people across the socioeconomic spectrum over the years.

“With the emphasis on chain-link fences versus white picket fences, is the city trying to capture a branding of the neighborhood when it was mostly black or celebrate all of its history?” Zupan asked. “It was not always a poor neighborhood, it was a jumble of things. In fact, it’s a much richer and more interesting neighborhood than we feel the city has given it credit for.”

It’s not a question of which homes or blocks are historic, but whether the neighborhood as a whole possesses historical significance, Cox said. It may be on the west side of Washington Street, but it remains part of Old Town, he said.

“An 1890 townhouse on Columbus Street is every bit as historic as an 1890 townhouse on South Pitt Street,” Cox said. “There is a misperception that there are cultural and racial reasons for that district. I’ve heard historians and neighbors say, ‘Oh this is where all of the industry was’ or ‘this is where the railroads were, poor people lived in this quadrant.’ That is pure nonsense. Yes, those [things happened in Parker-Gray]. They also happened in all three other quadrants in Old Town.”

Today, the district protects a glimpse at the city’s development throughout every era, he said.

Homeowner Brendan Owens shares Cox’s opinions. He’s worked on two homes within the district, the first time running afoul of the BAR’s regulations. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, he recalled, but when he began work on his second home he went to the planning department first and appreciated their guidance.

For him, it’s a trade-off.

“Anybody who says [the regulations are] not a burden probably hasn’t done it,” he said. “But the reality is when you look at what we derive from having these protections in place and the things that we are retaining … it seems to me its worth it.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Though Zupan and King criticize the regulations and the BAR’s enforcement of the guidelines, neither is explicitly calling for the abolishment of the district, which would require action by the city council.

King, who serves as the Braddock Station Civic Association’s vice president, is pushing to have the regulations overhauled in a way that gives homeowners more control over what they can do on their property.

Cox, too, recognizes his office needs to do a better job of interacting with residents. They haven’t been good enough at letting people know what it means to live in a historic district, he said.

They’ve tried to streamline the process, giving staff the authority to approve projects — thus saving residents from waiting for the BAR’s monthly meeting — and they may further amend the regulations to exclude newer homes. City staff is willing to work with any homeowner, Cox said, except for those who flaunt the rules.

“We’re going to be able to work through almost everything [residents are] concerned about, except for people who do something they know they’re not supposed to do,” he said. “I can’t help them.”

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