Modernizing historic preservation regulations

Modernizing historic preservation regulations

By Erich Wagner

Historic preservation officials and west Old Town residents hope newly relaxed regulations will help Parker-Gray homeowners more easily care for their property.

The city planning commission voted unanimously earlier this month to ease rules governing home repairs and modifications in the historic district, particularly for houses built after 1932.

Historic home maintenance has been a contentious topic in the Parker-Gray neighborhood for years. Longtime residents point out that even the initial decision to label the district as historic in 1984 — protecting the area from development with the advent of the nearby Braddock Road Metro station — wasn’t unanimous.

Until recently, any home repair, modification or maintenance proposal included a mandated hearing before the Board of Architectural Review, a costly endeavor that residents said often ended with inconsistent requirements throughout the neighborhood.
 “I know people who were charged more in fees for small construction proposals than the cost of the project they were undertaking,” said Leslie Zupan, secretary of the West Old Town Citizens Association and a member of the workgroup tasked with updating regulations.

City preservationist Al Cox said the altered guidelines — combined with city efforts over the past few years to shift minor modifications to a solely administrative process — will serve as a windfall to residents. Owners of homes built after 1932 will experience a much shorter and more lenient process, and everyone can use more modern materials when repairing a facade that doesn’t face the street.

Cox said the updated rules are simpler and eliminate much of the confusion that has — until recently — been synonymous with BAR reviews.

“We deal with 400-something cases [citywide] a year, so it’s much easier to say on the phone, ‘If the facade faces the street, use historically appropriate materials,’” Cox said. “You can touch and feel those as you walk down the sidewalks, so those need to be authentic. But looking through an alley, the sides and the back aren’t as important.”

Zupan said that while the workgroup represented widespread opinions — from keeping everything as-is to removing the historic district altogether — the final product is a commonsense solution.

“Even the rule changes on the side and rear elevations are historically based,” she said. “Even the grandest of houses in Old Town used the best materials on the front but used secondary materials on the sides and back.

“That’s the way they were built. People didn’t invest in the finest materials on all sides and tended to economize on the sides and rear for the same reasons that we do.”

With the home-maintenance process becoming simpler and quicker, Cox said that staff must communicate more with residents about the updated regulations.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding until recently, and mea culpa, the staff deserves some of the blame,” Cox said. “With 50 percent of people moving every five years, your audience changes, so you’ve got to keep proactively talking to the community. We were on that treadmill trying to process applications all day long, and we weren’t doing enough outreach.”

As part of that effort, city staff has come up with a pamphlet to explain the streamlined process.

“You can look at your project, and say if it’s the front elevation and pre-1932, you may have to have a full BAR review with hearings, or if it’s something else, it could be staff-only or no review at all, sort of a decision tree,” Cox said. “And if you don’t know how old your house is, you can call staff and we have a map to help determine what you need to do.”

Why 1932? Cox said that the group picked the year for two reasons.

Historically, 1932 marked the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth as well as the dedications of the George Washington Masonic Memorial and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

And culturally, 1932 started the shift from traditional pre-Industrial residential construction to newer housing built for workers involved in New Deal programs and the pre-World War II military buildup.

Cox said that while the update has been preliminarily approved, city council will take up the proposal for final adoption in September.