Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Legal Protection for Stables & Small Alley Dwellings

September 11th 2012

Pressure to increase housing density in the city is increasing as D.C.'s population expansion continues. The utilitarian value of alleys is becoming increasingly recognized in this city and others, putting many small historic buildings like former stables and blacksmith shops and bicycle repair shops in danger of being razed without a second thought. This has already happened in Naylor Court and Blagden Alley despite recognition of the value of the collection of these historic buildings through the National Register of Historic Places. The Office of Planning is doing a survey of all of the major alleys in Washington and uncovering many hidden gems. Today National Trust lawyer Rob Nieweg (bio below) answered questions online through the Washington Post through the editorial guidance of Kathy Orton. The invitation for participation at the Washington Post is shown below.

Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 09/08/2012

Submit a question for the online chat on historic preservation and The Post’s Historic Home Contest

The Washington metro region has an abundance of historic homes — including everything from Georgian to Arts and Crafts, from Mid-century Modern to Farmhouse Vernacular, and from Federal style to International style — many of which have been lovingly restored to showcase their character-defining features.
Read more about the solid stock of historic gems in this area and view a photo gallery of the many architectural styles.
Rob Nieweg, the Washington field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will answer your questions about historic preservation on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. The Washington Post Real Estate editors will also join the chat to discuss the Historic Home Contest.



(1) What "real protection" does being named to the National Register of Historic Places confer on a collection of properties such as the stables in Naylor Court and Blagden Alley (accepted in 1990)? How do residents harness this protection?

(2) With a height restriction in a city that is only twelve miles wide, increasing living density in the city is refocussing discussions on the increased use of the many named alleys in Washington and their small buildings. How does the concept of a "mews" as a mix of commercial, residential and pedestrian activities enter the conversation of urban planning and historic preservation?
            September 10, 2012 7:03 PMPermalink

Thanks for your question.  In a nutshell, the National Register of Historic Places is a well-documented list of the historic resources which are worthy of preservation.  It's largely honorific.  On the other hand, under federal law, historic properties listed on the National Register (or eligible for listing) receive a measure of protection through what's called "Section 106 review."  It's a technical process, but one that's worth understanding if an historic place you value may be impacted by a federal undertaking.   Are the properties you mention threatened? 

In response to the first question, the buildings are not threatened by federal undertakings. They are simply at risk of demolition by developers who mistake or misrepresent carriage houses and stables for garages and tear them down. The value in the properties mentioned is in the collection rather than the strength of the individual small buildings. They are getting "picked of" one at a time.
            September 11, 2012 1:11 PMPermalink

Understood.  In this sort of situation, National Register listing would help raise awareness of the value of the buildings.  Raise awareness and galvanize support for preservation. 
However, designation pursuant to a local law, like DC's preservation ordinance, would provide legal protection for the historic buildings.  Many such local ordinances have "teeth" and would require that the property owner must secure advance approval from an expert commission before demolishing a historic building. 
Q#1 PART 2 
(a) Thank you for expanding on the issue of legal protection of threatened historic properties. It's also good that the DC Historic Preservation Office has a lawyer dedicated to issues such as this. (b) Can you please share your thoughts about the second part of my original question that relates to the concept of "mews"?
            September 11, 2012 1:26 PMPermalink

As for the place of the historic mews in a changing city, I'd offer two thoughts.  First, these special places contribute to the unique historic character of DC.  Wouldn't be the same place without them.  Second, even with the push for more density, the District's mews provide special opportunities for small-scale housing units.  Either way, the local community shouldn't lose its character without a good deal of careful planning (or, if necessary, a fight). 
      September 11, 2012 1:54 PM
I'd recommend that you and your allies should contact the National Trust's Forum Reference Desk via FORUM@nthp.org to share more background information regarding your preservation campaign.  Perhaps we can lend a hand. 
Thanks everyone for your good questions. And, thanks to The Washington Post for continuing coverage of preservation issues. Historic preservation has come a long way in recent years, and now has important roles to play in the social, educational, and economic lives of our community. I urge you to support your local, state, and national historic preservation organizations.

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg is the Field Director & Attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Washington Field Office, which works to save historic resources in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He has worked as a preservation advocate since 1989, when he directed Landmark West, a citizens group working to preserve Manhattan's Upper West Side. Since joining the staff of the National Trust in 1995, Rob has worked to preserve historic places and strengthen the grass-roots preservation movement in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia - his home state. Rob Nieweg holds a BA in history from Vassar College and an MS in historic preservation from Columbia University. He is a graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School and a member of the New York State Bar.

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