Written by Ari Gefen, Public Affairs Intern
Streetscape in Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, Washington DC.
On Friday, October 12, I had the pleasure of attending two of the afternoon sessions at the DC Preservation League's 2012 Conference at the Charles Sumner School. The talks gave great insight into unique concerns that preservationists face in a city that is changing at an intense pace.
The first talk I attended was on streetscapes, which may not be what you think they are. Streetscapes are the trees, planters, and other breaks in the concrete and asphalt that line every street in Washington, DC.
These small patches of flora make the District one of the best stewards of green space within a dense urban center in the country, and are actually quite historic in nature. In fact, these streetscapes date all the way back to the Parking Act of 1870. Facing road deterioration due to weather and Civil War troop movements, as well as severe budgetary restraints, Congress came up with the inventive solution of “parking” its roads.
This parking created a distinctive “greenprint” for DC streets that now covers over 9,000 acres of space on District sidewalks. Besides providing practical benefits such as reducing crime, flooding, and pollution, these parking spaces also create a pleasant and consistent aesthetic that makes DC one of the most walkable cities in the nation.
Trees and planters on the sidewalks are probably not the first thoughts that pop into people’s mind when they think of DC, but this talk definitely made the point that the small things in a city are also an important part of what makes it great.
The second seminar concerned the subject of new developments in historic districts, and covered a wide array of approaches to the issue. The first speaker, James Appleby, spoke about the Bryan School, a disused but historic property in his neighborhood that was falling into disrepair.
Through the formation of a neighborhood association with the school as its landmark property, Appleby was able to work with developers to reuse the school as condominiums, revitalizing a community around a property that most people had written off.
Mural in U St. corridor, Washington DC.
Sheryl Walter, who is the current head of the U Street Neighborhood Association, discussed the challenge of maintaining the historic nature of a community that has become a serious entertainment hub with very desirable and underdeveloped space.
Though Walter seemed mostly welcoming of the massive development coming to her neighborhood, she was attempting to restrain overambitious and tall development that would obscure the nature of the neighborhood. Considering the breakneck pace of development in the U Street corridor, however, it was unclear how much power her community will be able to wield in holding back the onslaught of apartment complexes and retail space.
The third speaker spoke about perhaps the most unique preservation concern -- preservation of a community, rather than a building. Jim Myers lived through and wrote extensively on the horrible murders and mismanagement surrounding the Kentucky Courts public housing project in the 1990s. The Kentucky Courts were built in the modernist style and at first created a successful community in Capitol Hill East. Its interconnected stairwells and open courtyard fomented a sense of togetherness and encouraged neighborly interaction.
However, the same elements that made Kentucky Courts a pleasant place to live eventually came to serve a different purpose, as the building began to fall apart and its passageways became a perfect setting for a gang fortress in the 1990s. Through strong community activism, and with eventual cooperation from the DC government, Myers and his neighbors were finally able to bring down the infamous project and replace it with mixed income housing funded by a private-public partnership.
Myers’ story brought up an interesting point about the diversity of preservation that I believe was well presented in these conference sessions. Preservation often focuses on a particular building or neighborhood, but the preservation of community and character is equally important.
The talks I attended demonstrated that preservation moving forward will have to address both issues while also accommodating necessary change. Successfully navigating these challenges will ensure that DC remains the captivating place it is today, even as it continues to grow at a rapid rate.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.