Balancing Preservation and Development in the Rapidly Growing Capital

Posted on: October 17th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


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 works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

How We Threaten Our Own Legacy: Guest Post from Knute "Mossback" Berger

Posted on: August 28th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Knute Berger (aka "Mossback") covers heritage issues for Crosscut in Seattle. He is also is editor-at-large and columnist for Seattle magazine and a regular guest of Weekday with Steve Scher on NPR affiliate KUOW-FM (94.9). Knute will lead a wide-ranging discussion on sustainability and preservation at the Closing Plenary Luncheon of the National Preservation Conference on Saturday, November 3, 2012. Register and buy tickets at the conference website.

Every year for the last two decades, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has issued its Most Endangered list of historic structures. It's a useful exercise for raising public awareness before the wrecking ball has swung. The properties are nominated and their endangered status decided on an individual basis, but sometimes the list carries a general message.

Scanning 2012's listees, it's clear that while private development can pose a threat to historic properties -- see the recent Capitol Hill outcry over the Bauhaus block and old homes being knocked down for apartments  --  the trouble is often caused by government, public entities, and public projects.

There are many reasons for this. One is that such entities often believe that their will embodies an unquestioned public good, and the bulldozers should roll because they are serving a higher purpose. It's a kind of institutional arrogance that often loses sight of other values.

Another problem is that sometimes government departments are simply overwhelmed by responsibility because they are underfunded by the public. They have a duty to protect historic properties under their care, but lack the means to do so.

That last point is made very clearly on this year's endangered list, which breaks a bit with its usual custom to generally designate the "Resources of Washington’s State Park System" as endangered, instead of a single property. But such trendspotting is useful. The parks system has more than 600 historic properties under its care, ranging from lighthouses to WPA picnic shelters.

According to the Trust, the state parks department "is the single largest owner of historic buildings in the state. Recent economic woes, however, have made it increasingly challenging for the agency to sustain the needed level of maintenance at parks statewide, let alone address mounting capital needs."

Parks funding has been cut by two-thirds since the 2007-09 biennium. The parks budget is being slashed and off-loaded by the state legislature, and parks pass sales are coming in under projection. Washington is faced with converting to a pay-for-use system for parks (most states already do this). Like toll roads, it's a shift in public expectation. But the fact is, with staff and budget cuts, hundreds of historic buildings are threatened with neglect, deferred maintenance, increased vandalism, and decay unless solutions to the state parks' collapse are found.

Another endangered site: the King County-owned Harborview Hall, the fabulous Art Deco former nursing school on First Hill. Harborview Medical Center has a master plan which calls for knocking the building down for a plaza, but preservationists are fighting that and King County Executive Dow Constantine has rightly jumped in and asked for an assessment of redevelopment scenarios that save the historic structure.

Haborview Hall is not the only structure on the hill jeopardized by hospital development: a number of wonderful old apartment houses are at risk from Virginia-Mason's master plan process. They include The Baroness, the Cassel Crag, the Chasselton, and the Rhododendron, which the Trust says "comprise a cluster of historic apartment buildings along Boren Street near Madison Avenue significant for their architectural styles and their association with multi-family residential development."

Yes, single-family dominant Seattle also has a wonderful multi-family housing tradition, of which these fine buildings are all a part and they add much to the heritage of what is one of the city's densest neighborhoods. Density advocates would be wise to get on the preservation bandwagon here, because the success of these buildings and their character could do much to sell the concept to a city that is skeptical.

The list also has an example of a historic hospital building threatened by a major public highway project: The Post Hospital at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve. This wonderful old structure sits empty right along I-5, and locals hope to convert it into an arts center. While it is not slated for demolition, the Columbia River Crossing project is slated to widen I-5 and would bring the freeway from the hospital's front yard to four-to-six feet from its doorstep. Noise, fumes, and structural challenges would all worsen.

Yet another project on the list with a public threat: Washington State University's decision to sell the historic Jensen-Byrd warehouse in Spokane to a private developer that intends to destroy it. Local preservationists are fighting hard still for a last-minute reconsideration; the building is slated for demolition in 2013. A delay has offered a sliver of hope.

This year's list brings to mind the Pogo line, "We have met the enemy and he is us." On the one hand, public policy has enshrined heritage concerns into law; on the other, public purpose often chooses to ignore the spirit, and often the letter, of historic preservation. The good news is that with the help of groups like the Trust, we can also meet the saviors in these situations. He or she is us, too.

A version of this blog post first appeared on on May 29, 2012.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Making Change — Guest Post by "Story of Stuff" Creator Annie Leonard

Posted on: August 17th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments


Annie Leonard is the director of the Story of Stuff Project and author of The Story of Stuff. The Story of Stuff has generated over 15 million views in more than 200 countries and territories since its launch, making it one of the most successful environmental-themed viral films of all time. Annie will be speaking at the opening plenary session of the National Preservation Conference on Wednesday, October 31.

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately. Seems like everyone, on every side of the political spectrum, is calling for change. It’s the topic of the relentless campaign ads leading up to the November election. The number one question we get from the thousands of our movie viewers who write to us is “how can I make change?” There’s so much interest in making change that we decided to tackle the topic head on with our most recent movie, The Story of Change. This latest film explains the three things needed to make change: a good idea of how things could be better, a commitment to work together, and engaged citizens taking action.

While making change requires a forward thinking perspective, it doesn’t require turning our back on the past. In fact, the best type of change is built on foundations of the past -- both the intellectual foundation and the built foundation.  Clearly our ideas about how to run an economy need change; the current model just isn’t working for the majority of the world’s people or for the overstressed planet. But rather than write off the past completely and risk repeating familiar mistakes, let’s study the past and glean lessons about what has and what hasn’t worked. And then let’s keep striving to do things better. The same goes for our built environment. We’ve learned much in recent decades about designing buildings and whole cities to nurture healthy people, healthy communities and a healthy environment. In some cases, positive change does mean humbly scraping past mistakes and building anew. Other times it means preserving and holding dear the buildings and spaces in which our society has developed  to date.

In this moment of political stuckness, I’m often asked if I still think change is possible. Change is more than possible; it’s inevitable. Right now, we’re using more resources than the planet can regenerate and creating more waste than it can assimilate. Sheer physical limits dictate that we can’t continue on this trajectory indefinitely. So the question is not if we’ll change, but how. Will we change by design, or by disaster? Either way, change is coming. If we chose to change by design, it is going to be hard work ahead, but we can be so much more strategic and intelligent about making that change. If we dig our heels in, refusing to critically assess where we’re headed and to start designing a better way forward, we’ll still change, but it will be a whole lot harder and uglier.

I’m convinced that we have what it takes to change by design. We have visionary thinkers and builders and communicators. We have innovative new technologies to meet human needs without trashing the planet. We have a rich history of citizens working together to solve big problems.

Preserving the best of the past while aiming high for a healthy, sustainable and just future, we can make change together. I look forward to meeting you at the National Preservation Conference in Spokane this fall to explore more about making change and building a better future for all.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Learning Spokane’s History One Field Trip at a Time

Posted on: August 15th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment


The Grand Coulee Dam on Washington's Columbia River.

Field trips might have been my number one favorite thing growing up. It was school, but not school. Learning without a blackboard and desk. Travel without parents -- unless you were the kid who ended up with a parent as a chaperone.

Sometimes it was a science museum, other times trips to Lexington and Concord, or Colonial Williamsburg -- but always it involved learning through place.

As adults we still experience that thrill, it’s a little less structured (after all, we are our own chaperones), but there is still that sense of experiencing a place by exploring.

Somehow this has become the year of travel for me -- and once I come back from New Mexico next week it’ll be full steam ahead for the Pacific Northwest where I will be attending the National Preservation Conference  at the end of October, probably my last “field trip” for the year.

Here are a few of my preconceptions:

  1. Spokane is going to be beautiful.
  2. The area has an incredibly rich and varied Native American history.
  3. Washington is one of the states on the forefront of energy development and sustainability

For a preservationist this leads naturally to some exciting field trip possibilities. For example, I know that one field session (called “Hot Dam!”) will take attendees to the Grand Coulee Dam. One of the largest electric power-producing facilities, the tour will go behind the scenes of this industrial site, offering a glimpse of water power in the Northwest.  I didn’t know I would love industrial heritage until I stepped onto the site of an abandoned mill and experienced what some call "the technological sublime" (so massive it's awe-inspiring). Having never been to the Hoover Dam, this trip feels like a great opportunity.

Or, if I want a personalized tour of the American Indian Archives at the Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) I’m going to hop on the bus for “A Coyote in the Henhouse.”  This isn’t the only opportunity to learn about native culture at the conference (we’re having a Pow Wow on Thursday night), but I’m excited at the possibility of seeing so many objects not on public display.

And then for those of us who love green building, multiple field trips that will let you see “Sustainability in Action," with unparalleled access to award-winning preservation and LEED certified buildings.

What can we learn about Spokane through field trips such as these? On one hand there's a multi-faceted view of the city: a sense of the industrial past and present, the Native American heritage, and the commitment of the preservation community to preserving green. In melding all of these trips together we’ll experience more than just a conference center, rather we'll get a broader sense of place for the Pacific and Inland Northwest.

Are you attending the National Preservation Conference? Learn more about great field sessions on our Staff Picks page!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.


Nikki Giovanni is a widely-read American poet, equality activist, professor of English at Virginia Tech, and the keynote speaker at this week's National Rosenwald Schools Conference. Built over the past 45 years, her collection of poetry is some of the most influential on issues of black American culture and experience.

We are excited for her to lend her voice to the issue of preserving the Rosenwald Schools -- the 4,977 mostly humble buildings paid for by businessman-turned-philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and built by community members throughout 15 states between 1912 and 1932, specifically to educate black children.

Left: A Mural of Giovanni's "Revolutionary Dreams" poem on 113th Street in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to ask Nikki Giovanni some questions leading up to her time at the conference. Take a look below, then tune in on Twitter on Saturday, June 16, at 10:30 a.m. CDT, where we'll live-tweet her plenary session from our @PresNationLive account.

What were your first feelings or takeaways after learning about the history of the Rosenwald Schools?

As a history major at Fisk University I was, of course, aware of the Rosenwald Schools and their marvelous history.  I remember thinking how wonderful that people reached out to help the newly freed folk who had the desire and the talent but were not given the tools.  I consider the Rosenwald schools right up there with the Carnegie Libraries:  something needed to help those who had been denied not just an education but a personhood to begin to emerge from the shadows.

What do you find most compelling about the schools?

The most compelling aspect is still the correct reason: a people without access to education cannot go forward.  The Sears/Roebuck family [Julius Rosenwald was the president of Sears until 1924] were terrific partners as many in the black community felt that Roebuck was a black American and was simply giving back to those who had helped him.

The Rosenwald Schools are important, but off the radar for many Americans. What actions do you think would better get them into the public eye?

A lot of black history is off radar, as is a lot of white history.  Why do we have classic films of gangsters but not union workers?  Why does every kid in America know Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Billy the Kid and any other robber and thief but not A. Phillip Randolph and the great story of the Pullman Porters? The only cure for ignorance and hatred is education and truth.  Words are as meaningful as places.

Who or what do you hope the Rosenwald Schools inspire?

I hope these schools remind us what our ancestors have endured to bring us this far.  It has been a good journey, but we still have a ways to go.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.