Bloomingdale Deemed Historic
After years of planning, research and debate, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) has designated Bloomingdale an historic neighborhood. Following arguments from residents and community stakeholders both for and against the historic designation, the board decided to bestow Bloomingdale with the protections that the historic designation provides.
It all started with a pop-up at 42 W Street NW. Eager to prevent future development uncharacteristic of the surroundings, neighbors brought the subject of changing facades to the forefront of the meetings of the Bloomingdale Civic Association (BCA), whose leaders decided they would remain neutral until a consensus was emerged about a solution. Through that process, a small advocacy group was formed of neighbors with a deep interest in the issue, and they decided to pursue the idea of historic designation.
That group, the Bloomingdale Historic Designation Coalition (BHDC), was the first to present at the hearing. Pat Mitchell and Jim Myers laid out the background of what had occurred in the neighborhood around this issue, both the advocacy and the decision-making. They laid out their proposal for the importance of designation to “keep the bloom in Bloomingdale.” Mitchell declared, “Areas that don’t have ‘it’ invent ‘it.’ We have ‘it’ so let’s preserve ‘it.’”
Their presentation was followed by a lecture about the history of Bloomingdale by Prologue DC, a team of Washington-based historians, and an explanation of how the neighborhood fits into the criteria for designation.
There are two major categories of criteria for designating a neighborhood historic: significance and integrity. An area must be significant to the course of history, and its architecture must be significant to and evocative of an era. The physical integrity of the area must be preserved – if there are no structures left from when the important events happened, there is nothing to deem historic (with notable exceptions such as Jamestown).
The Bloomingdale Civic Association offered a statement of support. President Teri Janine Quinn relayed the process by which the BCA members came to their vote of support for the measure, outlining the ways that information was disseminated to the community, but stating frankly that the vote of support was from dues-paying members of the BCA.
But what about the community as a whole – those who aren’t members of the BCA? Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Horacio Sierra was next to present to the review board, and he provided greater insight into the education and advocacy done around the issue. Presenting a different take on community support, he stated that the majority of residents voted against historic designation when asked through a postcard survey conducted by the BCA. The advisory neighborhood commission (ANC), he said, “finds that the more comprehensive survey … should be given greater weight as a form of direct democracy.” He remarked that many in the neighborhood cannot attend the BCA meetings or pay the BCA dues, thereby limiting their voting rights in this arena.
The BCA spent $3,000 on a targeted mailer that sent a postcard to each resident within the borders of the proposed district and asked them to fill out and send back whether they wanted historic designation. It was stated in a one-sentence question with a yes or no answer. Only 16 percent of cards were returned, and of those, 55 percent (282) were against and 45 percent (234) were for designation.
Jim Meyers of the BHDC argued that the survey was not representative of the neighbors who would be most affected by historical designation – that it was only sent to property owners and not business owners or tenants, and many property owners own multiple properties and could have answered multiple times. The postcard survey was only meant to serve as an informational tool to get a sense of what the neighborhood was thinking about designation before BCA members took their own vote on the subject. Ultimately, the BCA voted (by a close margin) in favor of pursuing designation.
But the ANC, seeing the survey as a sign of the will of the people, opposed the designation, suggesting that individual buildings could be preserved piecemeal instead of forcing and entire neighborhood into new guidelines.
Commissioner Bertha Holliday was the only ANC member to speak in support of designation. Bloomingdale’s distinctive, late-19th-century Victorian and early-20th-century architecture “and its rich social and cultural histories and tradition of activism and leadership with both local and national impact, are fully deserving of the status and protection of historic district designation, especially now as Bloomingdale seeks to reinvent itself as an engaged, multicultural, socially and economically diverse and stable residential neighborhood in the heart of DC.”
In the end, the HPRB voted unanimously to designate Bloomingdale as historic. All criteria boxes had been checked. The neighborhood is historically significant, and a huge percentage of the neighborhood remains intact to the historic period. That is all that mattered in the board’s final decision. Community support, while desired, the board said, was not part of the consideration.
Moving forward, however, community input will be welcomed and accepted as the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) works to tweak the rules for facades that will now be enacted in Bloomingdale. The guidelines have already been impacted by some discussions by stakeholders, such as exemptions for doors and windows.
HPO originally released its initial guidelines when notice was sent to the community that the hearing was being held and that remarks from the public were welcome. Review Board Chair Marnique Heath stated that HPO would be working closely with the ANC and BCA to ensure that the community was able to have a voice in the manner in which the designation will be enforced.
Councilman Kenyan McDuffie responded to the news of Bloomingdale’s historic preservation with optimism and caution. “Celebrating and protecting history is important, particularly in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital. While historic districts certainly contribute to preservation, I remain concerned about unintended consequences, primarily on long-term residents. As policymakers, we must strike a balance between preserving neighborhood history and character, while not over-burdening residents. Historic preservation should be equitable and not have a deleterious effect on the cultural fabric of DC.”
Taylor Barden Golden is a real estate agent with The Stokes Group at McEnearney Associates Inc. A former Hill staffer, Taylor lives in Brentwood with her husband, two dogs and a cat. She’s always on the lookout for new places to explore and ways to spend time outside. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org; @rtaylorb.