Kent, a historic enclave in Northwest Washington, fights to keep McMansions at bay
By Amanda Abrams,
The houses and arc of trees in Kent reflect the sensibilities of the 1930s and ’40s, when the Northwest Washington neighborhood was built, but its history dates back much further, to the Civil War.
This section of the District housed a fort for Union troops. After the war it became a haven for freed slaves, and generations later for other minorities who were forbidden to move into some other parts of the city.
“It’s so rich in history. The architecture is very eclectic,” says Judith Lanius, an architectural historian who lived in the neighborhood for years and wrote a chapter on the area for the book “Washington at Home.”
Like many parts of the region, residents say, Kent is seeing its distinctive character increasingly threatened by development. Yet unlike residents of several other communities, the people of Kent have rallied support leading to a zoning change that has slowed the destruction of trees and open land for large new houses.
Kent is nestled between MacArthur Boulevard and Battery Kemble Park. For years, the area was considered part of Palisades, the long, narrow community to the south, but the two have very different flavors and histories.
In fact, Kent can almost be viewed as two neighborhoods. To the west is a hilly area characterized by long strings of large center-hall Colonials that was developed in the 1930s and ’40s. The eastern swath, meanwhile, is made up of a handful of meandering streets, including Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace, that could almost be taken for country lanes.
The eastern section has a deep history that parallels the District’s. Chain Bridge Road, lying at the community’s eastern border and leading to the site of the first bridge across the Potomac, is one of the city’s oldest arteries, and the neighborhood’s early habitations developed along it. They swelled during the Civil War, when Battery Kemble — one in a ring of forts guarding the region — was established just east of the road; gradually, settlements of freed and escaped slaves sprang up around the fort.
After the Civil War, says Lanius, “African Americans settled there; they were given or sold land by some of the large landowners there.” The area developed a lively community, and still includes a small cemetery established in 1868 and an old schoolhouse, both of which catered solely to African Americans.
Unlike the western part of the neighborhood, the eastern area remained in the hands of individual landowners for decades. As a result, the lots, when they were finally subdivided, came in a variety of shapes that hewed to the land’s contours and maintained a heavy tree canopy. Lacking restrictive covenants barring minorities, the community became a welcoming spot for educated African Americans and Jews, many of whom employed distinguished local and international architects. In 1952, the Hechinger family built a pair of homes on Chain Bridge Road designed by noted modernist Walter Gropius; they and other modern homes mixed with the 18th-century farmhouses and 19th-century bungalows.
These days, the farmhouses are all gone, but the area retains an unconventional atmosphere that’s heavily influenced by its architectural variety and the presence of the wooded Battery Kemble Park, which is a haven for sledders in the winter.
“It’s a very highly desired family neighborhood,” says Connie Carter, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties and a longtime resident.
She acknowledges there are no commercial establishments within the community’s borders but says that the services and restaurants on MacArthur Boulevard and in Spring Valley Shopping Center are convenient enough. Moreover, she says, “it’s incredibly easy to access the metro area — we’re a second from the Maryland line and a bridge away from Virginia. So what we lose in terms of local shopping, we gain in proximity to important areas of the city.”
But residents say the neighborhood also has seen some less popular changes. Small-scale developers have bought up some of the large lots that still exist in the eastern section and built a number of what residents deride as “McMansions.”
In response, neighbors formed the Chain Bridge Road/University Terrace Preservation Committee in the late 1990s. The group successfully argued for a tree and slope protection overlay, a zoning distinction that restricts the number of trees that can be cut down and limits the amount of impervious surface allowed on each lot.
The overlay has been a useful tool in the group’s fight against Morton Bender, a Washington businessman who bought 31 / 2 acres on Chain Bridge Road in 2002 with the intent of building between nine and 13 multimillion-dollar homes on the property. Residents have strongly opposed the development, arguing that it is inappropriate for the lot and the neighborhood.
At the moment, they seem to be safe: In 2011, the Board of Zoning Adjustment ruled against Bender’s plans. But Bender says he still plans to build on the property.
“We’re going to proceed with the development of the property as the zoning permits,” he said.
Alma Gates, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for the area who has lived there or nearby for all of her 73 years, says she’s worried.
“I think the overlay is in some jeopardy,” given the city’s new zoning proposal, she said. At the same time, many members of the preservation committee have grown older or moved away, and the group may not be as prepared for battle in the future.
For now, though, life in Kent is peaceful. In the late afternoons, the park swarms with dog walkers, and the biggest debate at the moment is simply whether to add sidewalks to the area’s winding roads.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.
ZIP CODE: 20016 BOUNDARIES: Loughboro Road to the north, Battery Kemble Park to the east and MacArthur Boulevard to the west. HOME SALES: According to Connie Carter, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties, 31 homes have sold in Kent over the past year at an average sales price of $1.7 million. Eleven homes are currently on the market or under contract. SCHOOLS: Key Elementary, Hardy Middle and Wilson High. TRANSIT: The closest Metro station is Tenleytown on the Red Line, more than a mile away. Buses serving MacArthur Boulevard run to Georgetown and Dupont Circle. WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Battery Kemble Park, MacArthur Boulevard shops, C&O Canal, Potomac River, Sibley Memorial Hospital, Little Falls Park, American University. WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: Georgetown University, Tenleytown, Cleveland Park, Spring Valley Shopping Center, Friendship Heights, Glen Echo Park, Clarendon.