This was going to be a column about a confrontation, about a re-match of the classic battle between the bulldozers and old buildings, but it hasn't turned out that way.
The wonfrontation was supposed to come today, when District of Columbia city council committee begins marking up a proposed historic preservation bill.
Drafted largely by a group called Don't Tear It Down, the preservation bill calls for a fundamental change in the law that governs designated landmarks and construction in historic districts - which covers most of the District of Columbia.
The way the preservation game is played today, a developer can tear down darn near anything he wants to - unless the preservationists can stop him. Anything goes. Lawsuits, picketing, public pressure, harassment, but in the end the only legal remedy in the District of Columbia is to delay demolition for 180 days.
All that would be changed by the Don't Tear It Down bill. No historic building could be demolished unless the owner/developer could prove that it would be an economic hardship to keep the structure.
A builder and a preservationist described the change in similar ways: "The presumption is that the building will be saved," said one. "The burder of proof is on the developer to show the building has to go," says the other.
Such a fundamental reversal of roles ought to bring out the troops on both siders. That's what happened when the bill dropped into the legislative hopper.
But if the two sides are fighting, it is, as Lola Smith of Don't Tear It Down puts it "a very genteel war." "Theoretically its a subject of controversy," she added. explaining that the controntation has largely been eliminated by a committee assembled by councilperson Nadine Winter.
The building and the building lovers - not such natural enemies, come to thing of it - have sat down together, apparently for the first time.
As a result, it's awfully hard to write a confrontation column.
Not that all the differences have been settled, not by any means. Last night Mike Glosserman, the Rouse Company man who's heading the Board of Trade delegation, said he still didn't know if his side could endorse the version of the bill that's supposed to be debated today.
"We have come to a piece of legislation that we think we can endorse, although there are still a few issues that are unresolved," he says, after meeting Monday and Tuesday with business community representatives.
Rouse is an appropriate company to assign an executive to the issue because the Columbia-based developer has just completed what is perhaps the most successful combination of development and historic preservation in the country - the Quincy Market Fanueil Hall project in Boston. Instead of tearing down the delapidated, deserted market, Rouse has turned it into a phenominally successful urban shopping center.
Glosserman said the Board of Trade has endorsed the concept of a new historic preservation bill and has worked to create one which preserves buildings without halting all construction. "This bill is not anti-development," although it could have been read that way the way it first came out," he said.
The developers and the preservationists have basically agreed on 10 specific economic criteria for determining whether it is "an economic hardship" for a property owner to preserve an historic structure that stands in the path of a new project. No rate of return on the investment is specified in the draft of the bill, but there are 10 different numbers that owners can use in making the case for demolition.
Both sides have apparently agreed also that for "projects of special merit" a historic building can be demolished. The definition of special merit - "exemplary or specific factors of land planning or social or other benefits having a high priority for community service" is probably vague enough to generate lawsuits, but it's better than no definition.
They've also agreed that historic preservation legislation needs to cover not only tearing down old buildings and constructing new ones, but altering existing ones and must cover the sub-division of property if it is to preserve important open space adjacent to buildings.
With considerable objections from architechts who don't want committees approving their creative efforts the proposal also calls for "design review" of many projects.
Despite the agreements, there are plenty of objectors on both sides. Georgetown citizens groups are demanding stricter controls. They still haven't forgiven Kennedy Center Director Roger Stevens for building a row of houses in the backyard of his historic house on R Street, NW, and don't want that to happen again. They also hope to block development on the Rockefeller and Hillendale estates off Reservoir Road.
Anti-convention Center forces aren't satisfied either because, as Don't Tear Down's Smith points out, "you wouldn't stop the convention center with this bill."
Developers also are concerned that the bill will add at least one more review to the District's already excessively complex building regulations. "Another layer of bull. . ." says one builder struggling to put up a project in a historic district.
There's also a provision that any demolition-development fights now underway will have to be decided under the new legislation. That's a potential land mine for projects already in the works - such as the Garfinckel block development downtown which involves the controversial Rhoades Tavern.
The fight to save Rhoades Tavern - a building that Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt says has about as much redeeming social value as the nearby massage parlors - is one of the factors that lead to introduction of the new bill.
The Rhoades debate has raised virtually the same kind of economic arguments that will be in the proposed legislation points out Betts Able, the Don't Tear it Down member now in charge of Preservation for the Oliver T. Carr Co.
In arguing that the tavern where the British officers watched the White House burn should be torn down, Carr executives have calculated it will cost $6 million to keep the building, Able said.
The 180-day delay in issuing a demolition permit for that building will expire in a few days and the tavern will probabily come down.
If the law is changed to force developers to bear the expense of preserving such buildings, Able argues, some provision ought to be added to offset the potentially astronomical costs.
A tax abatement bill that would do that and encourage creative reuse of historic structures, will be the next item on the agenda once the preservation bill passes.