An application to make a neighborhood near 14th and U streets NW part of the Dupont Circle historic district has outraged some Shaw community leaders who say it was filed without their knowledge. They are calling for its withdrawal.
They charge the application represents an attempt by primarily white, upper-middle-class preservationists to extend their turf into a black neighborhood with little historical connection to Dupont Circle.
The application was filed with the Joint Committee on Landmarks in early 1982 by four Dupont Circle area civic and preservation groups. A hearing on it is scheduled for May 10.
The proposed expansion would incorporate the 16th Street historic district into the existing Dupont Circle historic district and expand its boundaries almost to 14th Street on the east and to Rock Creek Park on the west. The disputed area, referred to in the application as the "eastern expansion area," is between Rhode Island and Florida avenues, 14th and 16th streets.
"It's a land grab by the middle- and upper middle-class Caucasians that live around Dupont Circle to extend their political influence," said Ibrahim Mumin, director of the Shaw Project Area Committee.
"In the area we're talking about, the critical issues are crime, drugs, unemployment and displacement. All of a sudden, someone who hasn't lifted a finger to do anything purports to be concerned about the community."
Joe Grano, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, said the groups sponsoring the application "were remiss in not contacting all the community leaders in the eastern area before submitting their application. For this we are sorry."
"It's a mess," Grano added.
Grano's organization sponsored the application along with the Dupont Circle Conservancy Inc., the North Dupont Citizens Association and the Midway Civic Association.
Groups in the eastern expansion area that are demanding the withdrawal of the application include the Shaw PAC, the parish council of St. Augustine's Catholic Church, the 14th and U Street Coalition and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B.
Mumin said his organization first learned of the application six months after it was filed when City Council member Frank Smith contacted them during his campaign for the Ward 1 seat. The Dupont Circle groups had asked Smith's support for the expanded historic district and he was seeking the views of Shaw area organizations, according to Mumin.
Smith said he agrees with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which has voted to oppose the expansion.
"Dupont Circle is not in Ward 1, and does not need to get any larger," he said last week. "However, there are some benefits to historic districts, and I hope the two groups can resolve their differences and get down to discussing them."
Stanley Mayes, chairman of ANC 1B, said the commission should have been consulted. "What might have emerged might have been something the community could agree on."
Grano and other representatives of the preservationists say they were not trying to expand their political influence or keep community organizations in the dark about their plans for the historic district.
On Sunday, the Dupont Circle Citizens Association's executive committee unanimously decided to recommend withdrawing the area east of 15th Street from the application because of the Shaw opposition.
"We made a sincere effort to reach people. We had meetings with community groups back in the fall," said Richard A. Friedman, an attorney for the Dupont Circle Conservancy. "What tends to happen is if the issue is not on the front page or the evening news, the only people that hear about it are the few people we talked to."
Some side streets of the disputed area, especially the 1500 blocks of Corcoran and T streets and the 1400 block of Swann Street, are lined with Victorian houses, some renovated and some inhabited by black families that have lived in the neighborhood for decades.
The application emphasizes the black history of the area, where many prominent black ministers, writers, artists and educators lived during the 1920s to 1940s.
Among historic structures are St. Augustine's Catholic Church at 14th and V streets and St. Luke's Church at 15th and Church streets, the first black Episcopal Church in Washington (designed by early black architect Calvin T.S. Brent). In addition, there is Wardman Row, seven apartment buildings in the 1400 block of R Street erected in the early 20th century by Harry Wardman, developer of the Chastleton Apartments and Hay-Adams and Sheraton Park hotels.
Today, rising real estate prices and taxes, as well as the conversion to condominiums of low-income rental buildings, are pushing out many longtime black residents of the area. Some neighborhood leaders said they view the proposed historic district as one more assault on the presence of low-income blacks in the neighborhood.
"I can just see the real estate brochures: 'Luxury condominiums in Dupont Circle East,' " said Edna Frazier-Cromwell, chairman of the 14th and U Street Coalition, a group of business people, residents and churches in that corridor.
Taking the other side on the issue, some older black residents support the historic district application, among them retired Howard University librarian Maurice Thomas, who has lived in her 15th Street house since 1907.
"I love the idea (of the historic district) because we are preserving this part of the city that is not too far from the White House," said Thomas, who remembers the neighborhood as a fountain of black culture and learning where literary figures, such as Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer, were frequent visitors.
Gladys Scott Roberts, a former president of the Midway Civic Association, a black group dating from the days of segregated Washington, also supports the expansion. She praised the research done by the preservationists on the black history of the area.
"These people are doing a marvelous job . . . . They discovered there was a great black history in this area. . . . They felt it was important not to stop at 17th Street but to go on over to 14th," Roberts said.
Because residents of some other areas included in the application want to be part of a historic district (those areas bounded by Florida Avenue, T Street and the rear lot lines of the western edge of 16th Street and areas to the south and west of Dupont Circle), the preservationists are trying to avoid withdrawing the entire application, Grano said.
The sponsoring organizations originally applied for historic status for the entire area in 1976. The Joint Committee on Landmarks, a city-federal agency, ruled at that time there was insufficient proof the entire area should become a historic district. The separate Dupont Circle and 16th Street historic districts were designated instead.
Historic district status means any construction and renovations requiring a building permit must be reviewed by the joint committee. Supporters of the measure say small projects usually pass easily, but a request to tear down a building may require a public hearing.
The preservationists have encouraged the Shaw community leaders, irritated by a proposal to label them part of Dupont Circle, to choose another name for the historic district. They also have offered to assist Shaw community groups with money and research if the members decide later they want a historic district, a spokesman said.
The preservationists met with community groups since the issue first surfaced in the Shaw neighborhoods in the fall.
Spokesmen for the Dupont Circle organizations emphasize the potential benefits of a historic district, which include a 25 percent tax credit available for rehabilitation of historic owner-occupied houses and rental and commercial buildings, historic preservation grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and real estate tax abatements for historic properties.
But many residents see the historic district as an added layer of bureaucracy that might stifle needed development in the economically depressed commercial areas and inhibit the construction of low- and moderate-income housing.
"It's going to put an added burden on the neighborhood," said the Rev. John Mudd, pastor of St. Augustine's Church. "It's going to mean that all new construction would have to go through the Joint Committee on Landmarks, which I suspect is not particularly sensitive to the history of the neighborhood."
Mudd said St. Augustine's is "the oldest black congregation in Washington, but the buildings aren't that sacred to us. We're more interested in the people and the history."
"We think it's more or less a political issue. We think it really doesn't have anything that would benefit us," said Ruby Ellis, head of St. Augustine's parish council.
Opponents of the historic district application do not deny the area's cultural and architectural significance but say the residents should decide whether the area should be included in a historic district.
"We've been working on a study of the whole area, as a cohesive neighborhood. To take a sliver between 14th and 16th streets and make that a historic district makes no sense," said Mumin, of the Shaw PAC.
"To now come back and say that the historic district can be called Shaw Northwest is not the issue. The issue is whether the people in the area want it, and the answer is, they don't know," Frazier-Cromwell said.
A meeting between the sponsors of the application and its opponents to try to resolve their differences was tentatively scheduled for sometime this week.