D.C. government preservation officials, under pressure from downtown developers and business owners, have agreed to consider scaling back the proposed historic district for the old commercial downtown area after the district is formally established.
The proposed district is expected to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places later this month.
D.C. developer Oliver T. Carr, informal chairman of Downtown Partners, a group of developers and landowners working with city officials to oversee the redevelopment of the downtown, said this week that the partnership had agreed to support establishment of the historic district if D.C. Preservation Officer Carol B. Thompson would agree to consider recommendations for changing the boundaries at a later date.
"The partnership was not in existence when the boundaries were acted on and we have not had a chance to review them," said Carr. "We agreed to support the designation and the city agreed to be responsive if the partnership came back later requesting changes."
The proposal to establish an historic district for the area including the commercial sections of F Street, 7th Street and Chinatown has generated concern and misunderstanding among developers, retailers, preservationists and city officials since it was first proposed several years ago.
"What has happened is that the city has said 'we're going to designate the historic district, even though we know some of you developers and landowners don't like it, but we'll work with you to make sure it doesn't impede the process of good development in the downtown area," said Whayne Quin, a D.C. zoning attorney who represents a number of landowners who would be effected by the historic district.
"As I understood it, that meant there might be some deletions," Quin said. "I'm not interested in expanding the district."
Thompson, however, denies she ever told the developers the boundaries of the historic district would necessarily be reduced in the future.
"All I told them was that if they wanted to submit an application to make an amendment, that we would be willing to look at it," said Thompson, who oversees historic preservation in her role as director of the city's office of consumer and regulatory affairs.
Thompson's office said that under federal and local preservation laws properties could be deleted from the historic district. The petitioner, however, would have to go through the entire process involved in establishing an historic district, including hearings and a ruling from the D.C. preservation board.
According to Quin, however, part of the discussion between Downtown Partners and city officials included setting an agenda to review the process of amending historic districts, with the possibility of recommending changes that would make changes to the district easier to make.
Quin and others involved in Downtown Partners said city officials from Deputy Mayor Curtis McClinton's office had put together a four-part memo detailing how a special task force would review existing preservation regulations and procedures and what they would look at.
Officials from McClinton's office said they did not know about the memo, and other city officials, including Thompson, said it could only come from McClinton.
"I find that very alarming," said City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). "We are sitting here looking at a comprehensive plan for the city, including recommendations for the downtown. And to hear that there is a proposal for possibly making changes that would effect the downtown which is not being discussed above board, that raises concerns."
Preservationists in the city were also concerned about the possibility that the long-awaited downtown historic district might have boundaries the city would consider changing.
"That totally defeats the idea of having a district," said Robert Peck, president of the D.C. Preservation League. "We would be opposed to any proposal to reduce the size of the commercial district at a later date."
A member of Downtown Partners who was part of the meeting with Thompson, but who did not want to be named, said that the controversy was partly fueled by different attitudes towards preservation among the city officials. The source said that some officials supported establishing the historic district while others felt that redevelopment of the old downtown should be left to the developers.