In the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which was once a "streetcar" suburb of Washington, some residents are attempting to recapture the past by having the community declared a "historic district."
The idea sounds harmless enough, and since the goal of a historic district is to protect a neighborhood's architectural continuity, it can also be a good thing.
But Mount Pleasant has no architectural continuity to begin with -- certainly not in historic proportions. There are all kinds of buildings up there, many of themjust plain old row houses and apartment buildings where blacks and Hispanics live.
A recently debated proposal to "preserve" Mount Pleasant with a historic designation -- as well as renovations and building restrictions -- sounds suspiciously like a real estate developer's ad.
"The proposed Mount Pleasant historic district, a product of the 20th century design, has a distinct identity apparent in both its natural and designed features," says a June 4 staff report to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. "Its significance lies in its rich, well-documented community history, the integrity and visual character of its architecture and its successful adaptation of traditional urban design to the natural hilly terrain."
This is not unique to Washington neighborhoods. Indeed, if that's all it took to get a designation, the entire city could be declared a historic district.
Mount Pleasant is bounded on the north by Rock Creek Park, on the east by 16th Street, the west by Adams Mill Road and the south by Harvard Street.
So just what is this move to declare neighborhoods historic districts these days? It started with individual sites such as a house, then spread to include districts, either one block long or a whole section of town, to protect older neighborhoods from demolition and from incompatible new buildings.
The Cleveland Park neighborhood has petitioned for historic designation. So has Foggy Bottom. Shaw and Le Droit Park now have them, as do places like Georgetown and old Anacostia. The city has 16 historic districts.
Opponents contend that historic district designation almost always leads to higher property values, which causes rent increases and ultimately the displacement of middle- and low-income residents.
"I am deeply concerned about the thousands of residents presently living in non-owner-occupied units," said Stanley Allen, a member of the Mount Pleasant Advisory Neighborhood Commission. "It would seem to follow that when property values rise due to the designation, then rents will have to be increased."
Supporters say historic designation does not bring displacement. "Displacement and increased taxes in Le Droit Park have been minimal since our historic designation," said Theresa Brown, president of the Le Droit Park Historical Society. "Money and real estate development displace people, not historic districts." But as Allen points out, developers and money follow historic districts.
"For one thing, a home sales ad sounds better when they can boast of being located in historic Georgetown or historic Old Town Alexandria ," Allen said. One ad might read like the staff report issued supporting the Mount Pleasant designation. "Built primarily of brick, as is so much of Washington, the row urban dwellings exhibit a variety of design elements composed and articulated in a variety of ways to form cohesive facades."
The key phrase here seems to be "as is so much of Washington," for while Mount Pleasant is undoubtedly a nice place to live, its features and structures simply cannot be called truly historic. As Greg Edwards, owner of a building in Mount Pleasant said during public hearings on the proposed designation, "History is too important to allow anything but the best and most significant structures to be designated as representing to future generations and residents our most precious heritage."
It sounds like tabling this idea would go a long way toward preserving the best of Mount Pleasant by making it possible for the people who give Mount Pleasant its unique flavor -- and not necessarily the buildings -- the opportunity to live there.