Do historic districts preserve buildings while destroying a neighborhood's racial and economic diversity? If you're not sure, ask yourself:
Where is Meenehan's Hardware, the Georgetown emporium that sold everything from nuts and bolts to fertilizer and wheelbarrows, with advice graciously given on how best to use them no matter the amount of the purchase?
Or its M Street neighbor, the Potomac restaurant, where the service wasn't particularly fast but the food was good and the atmosphere friendly?
Or Adams Morgan's Ben Franklin Five and Dime. Many in our neighborhood bought kids' shoes, toys, light bulbs, binders, tape and thousands of other items at that Ben Franklin store.
These are just three of the many dozens of basic-service stores and restaurants that no longer exist. Part of the reason they don't, I think, is that they were forced out by the economic consequences of doing business in neighborhoods whose character changed once they were named "historic districts."
Old Town Alexandria, Dupont Circle, Georgetown and the Kalorama Triangle are all designated historic districts. Once they were integrated "full-service" neighborhoods. Now they are enclaves for the well-to-do.
Why do historic-minded homeowners hell-bent on protecting the value of their property insist on including commercial buildings with no particular history in their preservation plans?
My own business, Patrick's Good Food Store, is located at 1825 Columbia Road. Almost all the commercial property owners in my business strip strenuously objected to being forcibly included in the Kalorama Triangle Historic District and petitioned the Historic Preservation Review Board not to be included. The business-property owners thought it perfectly fine for the 120-or-so members of the Kalorama Citizens Association to have their homes designated as historic, since some of them may be architecturally worthy. But we saw no reason that we should be included. None of the commercial buildings is particularly historic. In fact, the Gartenhaus Building, now occupied by a Burger King restaurant and two other stores, was said to have no historic value by the staff of the Historic Preservation Review Board.
In 1980, before the neighborhood was designated a historic district, the assessed worth of my business property was $40,000, and most of that was for the building. In 1986, the year of the hearings before the Preservation Review Board, it was assessed by the city at $130,000 ($2,700 was the property tax on it). This year, the bill went up 46.2 percent to $190,000, and the annual property tax was set at $5,000. The value of my building is now down to $24,000, with the land overvalued at $166,000.
So I've got a building worth very little sitting on land I can't do anything with because I'm in the Kalorama Triangle Historic District -- thanks to the members of the Kalorama Citizens Association, whose homes have appreciated greatly in value.
Along with having to pay the highest workmen's compensation and unemployment compensation rates in the country (not a penny is paid by employees), and with business licenses, taxes, etc., the high cost of doing business in the District is made even higher by also being in a historic district.
If this trend toward ever higher values and taxes continues, where there once were corner grocers, small-appliance stores, Laundromats, children's clothing stores and repair stores of all kinds, you will soon find cutesy boutiques selling ugly shoes and ugly clothes, fast-food joints, "gourmet" food shops, gadgets for the yup-and-coming and rows of look-alike (and taste-alike) restaurants serving Americanized versions of once ethnic foods.
In this new Adams Morgan I will probably be renting out my store for the going rate of $750 to $1,000 per week to a gourmet ice-cream store or yet another running-shoe store or to one more Ethiopian, Latin or Caribbean restaurant.
Then I will probably relocate to Burtonsville, Brookland, Frederick or some such place where rents are still reasonable, and I'll bet I'll see my old Columbia Road customers, who will have to shop in the suburban stores and Beltway shopping malls for the goods and services they used to be able to find right in their neighborhoods.
Then they will have the pleasure of driving home to their overpriced, overtaxed houses, and they will also have the pleasure of fighting the tourists for a parking spot in their lily-white, spotless Kalorama Triangle Historic District.
-- Patrick Dwyer