The Cleveland Park Historical Society is seeking to prevent the demolition of the Park and Shop shopping center at Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW by asking the city to designate the dilapidated, one-story commercial strip a historic landmark.
The center's owner, Cafritz Co. of Washington, plans to demolish it and sell the property to a developer who is planning a mixed-use project for the site, according to Whayne S. Quin, the D.C. zoning attorney who will represent Cafritz at a hearing before the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board next month.
Such a project probably would include some retail space to replace the old shopping center, said Quin, adding that the developer, who he would not name, might decide to develop the site as a planned unit development, which would require approval by the D.C. zoning commission.
The application for landmark status for the Park and Shop came as something of a surprise to Cafritz, Quin indicated. "We're talking about a parking lot, or at least that is what they say is historic about it," he said. "It's very clear there is nothing architecturally significant about the property, so I guess the issue is that it is historic. We're going to try and show that it is not."
For a city rich in historic monuments, the Park and Shop may appear to be a sad example of the kind of property the D.C. Historic Preservation Act was designed to protect.
But several architectural historians say that the Park and Shop is the earliest example in Washington of shopping centers with off-street parking and that it may be one of the earliest commercial-strip shopping centers in the country.
"The Park and Shop of 1930 is a good, and appears to be a very early, example of a neighborhood shopping center oriented for the automobile in which the supermarket was the anchor facility," said Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University's historic preservation graduate program, in the application submitted to the historic review board.
The modest shopping center was built in 1930 by Shannon & Luchs and originally housed a drug store, two groceries, a restaurant, laundry, car wash, gas station and several other small shops. It was designed by Arthur B. Heaton, supervising architect at the Washington Cathedral for 13 years, and is considered colonial revival in style. The car wash and gas station were torn down several years ago.
According to Quin, however, Cafritz Co. believes the property has little historic value and, in fact, Cafritz has applied for a demolition permit to tear the building down.
"There are at least 15 other shopping centers in the city built within the same five-year period that are automobile-oriented," Quin said. "And some are in a lot better shape."
The residents of Cleveland Park, however, consider the Park and Shop the "front tooth" of their neighborhood shopping center, a collection of low-rise, Depression-era vintage buildings that house dry cleaners, repair shops, several bars, a Safeway and the Uptown movie theater.
"The Park and Shop is a key element in the commercial strip that is part of Cleveland Park and contributes to the neighborhood atmosphere of our village within Washington," said Tersh Boasberg, president of the historical society. "If this goes, we're going to lose the whole strip, and then we'll lose much of what makes Cleveland Park special. We don't want to become another area like Van Ness, Friendship Heights or Bethesda."
Boasberg said the historical society filed an application earlier this year to have the entire area of Cleveland Park designated a historic district, including the residential blocks between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues and the commercial strip on Connecticut between Porter and Macomb streets.
Because a number of Washington neighborhoods have filed recently for historic-district status, Boasberg said the process of obtaining this status has been delayed until next year.
According to Boasberg, the problem created by the delay is that developers eager to redevelop parcels along the commercial strip near the Metrorail stop have been tipped off and may be moving to demolish older buildings before the historic-district designation is in place.
"There should be a moratorium when one of these historic-district applications is pending, but there isn't," Boasberg said. "When we heard that the tenants of the Shop and Park had received notice to move out, we immediately filed the application for landmark status for the shopping center on its own."
The fight over the Park and Shop has triggered criticism from Quin that the residents of Cleveland Park are using the historic preservation law to halt development rather than to save a special building.
"It's an abuse of the historic preservation process," Quin said. "It seems ironic to try and freeze commercial development above a Metro stop because the existing building has a small parking lot. It would be like arguing to keep the first horse barn in the city, even if it was located over a Metro stop."
The members of the historical society contend, however, that they genuinely believe the shopping center is historic and that just because the property sits atop the Metrorail station shouldn't mean it has to be redeveloped at a higher density.
"I don't think that because you have a Metro stop inherently means you have to have a seven-story building," said Kevin Murray, a board member of the Cleveland Park preservation group. "The character of the neighborhood is as important as a developer's right to build on a parcel."
Quin said Cafritz was angered by a flyer being distributed in the neighborhood that showed the current low-rise Park and Shop next to a building that "appeared to be 200 feet tall."
"The flyer says it will be 'this or that,' " Quin said. "It's unfair because it assumes the developer will not take care to build a compatible building."