Historic preservationists from throughout the District gathered last weekend to breathe life into a newly formed alliance of preservation groups and make plans for a campaign to "win the hearts and minds of the city" for preservation.
The group, called the District Alliance for Preservation, has agreed to push for changes in the city's preservation law and processes, including seeking revisions that would expand the protections of the law and enhance preservation's standing as a city-wide priority.
"We are afraid that if we do not ask the city to make it a priority, preservation may take a back seat to other city priorities, such as housing and job training," said Richard Striner, president of the Art Deco Society of Washington, and a member of the alliance. "We don't have a lot of local incentives here for developers to preserve a building and we need more."
While Washington has numerous small neighborhood preservation groups, the preservation community in the District has been notoriously fragmented, with few groups interested in buildings or issues outside their neighborhood boundries.
The D.C. Preservation League, the only Washington preservation group with an office and paid staff, has chosen to defend historic buildings in the city's downtown -- an area with few residents -- rather than work on behalf of all the city's small preservation groups.
"The purpose of the Preservation Alliance is to provide a forum for preservation groups to get together and discuss common problems," said Patricia Meyer, one of the cochairmen of the group. "The purpose of the conference was to shape a consensus on the major issues confronting preservation work in the city."
Representatives from the Art Deco Society, the Columbia Historical Society, Historic Mount Pleasant, the Cleveland Park Historical Society, the Dupont Circle Conservancy, Save the Tivoli, the L'Enfant Trust and the D.C. Preservation League, as well as other groups, reviewed problems with the city's preservation law and mapped strategies for getting more cooperation from developers and city officials.
Among other things, the group agreed it would seek a provision that would extend to historic districts some of the protections now allowed for proposed historic landmarks.
Under the city's law, buildings in proposed historic districts are not protected from demolition or alteration until the district is nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Individual landmark buildings, however, are protected as soon as an application for historic status is filed with the city's preservation office.
The alliance called for a change that would give proposed historic districts protection under the law from the moment an application for a district is filed.
Under the current law, a building or district does not gain historic status and the protection of the law until it is nominated to the National Register of Historic Places by State Historic Preservation Officer Carol B. Thompson, who serves in that capacity as part of her job as director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Thompson has several times delayed nominating certain districts, or proposed changes to the boundaries, before forwarding the nominations, and creating confusion and unnecessary delay, the preservationists said. The alliance said it would ask that historic status be conferred when the preservation review board approves a proposed district or landmark, and not when Thompson agrees to send the nomination to the National Register.
There are four historic district applications awaiting review and approval of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, a group of architects and citizens appointed by Mayor Marion Barry to review historic designation applications.
Hearings have been held on proposed historic districts for a four-block area of Foggy Bottom and a 285-acre area of Cleveland Park, but the board has not yet approved the applications. Preservationists in the Kalorama Triangle area adjacent to Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant have been waiting nearly two years for hearings on their applications.
Developers, who have fought the proliferation of historic districts in the city's neighborhoods, have said they would oppose any effort to extend protections to proposed districts because the backlog of applications has delayed the review board.
The alliance also is calling for the city to establish a procedure for reviewing city-funded programs that affect historic properties. The federal govrnment has such a process, with a eview board and a set of regulations, and the preservationists said they felt the city needs similar safeguards.
Outside of specific changes to the existing law, the preservationists agreed they needed to work with developers and city officials to make historic preservation a city-wide priority.
"Money is at the heart of it all," said Eric Grave, a member of Save the Tivoli, a group that has rallied to save the historic Tivoli theater at 14th Street and Park Road NW. "If we can make preservation pay, and encourage the city to give it status as a priority, we could get farther than we've gotten."
The group agreed to ask the city, which is proposing new regulations for large-scale planned unit developments, to list preservation as one of the public amenities developers can provide in exchange for greater building densities.
The group also agreed to make preservation an issue in the upcoming mayoral and city council elections this fall.
"We don't have much money but maybe we can get more votes," said Nellie Longsworth, president of the national lobbying organization Preservation Action in the District. "We need to focus on how we can get more influence and build coalitions with other groups. This election is an opportunity for us."