The long and tortuous effort by some Mount Pleasant residents to gain historic status for their Northwest Washington neighborhood stalled a bit more this week when the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board stopped its hearing on the proposal after opponents protested the lack of a quorum.
Proponents of the historic designation presented most of their case to the board, but neighborhood residents fighting the designation out of concern for increasing property taxes and gentrification protested that the meeting should not proceed after it became clear that the preservation board did not have a quorum present.
While the board is allowed to hold public hearings on historic designation applications without a quorum, Chairman James Speight Jr. said he routinely has recessed hearings if one side protests the lack of a board majority.
For the residents who had worked many months building support for the historic district, the breakup of the hearing was particularly bitter.
"The fact that they couldn't produce a quorum for us after 3 1/2 years of working on this is just outrageous," said Linda Low, historian for Historic Mount Pleasant Inc., the group that applied for the historic district. The Mount Pleasant hearing already had been pushed back several months by other higher-priority applications.
Speight said the hearing would be continued on Wednesday, but added he could not guarantee there would be a quorum at that time either.
Members of Historic Mount Pleasant, a group of 125 tenants, homeowners and merchants, told the review board that the "streetcar suburb" of Mount Pleasant should be designated a historic district because the neighborhood's historic and architectural continuity is increasingly threatened by the accelerating pace of demolitions and construction. Designation of the community as historic would not stop redevelopment, but would restrict any projects that are not approved by the preservation board as contributing to the character of the historic district.
"Our neighborhood is special, not only in terms of the architecture, but in terms of the ethnic and economic diversity of our renters and homeowners," said Mel Doxie, vice president of Historic Mount Pleasant. "By recognizing the importance of Mount Pleasant in an official, legal way, changes that occur will be in keeping with necessary and vital community input."
The proposed historic district's general boundaries would be Rock Creek Park to the north and west, Harvard Street to the south and 16th Street to the east.
The staff of the preservation review board did not get a chance to make a recommendation to the board this week, but it has endorsed the proposed new historic district in a written report.
"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," the staff report said.
The report also described the development of Mount Pleasant during the early part of the century from a rural village into an urban neighborhood linked by streetcar to downtown Washington. Surviving in the area today are early mansions, 19th-century frame houses and the "ribbons of row houses" that characterized early 20th-century development.
The D.C. Preservation League also supported the proposed district, saying that part of what makes Mount Pleasant significant historically is that, unlike most D.C. neighborhoods, it was a distinct rural entity long before the city of Washington was built out and around it.
People opposed to the historic district, who will present their case at the meeting next week, said they are concerned that historic status would accelerate gentrification of the neighborhood and lead to increased property taxes, which could drive out elderly and moderate-income residents.
"I'm afraid displacement will be widespread, and that many of the people there now will be replaced by high-income people," said Mazie Holland, a homeowner opposed to the proposed district. "The cultural and ethnic flavor of Mount Pleasant, which the proponents say is part of the charm, will be lost if this historic district is put in place.
"Not every home and street in Mount Pleasant measures up to the historic standards for a district, so why blanket the whole area and ram it down our throats?" she asked.
Speakers in support of the proposed district, however, said the cycle of gentrification already has "run its course" in Mount Pleasant and historic designation will not necessarily lead to higher property taxes.
"Historic designation does not bring displacement," said Theresa F. Brown, president of the LeDroit Park Historical Society, another downtown neighborhood that was designated a historic district several years ago. "Displacement and increased taxes in LeDroit Park have been minimal since historic designation. Money and real estate developers displace people, not historic districts."
Supporters and opponents of the Mount Pleasant historic district agreed that redevelopment poses a serious threat to the neighborhood. In the past two years, several large frame houses have been replaced by dense town-house developments that residents said were "not compatible" with the tradition of front lawns and connecting porches that "make Mount Pleasant special."
At the same time, both sides are concerned that the commercial strip along Mount Pleasant Street will come under increasing pressure from fast-food chains and developers insensitive to the "urban, pedestrian character of the neighborhood."
Many of the small merchants along the strip submitted letters in support of the historic district, saying they believe that redevelopment of the commercial strip will displace the small businesses that have thrived there since the turn of the century. Several other merchants have opposed the historic district, saying that gentrification would lead to "economic displacement" of the small merchants.
Members of Historic Mount Pleasant said they hope the hearing will be completed next week.
"There is significant preservation and renovation going on already in Mount Pleasant," said Stephen Armington, an architect who testified on behalf of the group. "That is evidence that there is widespread feeling there is something worth saving and preserving in the community."