Local residents are trying to block development in their neighborhood by having this parking lot at the former Garfinckel’s location declared a historic site. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Historic landmarks usually conjure up images of grassy Civil War battlefields and Colonial-era homes where George Washington once slept. In the affluent Spring Valley area of Northwest Washington, residents and city officials are hashing out the historical merits of an asphalt parking lot.

Yes, a big slab of blacktop.

The parking lot, residents say, is integral to the 76-year-old Spring Valley Shopping Center’s historical significance as a 20th-century commercial center designed to serve an increasingly ­auto-dependent America — and its desire for ample free parking. They say a proposal to build a two-story building on part of the parking lot along Massachusetts Avenue NW, just inside the District-Maryland line, is “incompatible” with that historic character.

“This is not about preserving a parking lot,” said Tom Smith, chair of the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “I’d scratch my head at that. This is about protecting the integrity and character of a protected historic designation. That’s an important fight for any community.”

The city designated the shopping center a historic landmark in 1989, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places­ in 2003.

The historical designations highlighted its then-fashionable Colonial revival architecture and how it served the emerging upscale neighborhoods of Wesley Heights and Spring Valley — among the first in Washington designed around the automobile, rather than a railroad or streetcar line.

Spring Valley Shopping Center also had the first “suburban” outpost of the prominent downtown department store, Garfinckel’s. The red-brick shopping center, built between 1939 and 1950, is now best-known for a Crate & Barrel.

The center’s owner, Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, is fighting for its building plan.

“The parking lot is not a ‘contributing element’ of that historic designation,” said Paul Weinschenk, a vice president for the company. “I think some folks are trying to create an obstacle here that simply doesn’t exist.”

The debate, which the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board is scheduled to hear Thursday, might raise some eyebrows. But some historians said it also raises a question that they have considered for years: When is a parking lot an essential piece of American history, worthy of preservation?

“I think we tend to focus on a parking lot and say, ‘How can a parking lot be historic?’” said Clare Lise Kelly , a historic preservation planner for Montgomery County. “But it’s in the context of the 20th century, when we became reliant on the auto.”

A desire to capture the key role that the automobile played in growing and shaping the suburbs prompted Montgomery County to grant special architectural protections in 2011 to a 1930s-era Bethesda neighborhood, Greenwich Forest, in part because it had some of the county’s first homes with attached garages. The developer who revamped the Silver Spring Shopping Center, built in 1938, had to retain its front parking lot, Kelly said. The county’s designation of the downtown shopping center as historic noted that the lot was integral to its design and “motor-age architecture.”

The parking lot, D.C. residents say, is integral to the 76-year-old Spring Valley Shopping Center’s historical significance as a 20th-century commercial center designed to serve an increasingly ­auto-dependent America. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Historians can point to only a few other cases across the United States in which parking lots have been regarded as historical treasures. Far more often, they said, parking lots are lambasted as ugly, environmentally unfriendly wastes of space. Across the Washington area, developers now catering to demand for more transit-oriented, walkable communities are scrapping surface lots to build high-rise apartments and offices. Many are hiding parking in underground garages.

But historians said scrutiny of parking lots’ potential historic value will probably grow as more of the buildings they serve reach the 50-year mark, traditionally the minimum age to be considered for historic merit. Designing buildings with off-street parking, now considered a given, was a novel concept until the 1920s and 1930s, when cars became more affordable and plentiful, historians said.

The landmark case came in 1986, when the District designated Cleveland Park a historic district. The local historical society’s arguments for designation included the fact that the Park and Shop shopping center on Connecticut Avenue, built in 1930, was one of the city’s first neighborhood shopping centers with off-street parking.

David Rotenstein, a consulting historian in Silver Spring, said parking lots should be given the same historical consideration as, say, the farmland that was ultimately preserved around Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville.

“I’m not saying all old parking lots are historic or that all historic parking lots need to be preserved,” Rotenstein said. “But they need to be considered on a level playing field with buildings and other things in the environment. Parking lots shouldn’t be dismissed because they’re ugly, and it’s hard to get your head around why a 20th-century parking lot could be historic.”

In the Spring Valley case, which was first reported by Washington City Paper, residents and the real estate company said they have an architectural historian supporting their views.

The review board’s decision will probably hinge on how it concludes the shopping center’s original design treated parking. Did the original developer, W.C. & A.N. Miller, configure the buildings to showcase off-street parking, as the residents say? Or, as the real estate company says, did the interior lot’s size and shape change as new buildings were added over the years, meaning it was never an “essential or character-defining feature”?

A similar-looking shopping center across Massachusetts is also known as Spring Valley Shopping Center, but it was developed, and is now owned, by different companies than the one in question. Its parking lot, historians said, is clearly an essential part of its landmark status. They note that the buildings, which include Wagshal’s deli and a CVS store, are pushed back from the street to allow for a clearly visible front parking lot.

Proving that the lot outside Crate & Barrel meets the same standard could be a challenge. Staff members for the review board have recommended that the panel find the building proposal’s “general concept” to be “compatible” with the landmark’s historic character. The staff report notes that the shopping center’s buildings face out to several surrounding roads, encouraging shoppers to park on the street as much as in the interior lot.

Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.