It may be a long road to demolition for the historic streetcar trestle in Georgetown — and that’s good news for trolley enthusiasts who want it saved and restored.
The District’s Historic Preservation Review Board has denied Metro’s petition for a raze permit, delaying the transit agency’s plans to demolish the structure, which is more than 120 years old and was part of the Georgetown-Glen Echo streetcar line that ceased operations in the early 1960s.
The board’s decision followed the recommendation of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, which supports saving the structure, saying that it “retains enough integrity to convey its historic significance.”
Metro said it is appealing the board’s decision and will continue to pursue demolition.
“We remain hopeful that another organization will step forward to take possession of the bridge,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said. “But until then and in the interest of safety, we are continuing to work through the permitting process to raze the trolley trestle bridge, which includes appealing the decision by the Historic Preservation Review Board.”
Built around 1896, the trestle is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the city’s inventory of Historic Sites as a contributing element of the Glover-Archbold Park Historic District. It also is the last trestle of its kind in the city.
Metro inherited the trestle in 1997 after it settled a lawsuit brought by the previous owner of the streetcar system, D.C. Transit. But the structure has remained unused since the streetcar shut down in 1962. Metro has found no use for it, and after unsuccessful efforts to get the city to take it over, the transit agency is seeking its demolition.
“The primary basis for demolition is the poor structural condition of the trestle. To be clear, that is not in question,” Andrew Lewis of the Historic Preservation Office told the review board last week. “It is also relevant to point out that that condition is due largely in part to about two decades of neglect that the structure has had to suffer.”
The board denied Metro’s petition, instead referring the case for a final decision to the mayor’s agent, a city official designated by the mayor to rule on D.C. historic preservation law. According to Lewis’s report to the review board, the mayor’s agent has approved demolition of historic structures in the past, but only when determined necessary and when it involved properties that no longer convey their historic significance.
“The poor condition of the trestle is not disputed, but the relatively simple structure still retains sufficient integrity to convey its historic significance,” Lewis said in his report. “Adaptive use through in-kind repair, replacement and possible structural augmentation could be carried out in a manner that would enhance the trestle’s integrity.”
Lewis said demolition at this point would preclude the opportunity by the District Department of Transportation to rehabilitate the structure, pointing to a plan for Metro to transfer the property to DDOT to be rehabilitated into a bike and pedestrian trail. DDOT plans to conduct a study this summer to determine if it is feasible to restore the 250-foot-long trestle and adapt it as part of a larger trail, a project that is gaining public support.
“We recognize the historic merit of the bridge,” Jim Ashe, manager of environmental planning and compliance at Metro, told the review board last week. He said agency’s goal is not so much to demolish the bridge, but to make the area safe.
A full restoration could cost upward of $2 million, while an initial stabilization could cost about $715,000, according to the assessment prepared by the consulting firm Structura in 2014.
In 2003, Metro put up fences around the ends of the bridge to deter trespassers, Ashe said. Since 2008 the transit agency has worked to identify “responsible owners to take custody of the bridge,” Ashe said, but “we have not been successful in that effort to date.”
An inspection in January found the trestle in “imminent risk of collapse.” Ashe said three of 22 trestle structural towers were significantly deficient and several others could have similar problems, but because they are covered by leaf and soil debris they can’t be inspected. In February, Metro installed fences across the trails that run under the trestle to prevent people from going under the bridge.
Metro’s “situation is well-known. We have a $25 billion list of capital needs. Our total focus is on restoring the Metrorail system, the Metrobus system and the MetroAccess system,” Ashe said, “and making sure our system is functional for the more than 1 million riders that use our system each day.”
Metro’s plan is to remove and dispose of the steel framing, concrete abutments and footers and regrade and revegetate the area, Ashe said. He said it would cost between $750,000 and $1 million to demolish the structure.
Rebecca Miller of the D.C. Preservation League, which lists the bridge as an endangered site, said the cost for dismantling the structure should instead be used for rehabilitating it.
Conrad DeWitte, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and resident of Foxhall Village, said there is support for preserving the trestle to connect with a walkway and boost foot traffic between neighborhoods.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D), who also serves as Metro Board chairman, said he too would like to see the trestle restored, but not at Metro’s expense. Evans, whose ward borders the trestle, is advocating for a city takeover of the structure.
“From Metro’s point of view, we have a lot of issues on our plate. This trestle will never ever be a part of the Metro system. . . . It is a waste of time for us to have to deal with it,” Evans said.
“And from the District’s point of view, it is a historical piece that would be nice to preserve,” he said. The trestle and the trolley tracks that remain intact in Georgetown “represent a time in Georgetown’s history when we ran trolleys all over the place. The trolley is the last one of that nature in the city. So that’s why I’d like to keep this thing.”
This story has been updated.