Hill Historic Boundaries Reconsidered

Posted February 9, 2007 at 4:00pm

Amid the rash of condominiums and retail expansion on H Street Northeast, some nearby Capitol Hill residents are hoping to shield their neighborhood from overdevelopment by becoming part of the Capitol Hill Historic District.

It’s a move that many in the neighborhood have pondered for years, said Nancy Metzger, who chairs the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s historic preservation committee. In fact, the original plans for the historic district included the area in question: a 24-block residential swath bordered by H and F streets Northeast and Second and 14th streets Northeast.

Politics over revitalization of the H Street area — which was marred by the 1968 riots — limited those plans back in the 1970s and stopped the historic district at F Street Northeast. But now another try at revitalization has made some homeowners realize that they want the protections afforded to their neighbors, said Dick Wolf, president of the restoration society, which helps interested communities become historic districts.

“I think people see these larger buildings are being built along H Street, and this amounts to an encroachment into the residential district,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Well, maybe we ought to think more seriously into getting into the historic district.’”

One such epiphany came because of a planned condo development that would cover half a block around Second and G streets Northeast. Cited by residents as exactly what they don’t want, the development is planned to include 315 apartments and 76,000 square feet of land. To better mesh in with the neighborhood, the building would be 110 feet high at one point on H Street but only 65 feet high within the residential area, said Bob Braunohler, regional vice president for the Louis Dreyfus Property Group.

“I think we have something fairly acceptable,” Braunohler said of the current plan.

But even years of negotiations with residents don’t make the project a sure thing. “I can’t predict. It’s a public hearing process. We’re definitely going to have opposition and we’ll have some supporters.”

The group is hoping to cut a deal with neighbors: It will pay for a survey of the 24 blocks — one step needed before the area can be deemed historic — if residents will allow the company’s block to be exempt.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alan Kimber said residents in his area have shown some interest in the deal but that the effort to extend the historic district is still in its beginning stages. However, if residents reject the offer and the Dreyfus property is included in the district, the company won’t be able to tear down the buildings necessary to complete its project.

Whatever happens, projects like the Dreyfus condo have jump-started people into action, Metzger said.

“That large companies can come in and buy up [homes] and put in a huge project — that certainly has made people realize that their neighborhood is vulnerable,” she said.

Now ANCs, neighborhood associations and other community groups are conducting meetings to educate homeowners on what being a historic district means. It isn’t as restrictive as some believe, Metzger and Wolf said. Although residents must fix things such as wood window frames with wood instead of other materials, they also have the freedom to expand their homes and do interior work, they said.

And with such historic treasures in these neighborhoods — some homes date as far back as the mid-1800s — Metzger said she would like to see the historic district go farther than just the residential areas south of H Street. If the businesses along H Street elected to become a historic district, they might find the protections useful, she said.

“It gives it an identity,” she said. “I think that H Street merchants would be foolish to allow these historic resources to be squandered.”