Historic Designation?

By Historic Designation Committee, hd@burleith.org

 a PDF of this 1955 booklet by edgar FARR russell can be downloaded from our  website .

a PDF of this 1955 booklet by edgar FARR russell can be downloaded from our website.

This is the first in a series of articles about possible historic designation for Burleith. More information will be provided via the website, Burleith Bell, email, and community meetings.

Why? As we all know, Burleith is a special rowhouse neighborhood—close to all of the wonderful urban action, yet quiet, green, and residential. We also have a generally cohesive look with Georgian colonial-style homes, mixed with some Tudor elements. Indeed, the Shannon and Luchs development from the 1920s that largely forms Burleith was an innovation in its time and was copied in other cities.

Chaired by Carol Baume and Lenore Rubino, a new committee is exploring the possibility of obtaining historic designation as one way to preserve our unique architectural heritage. Over the next few months, the committee will organize a variety of outreach activities and establish a dedicated webpage to encourage wide community input and address all questions. Please look for emails announcing these efforts.

Almost 60 neighborhoods in Washington have already obtained historic status. Examples include Foxhall Village, Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Foggy Bottom, Mount Pleasant, Capitol Hill, and Georgetown. 

Here is what we already know about historic designations in DC.

What about the zoning code? Burleith is an R3 zone. As a matter of right, structures can be as tall as 40 feet and have a maximum lot occupancy of 60% (semi-detached, i.e., rowhouses) or 40% (all other structures, i.e., detached houses). The rear yard requirement is 20 feet. The vast majority of Burleith properties occupy much less than the allowable maximum. This means that anyone has the right to put up third floors and expand their properties considerably. At the present time, this can be done as a matter of right, as long as appropriate permits are obtained.

In the past, there have been issues with requests for zoning variances to build taller structures or to occupy more of the property as well as charges of developers “fudging” their permits. Residents’ opinions diverge on the quality of the DC government’s oversight and enforcement of existing laws and regulations.

What about a zoning overlay? Some neighborhoods have implemented overlays. However, the new zoning code is discouraging such requests.

Would it be like Georgetown where lots of reviews are required for renovations? No. It would be like Foxhall Village. Georgetown has national historic designation—a status Burleith does not qualify for. The Old Georgetown Board must approve all Georgetown projects and has considerable power. Burleith would not have this level of oversight.

What would historic designation mean in practice? Historic designation would only affect the front exterior and require it to be in keeping with the current neighborhood style. Essentially, anything visible from the street/public area could not be substantially modified. Any kind of interior renovation is permissible, as are rear additions not visible from the street.

What about the bureaucratic hassle? All exterior architectural alterations and building permits would need to be approved by the DC Historic Preservation Office. Although most major renovations already require permits, additional permits would have to be procured for items like windows, doors, and roofs. Note, however, that there is an expedited permitting process for small projects like doors or windows. Each historic district has a liaison at the DC Historic Preservation office and a neighborhood preservation committee.

What are the costs? Certain replacement products (e.g., vinyl windows, asphalt shingles instead of original slate) would not be allowed. Some renovation costs might increase.

What are the benefits? Research from across the country shows that historic status raises property values by 5–30%. Historic status also acts as a stabilizing factor during property market turmoil. The architectural cohesiveness of the neighborhood would be sustained.

For more information, please check out the Foxhall Village Historic District webpage and the website of the DC Office of Historic Preservation.