HPA No. 2014-152 (In re. 616 Eye St. NW Rear)
- HPA Number: 2014-152
- Case Name: In the Matter of: MR Eye Street JV LLC, et al
- Location of Property: 616 Eye Street, NW Rear
- Date of Decision: December 2, 2015
- Type of Case/Type of Permit Sought: Demolition
- Disposition: Granted
- Subject Matter(s): Historic District; Special Merit – Community Services
Summary of Decision:
The Applicant had sought to demolish a five story warehouse in the Downtown Historic District in order to construct a self-described special merit ten story mixed-use project. The proposal—which would preserve nine of the site’s ten 19th century historic row house buildings--included retail, market rate and “affordable” housing, as well as arts and cultural spaces.
During the historic preservation review process, the project shifted from office use to residential, and as the size of the project decreased, the amount and quality of preserved space increased. While the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) found that the project was consistent with the character of the historic district, the Applicant sought the demolition of an alley warehouse, and so the case went to the Mayor’s Agent.
The Mayor’s Agent may allow the demolition of an historic landmark or a contributing building in an historic district if the proposed project is “necessary in the public interest,” D.C. Code §6-1105(e)—which means it is either consistent with the purpose of the preservation law or a project of special merit. In a special merit case, the Mayor’s Agent must first decide whether the proposed project meets one the three criteria of special merit established in the Act: (i) exemplary architecture, (ii) specific features of land planning, or (iii) social or other benefits having a high priority for community services. D.C. Code §6-1102(10). If the project satisfies one of these three criteria, then the Mayor’s Agent must determine if the special merit project outweighs the harm to historic properties. If the balancing test suggests to the Mayor’s Agent that the project’s benefits exceed the historic value of the historic property, then the Mayor’s Agent must also find that the work is “necessary” to allow the special merit project. In this special merit case, the case turned on whether the Applicant could show to the Mayor’s Agent that demolition of the alley warehouse was necessary to construct a project of special merit.
The Mayor’s Agent determined that the proposed project easily satisfied the special merit criteria of offering social or other benefits having high priority for community services. The Mayor’s Agent cited “exemplary preservation,” which included reducing the size of the project, only demolishing the non-contributing rears of the buildings, and restoring nine of ten buildings. Adopting the historic buildings for new residential use in Chinatown is consistent with specific provisions of the Comprehensive Plan. The affordable units planned (at levels above those required) also contributed to the special merit of the project. The Mayor’s Agent also cited the arts and cultural space as a further contributor to community benefits. All these community benefits are “significant.”
Having found a project of special merit, the Mayor’s Agent then considered that the preservation of the Eye Street row houses and alley buildings and the benefits from the project mentioned above outweighed the loss of the warehouse, which “visually conveys little of significance.” This was partly due to the fact that the alley warehouse was “stylistically non-descript” and was not included in the original nomination for the building.
Moving to the third step of the special merit test, the Mayor’s Agent then grappled with whether the warehouse’s demolition was necessary to the project. Although the Applicant “did not present plans for alternatives to demolition,” the Mayor’s Agent heard testimony about the difficulties of incorporating the warehouse into the project, such as the lack of alignment of the floors between the warehouse and the rest of the project. Moreover, the warehouse floors would only be seven feet high and could not be adapted to current building code specifications. Major modifications could compromise the structure’s integrity. Still, the Mayor’s Agent clarifies that the Applicant could have studied in more detail whether incorporating the building was feasible.
Citing previous Mayor’s Agent decisions, the Mayor’s Agent ultimately determined that demolition was necessary to build the special merit project as proposed, and “not one entirely different.” The Mayor’s Agent concluded that “constraints imposed on the new construction by exemplary preservation on site of other historic buildings justified demolition of a less significant but protected building.”
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- Full text of order.pdf
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Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council/Concerned Citizens of Anacostia v. District of Columbia Office of Planning., Historic Preservation Office District of Columbia. Court of Appeals (2015)