- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The District, with its many historic buildings, is prime real estate for confrontation between developers and preservationists.
Longtime preservationist and housing advocate Tersh Boasberg was appointed in February as chairman of the Historic Preservation Review Board, which approves all new construction on historic structures in the District.
No stranger to land-use politics, Mr. Boasberg served on the D.C. Zoning Commission for four years and has been long active with the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a civic group. He also opposed construction of the new convention center in the Shaw neighborhood.
Question: How did you get started?
Answer: I got involved first in the late 1960s, on a national level. My first client was in North Adams, Massachusetts. We were converting an old mill to an adaptive new use, a museum. It eventually became the Massachusetts Modern Art Museum. So I worked a lot with nonprofit groups, and cities on historic preservation. That was just after the Historic Preservation Act was passed. That was 1966.
Q: What other kinds of issues have you worked for in your career?
A: I've worked on zoning, planning, housing, anti-poverty, economic development. I always worked for nonprofits. It was closer to my ideals.
Q: What do you see are the main things that should be done in preservation work in the District?
A: We have the highest concentration of historic buildings of any city in the nation. We have 39 historic districts. We have 557 individual landmark structures under the U.S. Department of Interior, the highest honor a building can receive. In our historic districts, we have 39,000 individual buildings which are protected. There are many areas of the city which are protected now. Historic districts like Georgetown, Anacostia, Shaw and Mount Pleasant do a wide variety of things for the city. They can be looked at as economic development because they bring an enormous amount of money when people visit the District, and when people rehab the buildings. Number two, it's a great land use and zoning tool for people who want to keep their neighborhood stable.
Q: Now, how much are historic buildings at risk?
A: There is a lot of work that's unauthorized, that is done because they don't know or because they don't want to be bothered. We have one person. I think she's given 500 citations in the past six months. There are only four building inspectors and there were none in historic preservation. We do not have a demolition-by-neglect statute, so that if a building owner wants to destroy a building by doing nothing, there's not much we can do until it's so far gone, you can't really rehab the building at all. The Webster school downtown, for example. We have no way of preventing that school from becoming any more derelict.
Q: In the Yale Laundry case, you broke precedent by putting the application under review again after it had received conceptual plan approval.
A: That's wrong. That's a common mistake. The plan never received conceptual approval. The process is called concept review. It is an ongoing process. It means the project is reviewed and it may be reviewed two, three, or four times. It's a continual or evolving process.
Q: I may have the terms wrong, but from the people I've talked to, they thought they had already passed and expected that they would only have to deal with the staff on any conditions that the HPRB set.
A: No, that's not true. They may come back to the board as many times as they want. Usually large projects come back. That was a perfectly normal procedure. We don't want obviously to change decisions which have been made. Like any body that tries to build up precedent, but in a review process which is fluid, then you're perhaps going to get some rethinking.
Q: The one thing I can't understand is that does not seem to square with what I've heard from developers, in that they didn't expect this.
A: Any review process should be clear, should be orderly, it should respect precedent, it should be efficient and it should be quick. But I think that at the same time if there is a very difficult case and lots of competing interests, the review board may go through a maturing process. Cases get decided differently. On the other hand, it's important that there be a recognized procedure which is understandable and predictable.
Q: I understand one of the issues was trying to fit that building into the context of the larger neighborhood.
A: One goal was to save a historic structure. In order to save the structure, the project had to generate enough income for it to be a viable project for the developer. You're left with a landmark which itself is difficult to use in an economic way. Here the question was how large the hotel could be to return a fair profit to the developer to generate the funds to justify the project. Size then worked against three other factors. One, it was next to a two-story historic chapel. Second, the neighborhood adjoining it was only two to three stories tall. Then the third factor was that it's in a new historic district. Every one of these things has a trade-off. All of these angles were very hard to work out. It's fair if you're considering a first-time case in a new historic district to take more than one hearing. In these cases there is no one answer. This means compromise.
Q: Do you see historic preservation as a goal in itself or do you think that it could be used as a tool to serve other land use policies or goals?
A: I think a lot of that is true. it is a goal in itself in that there are landmarks and districts worthy of preserving in and of themselves Georgetown, Anacostia, Shaw. These are areas that have made an enormous contribution to the city. At the same time, I think they are part of the larger fabric of the city and they need to partake of the larger fabric of the city, so that we permit new construction in historic districts of the city. I like the term adaptive reuse. Unless you can use the building for modern uses, it's not going to do you any good because it's going to deteriorate.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide