- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Neighborhood leaders said yesterday they will challenge the historic status of a century-old Northwest firehouse so the building can be replaced quickly with a state-of-the-art facility and reliable service can resume.

The project to renovate Engine Company 20 in Tenleytown stalled when the construction firm hired for the job complained that the historic status drastically altered the building design. The company later was fired for unsatisfactory performance, as reported yesterday in The Washington Times.

Ramesh Butani, president of District-based HRGM Inc., said in a letter in February that the city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement breached the contract by making substantial changes to the building design after it was designated a historic landmark.

The designation came in February 2002, six months after the company submitted its bid for the contract.

Anne Renshaw, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said yesterday the delay is a good time to reconsider the problems associated with naming a public-safety facility a historic landmark.

“We look positively on this,” Mrs. Renshaw said. “This is a chance to get what we need.”

Mrs. Renshaw was among many Tenleytown residents who wanted to demolish the station and replace it with a larger one that included four bays to accommodate more rescue equipment.

However, the building could have only 2 bays and had to incorporate the original historic designs to win approval from the city’s historic-preservation office.

Today, three standing walls at the abandoned construction site are all that remain of the original station. D.C. contracting officials said the project was supposed to be finished last month but is still only 23 percent complete.

A letter from the city’s contracting office said residents in the upper Northwest area “have endured inadequate fire and emergency medical services” since the renovations began a year ago.

Firefighters stationed at Engine 20 are working out of a trailer in the parking lot of the Naval District Washington complex on Nebraska Avenue. The trailer has no restrooms.

Mr. Butani submitted a request in February for an additional $1.9 million to cover the costs of changes to the building design to comply with the historic designation. However, the city contract officials granted Mr. Butani’s company $407,000.

Janice Bolt, a spokeswoman for the contracting office, said yesterday a bond company is investigating the situation and will try to find an alternative contractor to complete the work. She could not estimate when a new contractor would be hired.

She also dismissed a claim from Mr. Butani that D.C. officials threatened to withhold future contracts from his company if he didn’t accept the job at the price of his bid before the firehouse was declared historic.

“We don’t threaten contractors as a matter of practice,” Mrs. Bolt said.

The city’s Historic Preservation Review Board voted 7-0 in February 2002 to designate Engine Company 20 a historic landmark in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites.

According to the review board’s mandate, published in the D.C. Register in 1995, a building has to meet one of four criteria to be deemed historic: It should be associated with people who have contributed significantly to the heritage, culture and development of the city; exemplify a significant historical and architectural heritage of the city; embody a distinguishing architectural style to the District; or be the notable work of an architect who has influenced the development of the city.

Preservationists said the building met all four criteria.

The station was built in 1900, designed by architect Leon Dessez as part of a turn-of-the-century beautification movement for municipal buildings. Dessez also designed seven other D.C. firehouses and the vice president’s mansion on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Though the firehouse bays were designed to accommodate horses, it was retrofitted in 1913 to accommodate motorized vehicles.

Three firefighters in the station’s history have died in the line of the duty.

Mrs. Renshaw said she supports historic preservation to a point.

“When it gets in the way of public safety, I opt for public safety,” she said.

Amy McVey, another advisory neighborhood commissioner who opposed the historic designation, said she contacted representatives for Mayor Anthony A. Williams about having the historic status revoked.

“These were the problems that were predicted in the community meetings, and it’s come to fruition,” she said.

Mrs. McVey also said the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel referred the issue back to the Historic Preservation Office. The D.C. Office of Planning, which has oversight of the Historic Preservation Office, could not provide an answer yesterday on what rescinding the designation would entail or if any other designation had been revoked.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the fire department has “bent over backwards” to create a design that accommodates the wishes of all the constituents involved in the process. But he said the first priority is to get a station built.

“We need a building that is going to work for the fire department as soon as possible,” Mr. Etter said.

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