- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

A D.C. Council member is trying to forestall the granting of landmark status to 12 of the city’s 33 firehouses through legislation that would make it more difficult to designate them as historic.

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said she plans to introduce legislation April 6 that would require taking public safety into account before a building is declared historic.

The legislation is in response to delays in renovating a historic firehouse in Tenleytown. The overhaul is more than two years behind schedule and $1 million over budget.

The contractor who worked on the Engine 20 renovation, HRGM Corp., said the building’s historic status increased costs. The resulting dispute led city officials to fire HRGM in July, saying the company had defaulted on the contract.

Mrs. Patterson said she thinks that the problems encountered during the renovation had more to do with the contractor than with the historic status. However, she adds, the building never should have been designated as historic and that the request for such designations for 12 more stations restricts the ability to renovate many of the city’s firehouses.

“I think the idea of designating 15 to 20 firehouses across the city is something worth talking about,” she said. “There are lots of ways to archive the history, but that doesn’t mean the brick and mortar has to stay put.”

A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the delays in renovating Engine 20 were “beyond comprehension,” but he was cool to the idea that the mayor would set policy based on the city’s experience renovating Engine 20.

“The villain here is not historic preservation,” said Tony Bullock. “It would be a shame if this incident at Tenleytown created the problem for the rest of the city.”

The application for historic designation of Engine 20 was filed by preservationists from the Capitol Fire Museum, which also submitted applications in December 2002 to designate 12 more active firehouses as historic.

The issue has riled community members, who are concerned that the designation will slow renovation and expansion of firehouses in their neighborhoods.

“I almost feel like saying, ‘How dare you ask for this,’” said Alma Gates, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose jurisdiction includes Engine 29 at 4811 MacArthur Blvd. NW, which is scheduled for renovation next year.

“I really have a serious problem with preservationists from a museum being allowed to affect the safety of a whole community,” she said.

Sally Berk, an architectural historian and a board member of the nonprofit fire museum, said her group has every right to file the applications because the firehouses are “public buildings.” She denies that the designation means that buildings can’t be improved.

“Just because it becomes a landmark doesn’t mean it’s frozen in time,” she said. “They can all be adapted to current needs.”

If the designation is conferred, any building changes, including renovations and additions, would have to be approved by the review board.

According to the 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.

There are two active firehouses in the District with historic status: Engine 20 at 4300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, and Engine 3, at 439 New Jersey Ave. NW.

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