- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

D.C. fire officials say a deal brokered by the city to convert one of their historic firehouses into a restaurant and lounge does not mean they are considering selling any others, despite the problems associated with maintaining them.

The District last week announced it had reached an agreement with a developer to renovate Old Engine Company 12, at North Capitol Street and Quincy Place in Northwest.

The developer, NC Firehouse LLC, will transform the building, which has been vacant for a decade, into a full-service, sit-down restaurant called EC-12 with a second-floor cultural and performing-arts space.

XM Satellite Radio will broadcast live music events from the location, and the restaurant will include a sidewalk cafe and a renovated rooftop deck to accommodate an outdoor seating area.

“Basically, the location of this firehouse, the central location, and the architecture made it really popular among developers,” said Susan Cheng, a special assistant in the office of the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

Terms of the deal have not been finalized, but she said the developer must work within historic preservation guidelines.

Old Engine Company 9 was sold to developers and transformed into the Chi Cha Lounge, a Latin-themed restaurant and nightclub. However, that building was not designated historic.

In 2001, preservationists filed a group application for historic designation for 13 of the department’s 33 active firehouses.

According to the Office of Planning’s Historic Site Inventory, six firehouses on that list are protected pending a designation, one has been rejected for historic status, and six firehouses have been designated historic buildings.

Three other firehouses not on the list had already been granted protected status, bringing the total number currently protected to 15.

D.C. firefighter Rich Schaffer, a preservationist who is president of the Capitol Fire Museum, which submitted the group application to grant the firehouses historic status, said he thinks the deal for Engine 12 is good for the city.

“A historic firehouse is a hot property,” he said. “My position is I don’t care if it becomes a prison or a rendering plant as long as it’s preserved.”

However, the fire department has had troubles maintaining such properties. Renovations to historic buildings require the approval of the District’s Office of Historic Preservation.

They are typically more expensive to maintain and whenever possible involve using original building materials or facsimiles.

“We do have a struggle when historic preservation is involved,” said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department.

He added, however, that building facilities from scratch would be prohibitively expensive.

“It would involve buying land, possibly through eminent domain. But there would be a huge outlay of cash upfront,” he said.

The most notorious example of the department’s struggles with historical preservation is Tenleytown’s Engine Company 20, which has been closed for nearly four years for renovations.

The fire department’s original request was to raze the building and construct a state-of-the-art firehouse on the site.

When the building was declared a historic property, plans for the station were scaled back, angering residents.

Amy McVey, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in upper Northwest, said it would have been nice if the community had the option of handing Engine 20 to developers and rebuilding from scratch when making plans for its replacement.

“There were other sites that were for sale,” Mrs. McVey said. “I would like to have seen the original request of the fire department honored.”

The fire department has considered abandoning historic Engine Company 22 on Georgia Avenue in Northwest and constructing a modern facility at another site.

Before the fire department abandons a building, fire officials see if there is any other purpose for which it can be used.

For example, there are plans to make the historically protected Old Engine Company 11 the headquarters of the recently formed fire department special operations battalion.

The department can declare the building surplus property and give it back to the city, which can find a use for it.

In the case of Engine 12, the city turned the property over to Restore D.C., a neighborhood revitalization program within the office of planning.

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