In yesterday’s mail I received the Twinbrook Citizens Association newsletter and noted that President Christina Ginsberg devoted a portion to historic preservation in Rockville in her article, “Is Your Home ‘Historic’?” As a member of the Historic District Commission (HDC) living in Twinbrook, I appreciate the attention to this long-standing effort in the City of Rockville, but I also want to correct some factual errors and misunderstandings, particularly because they can result in unnecessary conflicts and spread misinformation. Here are the common myths regarding preservation in Rockville:
1. If my house is designated, it’ll prevent improvements. False. In Rockville, owners of historic properties can complete routine repairs and maintenance without review or approval, as long as they replace in kind. So fix your roof with the same material, it’s okay. Change from asphalt to slate, it’ll need to be approved by the HDC. Paint colors are never subject to approval, so if you like yellow and purple stripes, go ahead. Work on the inside of your house isn’t reviewed by the HDC, so remodel your kitchen and bathroom. It’s permanent changes to the outside of your house that matter, and even then, if they are thoughtfully designed to preserve the historic character of your house, you can even add a room or demolish a wing—it just needs to be reviewed and approved. The HDC has done this dozens of times. But if you’re worried about this additional review, just remember that the city already has the right to approve changes to your home, especially if it can affect public safety. If you reroof your house, add a room, or remodel a bath, you’ll have to get a city building permit and are subject to an inspection. Building codes are a result of unsafe construction practices, which threaten neighboring homes and future owners (as well as the present ones). Preservation ordinances are a result of demolitions of historic buildings and badly-designed remodelings that lowered neighborhood property values. So if your house is historic, you might as well go through the extra step of approvals to get the tax benefits (did anyone mention that to you?). You’ll find a detailed chart on permits and approvals for historic buildings on the City’s Web site (notice how many items don’t require approval from the HDC).
2. If my house is historic, it’ll lower my equity and resale value. Mostly false. Historic preservation typically stabilizes property values , especially those in lower or middle income areas. Indeed, if historic preservation gets criticized, it’s that it improves property values so much that the owners can no longer afford the taxes to live in their houses (gentrification). Why? Because it slows and limits the rate of change in a neighborhood, preventing extensive demolitions (empty lots) and bad improvements (McMansions) and gives everyone a much clear understanding of what will be happening in the future (I don’t have to worry that the house next door is going to be remodeled into a monstrosity or torn down for an empty lot). If you want to see a clear demonstration of this, look at the West End. On Beall Avenue, one side of the street is in the historic district and the other is not—and you’ll be able to able to spot the difference immediately (the trick is to see houses as a neighborhood, not just individually). In wealthier areas, historic preservation usually protects what’s already there and doesn’t seem to affect property values as much—it’s mostly a prestige factor. There are people who feel that any limitations on the use of their property reduces their property values—but they also forget that such unlimited rights would allow their neighbor to convert their home into an apartment building, car repair shop, or adult book store. For me, property values are not just a result of what I can do, but what I can’t do.
3. All houses over 50 years old, as in Hungerford and Twinbrook, are considered historic. False. “Old” and “historic” are not the same thing. The City of Rockville has used written criteria, based on national standards, since the 1970s to determine if a building is historically significant, such as association with a famous person or event; work of a master craftsman or artist; or association with the development of a community, state, or nation. Notice that age is NOT one of the criteria–there’s no magical threshold that causes a property to be historic when it turns 50 years old. To be designated “historic” in Rockville, you have to go through a very lengthy process of public review to earn it. Here’s the confusion: the HDC does review every application for a demolition permit to ensure we don’t lose something historically significant. That’s what happened on Paca Place in Hungerford and on Crawford in Twinbrook.
Demolitions have an enormous long-lasting impact on a neighborhood. Not only can it affect property values by leaving an empty lot (remember the IBM Building downtown? lots of promises but still abandoned) or create a house that’s wrong for the neighborhood, but it also erases a place forever. Before that happens, the community (via the HDC) has a chance to review and comment. It’s hard to believe, but places like Independence Hall and the Red Brick Courthouse were once slated for demolition. Preservation is often the result of changing tastes and attitudes, and I’ve noticed that every generation seems to love the architecture of its grandparents and hates the architecture of its parents. In the 1950-60s, many people hated big fussy Victorian houses, like those on West Montgomery Avenue, and wanted to demolish them for modern ones. Now, those same houses are cherished and protected—but people can’t understand why we’d want to save any buildings from the 1950s and 1960s.
Historic preservation can be controversial, but it’s typically due to misunderstandings and misinformation. Every city and county does it differently, so what happens in Annapolis or Gaithersburg isn’t how it’s done in Rockville, so avoid making comparisons. The City Web site has lots of information and the staff and commissioners are all very helpful and welcome your questions. If I have any concerns, it’s that the City’s support for historic preservation has dropped significantly over the past few years—it’s about 25% of where we stood three years ago and there’s no sign that this will change any time soon. It’s been done quietly by the City Manager and without much notice by the Mayor and Council, and although the affect isn’t readily visible, it will be over the long haul.
And just to be clear, I’m speaking as a private citizen and not as a member of the Historic District Commission or as a representative of the City of Rockville. They may have differing opinions. Your comments are always welcome (and I may not reply immediately to give others a chance).