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The question of historic designation in Bloomingdale

The Zombies are coming! The Zombies are coming!


If you watch even a little bit of TV, you’ve probably seen the commercial where this
poor guy shows up at his insurance company to file a claim and the representative
promptly tells him they don’t pay claims for everyday casualties of home ownership
like a damaged air conditioning unit or a broken water heater but, instead, they do
cover things like the Zombie Apocalypse. I gotta’ say, hearing some of the claims in
opposition to historic designation sounds a little like the Bloomingdale version of the
Zombies Are Coming.

Recently, in an open letter published on the Bloomingdale list-serve, the Blog and other
places entitled “Why I oppose historic designation for Bloomingdale”, the author listed
all the reasons for his opposition. I thought while reading it, this guy is making
assumptions and jumping to conclusions that really don’t add up. Then shortly after
this letter was published, I received what I’ll call the Zombie-Apocalypse-Flyer in my
door which claimed, among other things, that having historical designation “will
exacerbate the problem of the rising cost of living in Bloomingdale, especially for low-income
neighbors and seniors looking to age in place.” Reading this, I figured I should at least
weigh-in on the matter and since the flyer suggested that the January ANC meeting
would be the forum where I could do just that, I showed up at the meeting ready to be
heard.

As it turned out, near the very end of an almost three-hour meeting, I was told (by the
Chair and members of the Commission) the matter of historic designation for
Bloomingdale was not on the agenda and, even though the ANC would weigh-in on the
matter at some point, the hearing was at least 60 days off, if not more. Nevertheless,
some folks, apparently having received the flyer and making the same assumption I
had about the purpose of the meeting, made remarks anyway (both pro and con) in the
brief time we had left. But the one remark, obviously in opposition to the designation,
that stood out the most was this: “Lots of people will lose their homes.” At this point,
I’m thinking this thing, at least for some, had gone completely off the rails.

Disclosures
I’ve lived in Bloomingdale since 1991, I’m a former President of the Bloomingdale Civic
Association and former Chair of the Board of North Capitol Main Street. I’ve been a
proponent of Historic Designation for Bloomingdale since the ‘90s, when I joined with
other long-time residents to introduce the idea to Bloomingdale Civic Association.
(BCA) I am a grass roots member of the Coalition, having co-moderated several
community forums to educate residents on historic designation from the perspective of
the significance of Bloomingdale as an historic community, among other things.
Fear vs Reality
I believe that the matter of support or opposition to historic designation for
Bloomingdale should be decided and based on facts as we know them, the truth about
what causes rising home prices, observations about what is actually happening in
Bloomingdale today and common-sense conclusions; not appropriations of fear for
truth and outlandish claims of doom.

Fact 1:
Regarding construction oversight, Historic Preservation Office (HPO) concerns itself
only with the sides that "face the street" -- namely the "streetscapes" -- and they are not
concerned with the rear of the property. I only mention this because I’ve heard remarks
about how historic designation would make, say, redoing a kitchen or adding a
bathroom impossible. Should be obvious, but maybe not.

Fact 2:
The biggest factor in rising home valuations, thus, assessments and taxes, is the last
comparable sale on your block and then neighborhood-wide sales. Ask a realtor.

What’s Happening Now


A personal example:
Developer A comes along and makes an offer to Homeowners B. Homeowners B
accepts Developer A’s offer of $650k and skedaddles on down the road to Florida.
Developer A then subdivides into condos – two three-bedroom units – with all the bells
and whistles and flips the units back on the market in 120 days or less for almost $900k
each. Because Developer A has now subdivided his investment by popping up the top
floor to make two units, my home now becomes at least 1/3 larger than each unit, if not
more. When Developer A sells for $900k each, the assessment and property taxes on
my home – which is three doors down – go through the roof.

This scenario – popping up, doubling and in some cases tripling the number of units
and then flipping each unit for up to 50% more than sale -- goes on all over
Bloomingdale. All the time. By Developers, mostly, not owner-occupied residents. The
yearly battle to fight rising assessments becomes more difficult every year. For
everyone.

And speaking of owner-occupied residents, I forgot to mention in this little scenario


that Homeowners B were of moderate income and, although not long-time residents by
Washingtonian standards, (they lived in the home for about 20 years) had never made
one single improvement inside or out – no windows, doors, roof; even the deck in the
back was caving in. Yet, they got a $650k payday. Not bad. I’m happy they made a
good profit and moved on. But here’s the question: Which do you think will be the
biggest factor having an effect on my assessment and taxes next year – the sale by the
Homeowners B to the Developer A or the sale by the Developer A to the market? I can
hear the argument of the assessor now: “But, Ms. Mitchell, the latest sale on your own block
was $900k and that property is half the size of yours.” Admitted, I don’t have all the bells
and whistles, but my home is no dump, done a lot of work inside, none of which would
have required HPO oversight.

Observations
Think about the number of exterior renovations done by owner-occupied residents on
your block. How many come to mind? Outside of painting, (which requires no
oversight) I have to really think hard. Let’s see, I believe there was a door replaced,
there were windows replaced within the last year by a family who has lived on the
block for 40+ years and there was a basement entrance brought to sidewalk level – in
my memory, their first, if not only, in at least ten years. I know my street pretty well
and I’ve been here long enough to know the neighborhood pretty darn well also. But
even when I widen the range beyond my block, a full three more come to mind.

There was the statement in the letter about rising costs of architects. How many
neighbors are hiring an architect to replace a door, or windows or even a roof? Sure,
you’d have to hire one if you did a full story pop-up, but how many neighbors do you
know are doing that kind of reno? From my observations just on my block, I don’t
know of a single one. Just my observations and you’ll have your own. However, I can
tell you who has hired architects and engineers and road crews and laborers and many
others associated with construction on this level in Bloomingdale. The developers.

History or Aesthetics?
The author of the letter also seemed to suggest that the presentations for historic
designation highlighted the historical significance of Bloomingdale in order to bolster
the aesthetic argument that pop-ups are ugly eyesores and undesirable. The focus of
the community meetings was to educate residents that Bloomingdale actually did
qualify for historic designation and why. This is the first step in moving forward on
historical designation and one that is required by HPO, which is why extensive research
was commissioned and presented in a very detailed format. In other words, why make
a neighborhood historical if there’s nothing significant about the neighborhood itself?

The historical argument is required by HPO and the aesthetic argument is obvious to
lots of folks, at least to me it is. Who’d want a four-story pop-up that resembles a
spaceship, complete with up to eight residents, as the house next door? So, the answer
to the question, history or aesthetics, is both.

There are further neighborhood-wide discussions about this issue that should occur and
that is the question of the economics of historic designation, especially in light of the
fact that this question seems to be the driver of misinformation and fear. I don’t believe
this has been discussed adequately, at least openly in public dialog, even though there
have been opportunities to do so because I honestly cannot understand how one jumps
from historic designation will be costly in general to “people will lose their homes.”

It could be that sometimes people just need time to process new ideas in order to
respond. And maybe the processing has gone on in private conversations already or
even in one’s own head. But I would urge everyone who wants to be heard on the
matter to show up at the civic association meetings and the ANC meetings to voice your
concerns, the basis of your concerns and engage in open and honest dialog with other
neighbors. Economic impact, perceived or otherwise, is important to everyone and I
believe collectively as a community, we should and can consider whether or not historic
designation is a tool and/or even the best tool to ensure that affordability in
Bloomingdale remains a reality.

It goes without saying, that the historical significance of Bloomingdale is undeniable;


the desire for aesthetic balance is also one that I think we can agree is important, to
varying degrees. If the economics is really where we’re getting bogged-down, let’s
come together as a community to talk about it. Don’t just sit back and pull conclusions
out of thin air. (Not really the way I wanted to say this, but to be respectful of the
public forum…)

Conclusion
Considerations as to whether or not we, as a community, choose historic designation
should be decided by everyone who has an interest and skin in the game. I would urge
everyone to come to the meetings, voice your opinion, do some research, think about
this question of historic designation honestly and without preconceived notions or
motives. I know we can do this.

Pat Mitchell
@PatNB_dale