Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historic Preservation Education: OP HPO responses to Q's about rooftop solar, utility meters in the front, rear additions, warehouses, historic review process & "witch hunts"

See this response from Kim Prothro Williams of the DC Office of Planning Historic Preservation Office to questions raised by Eckingtonian Carly Page.

Walt Cain <>:
Mar 23 02:54PM -0400

Hi Carly,

Thank you very much for raising some excellent points. Rather than attempt to respond to them myself, I reached out to HPO to clarify. Below is the response from Kim Williams, who was a panelist at the first town hall.

Thanks again,



In terms of the Energy and Environmental concerns, HPO regularly strives to make sustainable building technology successful in historic districts. It is true that we would not allow the solar panels on the front slopes of the rooftops in Eckington, but behind those half-mansards and other roof forms, the rooftops are typically flat, thereby making solar panel installation ideal in Eckington. The flat portions of the roofs are not generally visible from the street. In the January meeting when I referenced sight lines, I was referring to roof top additions, not solar panels which can lie flat. In some instances in rowhouse neighborhood historic districts rooftop additions can be set back from the façade and not be visible from the street. Because of the terrain in Eckington, this is more challenging, as I mentioned. However, I am sure that rooftop additions can be done in certain situations in Eckington. A good example is in Mount Pleasant – also a hilly neighborhood-- where we have approved numerous solar panel installations and rooftop additions. However, it would be a case-by-case situation.

It is true that HPO requires new meters to be placed away from the façade of the house. This does not necessarily mean on the interior of the house, but they could be placed below the front stairs, on the side, at the rears, in stairwells, etc. The goal is for the utility meters to be inconspicuous and not dominate the façade. I get that if PEPCO is making this the homeowner’s problem, then it is a problem. For the most part, however, this situation will occur when a developer converts a SFD into multi-family condos which creates a situation where a single electrical and gas meter expands into numerous meters – so for 6 units there would now be 12 meters – which starts to cover a large area of the facade. In that case, the burden of placing the meters on the property, inconspicuous yet accessible to PEPCO without it being a financial burden on the owner, would be on the developer and not the property owner. See the attached Utility Meter guidelines for further reference.

In terms of massing changes, rear additions can likely be made in Eckington assuming they meet zoning requirements. Rear additions are regularly approved in historic districts across the city, including in Capitol Hill (east end of historic district) where the rowhouses have similar qualities to those in Eckington. In January, I did note that corner houses are the most problematic in terms of rear additions and that is true. However, modest additions that are deferential to the historic house would be approved. It is the long pop-backs that double the size of the house that would not be considered compatible.

And, as for the warehouses, I can envision great and creative opportunities for increased density. There are a lot of vacant lots adjacent to the warehouses where higher density projects could be built that incorporate the historic buildings. The warehouses give Eckington its unique character and although mostly vernacular and not high-style buildings, the open floor plates and industrial windows have great appeal for developers. Historic district designation would protect this unique industrial character from being replaced, but would not discourage new construction. The former automobile showrooms and service centers that have been largely renovated and converted to theaters, condos, etc. along the 14th Street HD provide a good example of how historic preservation and development work in concert in a successful way.

As for the review process, the HPO and HPRB follow established standards. The Historic Preservation Review Board gives great weight to comments from the ANC, but in order for those comments to be considered, they must address the preservation concerns in relation to the guidelines and standards. Every neighborhood has its own process for review; some historic districts do not have any. In all cases, the comments by these review bodies and the ANC are presented to HPRB that will review them in making their determinations on projects. Ultimately, the HPRB looks only at the preservation issues and how the project meets the guidelines, and does not take into consideration non-preservation matters such as parking, economics, etc.

In terms of the “witch hunt” nature of living in a historic district, I would argue the opposite. The Historic Anacostia spokesperson mentioned the “gotcha” effect of being able to impose a stop-work order on an unpermitted project and I don’t disagree that her description gives a bad impression. But, really, being in a historic district actually levels the playing field. Everyone should know the rules and regulations and know that they will be reviewed by a government agency in a fair manner according to those rules, so the neighbors, in effect, actually relax in their search to fight inappropriate development. Neighborhood watchdogs identifying illegal work in or outside of historic districts, however, is a good thing. Work should always be done with a permit to ensure proper construction techniques and the safety of all.


  1. Thank you, Carly, for excellent analysis of potential problems. Rushing ahead with historic designation will have pitfalls for some people in some homes, and the "case-by-case" review is reason for thought. Another thing to remember is the response that says "every neighborhood has its own process for review." So, the ease or difficulty of approval cannot be known today, and could change over time as members of the review board change.

  2. Kim and Walt, thank you for such clear explanations. Much appreciated.