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Burleith to Consider Historic Designation

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

The small residential neighborhood of Burleith, just north of Georgetown, is at a crossroads, residents say. Students from the nearby university are moving out, and investors are taking notice. The community is divided on how to move forward, but some believe more protections might be necessary to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character.

Following up on an initial discussion in February, the Burleith Citizens Association will explore the possibility of historic designation for the neighborhood at a town hall meeting tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at the S&R Foundation Studios, 1801 35th St. NW.

Historic districts have stronger protections on pop-ups and other front-facing development than neighborhoods without that classification. In particular, changes to anything visible from the street or other public areas receive design scrutiny for compatibility with the area’s historic character.

The citizens association first explored the feasibility of creating a Burleith historic district in 2005, according to Lenore Rubino, the group’s Historic Designation Committee co-chair. At the time, the possibility of up to $35,000 in application fees was “prohibitive,” she said in an interview.

But within the past year, some neighbors began to express concerns about a spate of redevelopments that brought increased height and density to the community’s historic row homes.

“We’ve heard from quite a few residents at this point about being unsettled by the redevelopments,” citizens association president Eric Langenbacher told The Current.

And the historic designation process would now cost closer to $25,000, thanks to a now-completed Historic Preservation Office project to catalog individual homes in an online database, which the citizens association would have had to do itself a decade ago.

One impetus for the change stems from the Georgetown University campus plan, according to the association. As the university created more on-campus housing for students, more properties in Burleith opened up, and investors took a renewed interest in the neighborhood. That trend seems likely to continue, as Georgetown just last week approved an early draft of its 2017-2037 campus plan calling for continued investment in housing options that get students out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Upon noticing the effects of this trend, Rubino’s committee last year first explored the possibility of zoning challenges, but current zoning regulations permit all of the development that has taken place so far. And new zoning regulations going into effect later this fall discourage zoning overlays, which have previously helped neighborhoods manage maximum height.

Applying for a historic district proved the most viable remaining option to consider, Rubino said, noting that her committee isn’t necessarily for or against the possibility — but simply exploring the pros and cons at this point.

The association has already heard from residents worried that such designation would prevent them from making desired changes to their homes. Langenbacher and his colleagues plan to dispel such concerns. “It’s a way of managing the overall look of the community and letting the community have a say, without really placing a lot of restrictions, as nationally designated districts do,” Historic Designation Committee co-chair Carol Baume said.

The city currently contains 32 neighborhoods designated historic, according to Office of Planning spokesperson Edward Giefer. The application process can take more than a year, he said. Most recently, the city awarded historic designation to Grant Circle in Ward 4 and expanded the designation area for Capitol Hill in 2015. Burleith has never applied for historic designation before, Giefer said.

“Well-documented applications backed up with significant community outreach and broad community support will result in designations if the case has been made that the neighborhood meets the designation criteria,” Giefer said. “Proposals that do not receive broad community support generally do not lead to applications for designation.”

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) member Ed Solomon told The Current he’s intrigued by the prospect of historic designation for Burleith. He also wants to assure concerned residents that the process would not place as many restrictions as are currently in place in Georgetown, which were established by Congress prior to the adoption of local preservation regulations.

“I believe that more education has to be done in the community to let people know what’s involved in Burleith becoming a historic district,” Solomon said. “What they know now is what they see in Georgetown. This would be a little different.”

Baume notes that new restrictions would focus on what’s visible from the street — generally not affecting construction and additions in the rear of homes.

The citizens association aims to set the community feedback process in motion quickly, as the neighborhood’s high proportion of rentals means more investor activity could be incoming. Another community meeting in September will follow the one on Thursday, and the association is currently accepting monetary donations for the effort.

“We really do want to hear people’s concerns so we can address them and find out answers for them so they can make an informed decision,” Baume said.

This article appears in the June 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.