Opinion

Poll: Should Alexandria do more to preserve historic buildings?

As seen in Del Ray (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

Last week, Richmond-based historic preservation non-profit Preservation Virginia called for the Town of Potomac — today part of the Del Ray neighborhood — to receive greater protection from demolition and redevelopment.

According to the group, redevelopment is bringing larger residential developments to the neighborhood and demolishing older homes:

The popularity of the neighborhood’s architecture, scale and walkability is jeopardizing the very characteristics that have attracted people to it for years. Many recent residents and developers in need of larger living space are demolishing the historic, mid-sized houses to build new, often outsized and out-of-character houses in their place. Approximately 75 houses in the Town of Potomac Historic District have been demolished in recent years, and the rate of loss is accelerating.

The solution, according to Preservation Virginia, would be to put the Town of Potomac into the same kind of architectural review board that currently oversees construction or alterations in Old Town and Parker Gray.

More broadly, Preservation Virginia noted that there are few protections for historic buildings if those aren’t under the purview of the Board of Architectural Review or on the city’s list of buildings over 100 years old — a list that’s had some notable omissions in recent years.

While the current system of identifying which buildings quality as historic has its faults, what is considered “historic” is rarely a simple question.

According to the group:

Even though the Town of Potomac Historic District is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places, there is no local process to review, slow down, or prevent the demolition of the district’ contributing buildings. Implementing a local overlay district with guidelines and review by an architectural review board, such as in Old Town Alexandria and the Parker-Gray Historic District, could be a way to help stem tear-downs in the Town of Potomac Historic District.

Implementing a local overlay district would create a process in which the public could participate. A review process would not necessarily preclude demolition of historic buildings, but it would provide a thorough, transparent, and public process.

But even in areas like Parker-Gray and Old Town, the Board of Architectural Review has been sometimes scrutinized for being onerous. Last December, a homeowner was forced — at great expense — to remove external piping to a historic home.

The question about historic preservation also comes as the city is working through a massive overhaul to its housing zoning, called Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, that aims to change housing codes to boost housing affordability city-wide.

And so, the perhaps overly simplistic question: