They Put in a Parking Lot

This is straight up ridiculous:

Late last month, Washington DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board voted down a motion for the protection of Meads Row – a series of nearly century-old structures at 1305-1311 H Street, NE that owners Tae and Sang Ryu plan to demolish to make way for a new Atlas District parking lot, much to the dismay of the ANC 6A. With no recourse now left to the ANC, the owners are free to pursue a raze for the property, although, in the view of some city officials, the Ryu’s new pay-to-park will have anything but a positive effect on the increasingly developed H Street corridor.

Yeah, you think?

Today, most of the Meads Row properties in are in functional, though somewhat degraded, condition. 1311 H St. has been condemned by District authorities and currently boasts boarded-up windows and a damaged roof. Despite attempts from the ANC to facilitate historic restoration tax credits for the buildings, which directly neighbor the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the owners have expressed interest in no development scheme for the site other than asphalt.

In my view, it takes a particularly unimaginative, short-sighted, and careless sort of person to see a piece of property in this location and determine that the best and most profitable use for it is a surface parking lot (particularly since street parking near H Street isn’t exactly difficult to find). But the main thing is that this neighborhood is not out in the distant burbs somewhere. It’s in the heart of the city and part of a developing, walkable commercial corridor. Making unnecessary room for several tens of cars by creating a big gap in the streetscape and removing valuable land from productive use is a serious net negative for the neighborhood, for other businesses, and for pedestrians.

Have to hate this, that’s all I can say.


  1. Karl Smith says:

    What would be interesting is for you to talk through why you think there is a market failure here at the various remedies.

    I see an externality problem here but it also seems strange that it would result in the creation parking lots.

    That your property gains from being next to a nice old building makes sense. What doesn’t make necessarily sense is why a parking lot would gain. And if a parking lot doesn’t gain then that means that the Ryus are throwing away their external benefit by putting up a parking lot. Well doesn’t that imply that the external benefit is not that great?

    Or put another way – if the land has greater private value as a parking lot doesn’t that suggest that it would take a really high subsidy to make it worth preserving as a historic building? Perhaps a subsidy higher than what the populace would be willing to pay?

    I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

  2. ryan says:

    There are a few things to say about this. One is that owners are idiosyncratic, and so we can’t assume that the Ryus are acting with perfect information and rationality. They may not understand the economics of urban development, or they may not want to deal with finding businesses to occupy a property. A parking lot may not have the world’s highest margins, but it’s pretty easy.

    The other thing is that we’re not talking about a perfect market, and it might be possible to change their decision without offering a high subsidy by relaxing some of the city’s ridiculous development rules. It could be the case that rehabilitation or redevelopment of the property is the best private outcome given certain findings and expediency at various zoning board hearings and so on, but that with uncertainty about those outcomes the parking lot becomes more desirable.

    In that case, ire should also be directed at the city, but at this point I assume that “ire should also be directed at the city” is an understood subtext of all of my posts.

  3. Christopher says:

    I don’t understand how they are legally allowed to turn into a parking lot. Permits have to be issued to demolish as well as for curb cuts, yes? So the city and neighborhood still have recourse to prevent someone from doing just anything old thing they want to, yes? Or is that some kind of idea of zoning and regulation not fly down here in the upper South?

  4. BeyondDC says:

    This is why we need strict parking maximums in the zoning ordinance. There is no way in hell “parking lot” should be a by-right use.

    This shouldn’t have been a preservation board issue. It should be in the zoning code.

  5. Eric H. says:

    I’d like to agree with this, but it sounds so different from the perspectives shared by those who were opposed to protecting the Third Church of Christ Scientist on 16th street. The argument there was that the owners didn’t think it was good at being a church, and who are we to second guess them. Here, the owners share a similar feeling that the current structure isn’t good for what it is and they would like to do something else with the property. Why do we defer to the Third Church but not these owners? Sounds like we are looking at the potential outcome rather than the historical significance of the properties.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    Cities need to adjust the taxing schemes to make it more tax beneficial to develop the property (or less negative to develop) than it is to put in surface parking lots.

  7. Suzanne says:

    The two times I’ve been in DC, I found no need to drive whatsoever, with its excellent public transportation system and walkability.

  8. BeyondDC says:

    Eric H: It’s a mistake to look at these issues from a historic preservation standpoint. We should be looking at them from a “what’s good for the city” standpoint.

    The point is that we ought to have regulations that produce a quality built environment. The brutalist Third Church and surface parking lots make the built environment worse, so we should oppose them.

    The historic preservation movement got started because in the days of urban renewal, preserving what was there before was almost always better for the built environment than whatever the modernists proposed to replace it with. This whole argument we’re having about the place of historic preservation in our communities today is the result of those early preservationists not really being honest about why all that old stuff needed to be saved. It needed to be saved because it was good, not because it was old. But since they used rhetoric claiming that age was the important factor, we’re left today with a bunch of terrible old buildings like the 3rd church and rhetoric that says we should keep them, even though they’re terrible.

  9. Christopher says:

    BeyondDC: I have a slightly less benign take on why historic preservation exists. And where it came from, it started well before your hated ‘modernists’ — although certainly the WASPy preservation of where Washington slept was certainly challenged by Jews from Europe and their ideas for design. Preservation was a response and out growth of a sort WASP-persons burden. Anti-immigrant, anti-urban — hence it’s parallels with the so-called City Beautiful Movement (oh they that gave us monumental buildings in parks, urban freeways and urban renewal) — it was about protecting us from the ‘wrong kind’ of Europeans.

    That all being said, this IS a land use issue. And knocking down buildings to put in parking lots, SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED. Full stop. Preservation or not.

  10. Ben Ross says:

    I certainly agree with Beyond and Chris that parking lots should be prevented by the zoning ordinance, and not the historic preservation rules.

    But Chris, historic preservation goes back further. The oldest text I know of us Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. (You saw the movie, there’s a hunchback in it.) Hugo pleads for the preservation of medieval Paris, in particular the Cathedral of Notre Dame (at least we can all agree about that one).

    His thesis is that architecture went downhill after 1453 and the invention of the printing press. Those characterless 16th, 17th, and 18th century buildings aren’t worth preserving. He specifically cites as examples of worthless banal modern architecture the Pantheon (then Ste Genevieve) and the Invalides.

  11. mhoek says:

    I was very disheartened by this when I saw the story pop up on DCMUD. Hitting on the same points as those above but our city’s land-use regs really need to be sophisticated enough to control proposals like this without having to rely on HPRB. Sometimes owners need to be pushed a bit to develop a property to its highest and best use. I understand that the financial markets are still very tight at this point and on (unimaginative) paper the parking lot might look to be the most lucrative but the Ryu’s could probably simply sell this property to a developer with some real vision and make more money than the holding play of a surface parking lot.

    If (when) these buildings do get torn down it will create an unfortunate break in the urban fabric in this area but not one that will maintain ad infinitum. Eventually, probably once that stretch sees a bit more revitilization or streetcars are installed, that land will be sold to a new developer. At that point we can just hope that the zoning for the area has been modernized to ensure a positively contributing structure is built or that the land is purchased by a more conscientious developer that will not need coercing to do what is right for the built environment.

    Would the arguments be so strong if the plan was to turn an vacant lot into a parking lot as a short term development play to generate revenue until things loosened up in the credit market? If nothing is displaced or destroyed are the lots inherently bad (or worse than a vacant lot)?

  12. BeyondDC says:

    >Would the arguments be so strong if

    Yes. Remember the building at the corner of Farragut and K St?

  13. Eric H. says:

    I won’t ever see eye to eye with those that are opposed to historic preservation (or Beyond DC’s visceral distaste for modernism), but I don’t disagree that this is a unfortunate use.

    But I also can see the difference between design review, land use / zoning, and historic preservation.

    It is unfortunate that we urbanists are frequently fighting our battles in the realm of historic preservation. Whether it is the Third Church or Meads Row, historic preservation does not exist for the purpose of advancing the policies and design preferences of the urbanists, I think we seem silly when we fight in that arena.

    In this case, we have urbanists making certain arguments in opposition to preserving the Third Church and essentially the opposite arguments with respect to Meads Row.

    I’m in agreement with David Alpert that we need a different forum for some of the issues we are discussing.

    And as Beyond DC seems to agree in the above comment, we should not be viewing these issues through the historic preservation lens.

  14. While I know nothing of this particular site, I know something about the mind of a developer/speculator.

    If they are being rational, they may see a parking lot as a better revenue generator than the current use, especially if renovation is needed.

    A surface lot, as much as I hate them too, is a form of land speculation. Speculation plays an important (likely positive in the long-run) role in the long-term vibrancy of an urban area.

    The land owner may look at the “real option” (speculative) value of the site as greater than the current use. But, speculation may allow him to develop something denser and more appropriate in the future. That more appropriate use may be less likely to be redeveloped soon, and is more likely to be a robust contributor to the community…

    Of course, the preservation laws and zoning can really muddy up a land owner’s rationality too….

  15. mhoek says:

    @BeyondDC: this building?

    my question was not about vacant buildings but vacant, undeveloped, overgrown type lots. Properties that are not the desirable sort of open space but parcels that refuge for trash, etc.

  16. BeyondDC says:

    mhoek, I was just remembering that back in October there was plenty of outcry when the developer tore down the building at that corner, then got hit by the recession and wanted to turn the site into a parking lot for a couple of years until the economy recovers.

    I didn’t notice the part of your comment specifying that you’re talking about already-vacant land, so sorry about that.

    In that case it’s not *as* bad, but it still shouldn’t be a by-right form of development. Get a Special Use Permit in that extraordinary circumstance. That’s exactly the sort of thing we have SUPs for in the first place – things we don’t really want, but can accept given certain circumstances.