Decision Summary HPA No. 12-044
- HPA Number
- Building Name
Engine Company No. 29
- 4811 MacArthur Blvd. NW
- Date of Order
HPA Number: 12-044
Case Name: In the Matter of: Engine Company No. 29
Location of Property: 4811 MacArthur Boulevard NW; Square
1372, Lot 808
Date of Decision: May 2, 2012
Type of Case/Type of Permit Sought: Alteration
Subject Matter(s): Alteration; Adaptation for Use; Special Merit – General; Landmark; Necessary in the Public Interest; Special Merit – Balancing Test
Summary of Decision:
The District of Columbia Department of Fire and Emergency Services (the “Applicant”) sought a permit to enlarge the firehouse doors at Engine Company No. 29, a landmark firehouse at 4811 MacArthur Boulevard NW. The 1925 Colonial Revival style firehouse had twin doorways (ten feet wide by eleven feet high) topped with arched fan windows. As the size of modern firefighting vehicles grew, the original doors were no longer large enough to allow the safe passage of new equipment.
The Applicants sought a permit to increase the doors’ width and height to 12 feet, respectively. The Historic Preservation Office (“HPO”) Staff Report argued in favor of keeping the door height at eleven feet because it thought the increased door height would out of proportion to the rest of the façade. The Historic Preservation Review Board (“HPRB”) adopted the staff report, which stated the increased door height was incompatible with the character of the landmark and thus inconsistent with the purposes of the Act. At the suggestion of HPRB, the Applicant appealed to the Mayor’s Agent.
Upon review of the record, the Mayor’s Agent concluded that issuance of the permit was necessary to allow a project of special merit.
Necessary in the Public Interest:
According to D.C. Code § 6-1108.1(g), when considering a claim of special merit, the substantial rehabilitation or new construction for operational needs of a public safety facility, such as a fire station, constitutes a public interest with significantly higher priority than historic preservation. Both HPO and the Applicants agreed to the necessity of widening the doors; the dispute involved the necessity of increasing the height from eleven to twelve feet. HPO argued that since the ladder trucks currently being used were only ten feet four inches tall, a door height of eleven feet would be adequate. The Applicant responded that twelve foot doors are necessary because the city’s tallest fire trucks are ten feet eleven inches and that a few inches of clearance did not provide enough of a margin for future developments in equipment. HPO suggested the doors could be widened and opened inwards, but the Applicant stated that the doors needed to open outwards so that crews could service vehicles inside the fire house.
Once the Mayor’s Agent found that the doors must be twelve feet high and widened outwards for the Applicant’s operational reasons, the Mayor’s Agent could not identify an alternative design that was less damaging than the Applicant’s proposal. HPO was unable to provide an adequate alternative design if the doors were raised to twelve feet.
Special Merit – General:
While D.C. Code § 6-1108.1(g) makes rehabilitation of a firehouse for operational needs a project of special merit per se, the Mayor’s Agent nevertheless must determine whether the proposed rehabilitation seeks to accomplish genuine operational improvements and whether the alteration of its historic features is no greater than necessary. While retaining the existing arches—a “surgical” approach HPO preferred—would align with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, the Mayor’s Agent found that in this case, widening the doors outward into an asymmetric relation to the original arches “would create an incoherent façade that fails to honor the important public service within.” By allowing fire services to continue to be housed in the space, the Mayor’s Agent found that the Applicant’s design “promotes preservation purposes by perpetuating an important civic spatial and visual link.”
The Mayor’s Agent concluded that the Applicant’s appropriated funds and commitments to use quality workers would ensure the renovation would be carried out promptly pursuant to D.C. Code § 6-1105(h), which requires a finding that the owner has the ability to complete the project of special merit before issuance of the permit.
Special Merit – Balancing Test:
The Special Merit balancing test would normally apply in a situation like this, and the Mayor’s Agent would balance the special merits of the proposal against the historic value of the building. In this case, however, the D.C. Code dictates that a rehabilitation of a firehouse has a higher priority than historic preservation.