The Arlington County government’s Historic Resources Inventory – call it “HRI” for short – of local properties sits somewhere between local historic districts on the one hand and mere honorifics like inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places on the other.
But the head of the county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board believes local leaders should pay more attention to the 11-year-old HRI when dealing with development proposals.
“Nobody on the Planning Commission and nobody on the County Board seems to remember or understand or care about what the County Board did [in adopting the HRI] and what it means and what they’re supposed to do to protect those properties,” HALRB chair Richard Woodruff said at the tail end of the body’s March meeting.
“We need to engage in a public-information campaign that reminds our elected leaders what their obligations are,” Woodruff said.
The trigger for the discussion was the possibility that the circa-1949 Joyce Motors building in Clarendon could be torn down to make way for new development, even though it was one of just 10 commercial buildings, and just 23 properties overall, that were designated “Essential” (the top tier) in the 2011 HRI.
That 2011 document was the culmination of a study of 394 properties – garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial buildings – completed in 2009. Of them, 23 were designated “Essential,” 134 “Important,” 81 “Notable,” 23 “Minor” and 35 “Altered/Not Historic.” Others that were surveyed were razed before the list was published.
The problem for preservation advocates is that inclusion in the inventory, even at the “Essential” level, does not by itself provide any protection from redevelopment.
“It is policy guidance; it is not regulation,” said Cynthia Liccesse-Torres, the county government’s top historic-preservation staffer.
Ultimately, she said, the HRI serves as a planning tool, but nothing more.
Virginia long has been and seems likely to remain a state where property rights are paramount and where local governments have only limited powers to interfere with the development of land.
And even where they do have powers, Arlington leaders seem disinclined to use them, as evidenced by the 2021 controversy over the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard.
The owner of the Rouse property razed the structures before preservationists could press their case before County Board members to designate the parcel as an historic district.
Critics said the county-government leadership slow-walked the preservation process, giving the property owner time to obtain the permits needed to bulldoze the structures. By the time the question of historic preservation of the site came to County Board members, there was nothing historic left to preserve.
Woodruff, who was highly critical of the county leadership’s behavior in that episode, called for more respect of Arlington properties that have architectural, cultural or historic provenance. He suggested that when it comes to the Joyce Motors property, the minimum acceptable outcome would be preservation of the building’s entire frontage.
The entire historic-preservation issue is likely to percolate later in the year, when county staff unveil a draft update to the Historic Preservation Master Plan.
“We’re looking at what’s working, we’re looking at what’s not working, we’re looking at new tools, new approaches,” Liccese-Torres said of the update, which is likely to be released in coming months on its way to eventual County Board consideration.
When it comes to the HRI, Woodruff said, the time was now to “give it some teeth and make the public and leaders aware of it.”