Fairly or not, historic preservation often gets pitted against other priorities: Energy efficiency, for example, and economic development. Lately, though, it's the ability to put out fires.
The problem is, federal environmental regulations passed in 2010 require certain bells and whistles—no, not literally—on the sides of fire engines, which makes them just barely able to fit through the doors of some of the District's antique firehouses. On several historically protected buildings, the Historic Preservation Review Board has allowed the doors to be widened, reasoning that the buildings wouldn't be unduly harmed.
But the Board couldn't quite stomach the change for two firehouses: One at 4811 Macarthur Drive in the Palisades and another in Cleveland Park. As the technophobic Northwest Current reported this week, those were both deemed so historically significant that making the doors taller and wider would be incompatible with the preservation of a landmark.
That put the fire department in a pickle, since it now has to appeal its cases to the Mayor's Agent, who could take anywhere from a few months to a year to decide. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Park firehouse is closed, which means the Palisades one has to cover a huge area. That's making lots of neighborhood residents nervous—what if a few minutes is the difference between a the fire being doused and a gas tank exploding?
Not to be melodramatic, or anything. But it's a consideration.
Ultimately, I suspect the fire department will get what it wants. The Historic Preservation Office hinted as much in its staff report on the Palisades building, noting that while the Board must make its determinations based on preservation law and precedent, the Mayor's Agent is empowered to consider factors like economic hardship and public safety, and so could easily pardon the widening of a door.
All of that amounts simply to more delay, enough to make you wonder: Should the fire department just simply have sold the buildings for redevelopment as retail space or condos, saved themselves the expense of a historically-sensitive retrofit, and built new state-of-the-art firehouses somewhere else? That would probably turn out to be more expensive in the end, given the cost of property in those neighborhoods.
Which means running the historic preservation gauntlet is simply the cost of doing business.
New Firetrucks Don’t Fit in Old Firehouses. Why Can’t We Widen The Doors? was originally published by Washington City Paper on Feb 2, 2012