Grocery Store Applies for Historical Designation to Avoid Being Designated as Historical

The anti-development crowd has weaponized D.C.'s historic preservation process. A Safeway wants the city to rule that nothing important happened there.


Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom

A grocery story in Washington, D.C., has taken the unusual step of asking the city's Historical Preservation Office to rule that the site is not historically significant.

In a 39-page application, owners of a Safeway in the Palisades neighborhood argue that there is no reason to preserve the grocery store building or the lot on which it rests. The store "does not embody design significant to the development of the grocery store or supermarket," the application argues, and "the building's simple rectangular form is undistinguished and devoid of any architectural character or historical significance."

The goal of the application is to leave the apparently insignificant building "in the exact same regulatory state it's in currently," reports Greater Greater Washington, which first noted this unorthodox approach to historical un-preservation. It is effectively a preemptive step to avoid any future effort to designate the store historically significant, which would likely decrease the property's value and make it more difficult for the Safeway's owners to sell the property or tear down the structure to redevelop the site.

It's also a subtle way of undermining anti-development efforts in the nation's capital. Individuals and neighborhood groups opposed to building more housing (in a city where housing is astronomically expensive) have weaponized the city's historic designation process to block development. This hasn't been hard to do—the city's historic preservation statues are written broadly, and the city council has eagerly accepted pretty much every application. As a result, nearly one in five D.C. properties are protected by historic preservation laws, Greater Greater Washington reported last year.

But if everything is historic, is anything historic? Obviously, there are sites in Washington of historical import, but there's no reason to think that a grocery store built in 1941 would be one of them. That the owners of this Safeway feel the need to seek protection from such a designation gives you a pretty good idea of how out of hand things have gotten.

Overly aggressive historic preservation designations don't just harm redevelopment efforts and increase housing costs. They can also harm the very properties they are intended to protect. Just last month, Reason's Joe Seyton wrote about how the owners of famous Strand Bookstore in Manhattan are fighting New York City's effort to declare the building a historic structure, a move which would likely increase renovation and maintenance costs for the business.

"By landmarking the Strand, you can also destroy a piece of New York history," owner Nancy Bass Wyden told The New York Times. "We're operating on very thin margins here, and this would just cost us a lot more, with this landmarking, and be a lot more hassle."

In trying to get the D.C. Historical Preservation Office to declare that it's not special in any way, the Palisades Safeway is trying to avoid those hassles. If they succeed, they'll have beaten the anti-development crowd at their own game by using the historic designation process to clear the way for future development. You might even say they'll have made history.