Luckily, there are a few examples lining the commercial Takoma Park, DC corridor:
Here's the trio of businesses La Mano Coffee Bar, Takoma Station Barber and Spicy Delight hiding two historic homes:
The next historic house has been converted into the Hilltop Hostel (on the right) and retains its original character, but next to it are another trio of businesses/organizations hiding two historic houses - Seekers Church, Electric Maid Community Exchange and Friedrich's Modern Cleaners (dry cleaning and laundry):
And finally there are two historic houses behind the Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home (noted by the red circles because the Google street view didn't show the houses):
All of these houses are located in the Takoma Park, DC historic district, yet most of them are hidden from public view (save the Hilltop Hostel) by the storefronts that were added at some point or another - I'm guessing before the official designation by DC in 1980.
There's no question that Takoma Park's historic districts are both beautiful and desirable, but does anyone really believe that the houses noted above represent their historic nostalgia behind the storefronts that now hide them? The first question to ask is what makes a house or neighborhood historic? Urban Land Institute Senior Resident Fellow Ed McMahon explains that "historic buildings tell us who we are and where we came from."
Also, in a recent academic paper on the topic of the effects of historic districts on local housing markets in New York City, the authors state the purpose of preservation policies is to "preserve the aesthetic beauty or amenity level of a neighborhood and minimize the risks that new investment will undermine the distinctive character of an area."
Don't get me wrong, I believe the diverse stock of historic homes in both DC and MD make Takoma Park the envy of many other neighborhoods around the metro DC area. But it's unclear to me that the small inventory and high prices of houses in Takoma Park is due to their historic designations or the fact that many of them are so close to the Takoma Metro station, although I'm leaning towards the latter fact. Yet looking at these pictures doesn't give me the impression of Takoma Park, DC being a historic neighborhood because the beautiful Victorian-era houses are hidden from view behind non-historic storefronts on Takoma Park's most visible main street of commerce.
Meanwhile, DC has a housing affordability crisis and all of these homes/businesses are a short walking distance from the nearby Takoma Metro station. All of this land could be redeveloped into one or more mixed-use buildings that would increase the supply of local housing, including some units being reserved for people that can't afford the rent. But don't take my word for it - some scholars believe that historic preservation requirements can limit the supply of new housing and hinder developers’ responses to increases in demand.
In sum, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, I believe that all of these houses (and their land) - save the Hilltop Hostel - should no longer be designated as historic unless the storefronts are removed and the houses are returned to their original appearance, which means that a developer should be able to purchase any or all of these houses and develop them without the noose that a historic designation brings with it.
Maybe then we could lure Trader Joe's to open a store in Takoma as part of a large mixed-use development so close to Metro.
What do you think?