Friendship Heights substation named historic landmark despite community opposition

The substation at 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW is seen with temporary artwork on its bricked-over windows. (photo by Kent Boese)

Despite a chorus of opposition from local representatives, Pepco’s Friendship Heights substation was unanimously voted a landmark last Thursday by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.

Pepco is in the midst of a project to upgrade the substation. Company representatives said the designation would cause delays and increase the cost of the project, which is intended to modernize equipment and boost capacity.

Critics of the landmark designation say the substation, located at 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW and built in 1940, is blight on the neighborhood — a dead spot with bricked-over windows and a neglected appearance.

But the Tenleytown Historical Society and the Art Deco Society of Washington successfully argued that the facility is historically significant. The groups say the substation reflects the area’s evolution from farmland into a bustling community in the decades before World War II. The property, designed in the art moderne style, was constructed to resemble a storefront, consistent with Pepco’s citywide policy of matching its substations with their surroundings.

Pepco’s Friendship Heights substation is located at 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (photo by Kent Boese)

The board backed the landmark nomination based on the substation’s historical significance and original art deco facade, with members noting that its current appearance needs work.

“I think one of the things that is really positive about what Pepco is doing here is they are looking to improve the current condition of the building,” board chair Marnique Heath said. “Designating this project is only going to allow for better improvements.”

Susan Kimmel, chair of Ward 3 Vision, said her smart-growth group does not consider the substation worth of historic designation.

“We were concerned about freezing the design of Wisconsin Avenue, and chilling future development and growth along that stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, which is a major corridor with easy access to Metro,” Kimmel said in testimony at the hearing. Kimmel added that while she supported Pepco’s stated commitment to honor the historic context of the substation, she said the building isn’t necessarily the “finest and best example of art deco.”

The Art Deco Society of Washington’s Steve Knight added that the substation’s landmark designation won’t stop Pepco’s project — merely ensure that the company treats the building respectfully.

“With a little bit of polish, we think it can be returned to its original splendor,” he said at the Nov. 16 hearing. “We do think landmarking would provide the added benefit of thoughtful oversight.”

Some Friendship Heights residents hope the substation will eventually be replaced with new development. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2017)

Proponents also argued that development of the property was already unlikely, given that Pepco typically doesn’t incorporate substations into mixed-use projects and that the company has said relocation wouldn’t be feasible.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown) opposed the application Nov. 9, arguing that efforts to landmark the property would only hold the neighborhood back.

“For the past 40 years, it has been really objectionable to the community, it has been in a state of disrepair,” ANC 3E’s Jonathan McHugh said of the substation at the board hearing.

In an interview, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh raised concerns about the landmark application.

“It seems like a stick in the wheel so that whatever might be done there would be held up,” Cheh said. “As a consequence of this, they hold up modernizing and making a better substation for everybody.”

Jane Waldman of the Tenleytown Historical Society said the landmark advocates repeatedly consulted with Pepco in the past several years in hopes of reaching a positive outcome. “We made a good-faith effort,” she said.

Two other D.C. substations — located at 1001 Harvard St. NW in Columbia Heights and 2119 Champlain St. NW in Adams Morgan — have pending landmark nominations. Pepco has announced plans to upgrade those facilities starting in March, with the project scope to include partial demolition and enclosing outdoor equipment.