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March 25, 2024

Big Green with Lauren McHale

Big Green with Lauren McHale

This episode features a conversation between Nakita and Lauren McHale, President and CEO of the L'Enfant Trust. They talk about the organization's work in historic preservation and affordable housing in Washington, DC and delve into preservation easements, the redevelopment of the Big Green property in Anacostia, and the importance of community engagement and collaboration in affordable housing projects.

Building Highlight: The Big Green property in Anacostia is being rehabilitated as workforce housing, with a focus on engaging the existing community and preserving the neighborhood's history. Head over to our Instagram page to see historic and current photos.



Bio: Lauren McHale Lauren was appointed President of The L'Enfant Trust in 2017, after serving as Executive Director and Director of Preservation. In 2012, she initiated the Trust’s Historic Properties Redevelopment Program. Lauren has a B.A. in Art History and Historic Preservation & Community Planning from the College of Charleston and a M.S. in Historic Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the past Chair of the Preservation Action Foundation and Past President of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Lauren currently serves as an ACE DC Mentor Program board member and a citizen member of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee of Washington, DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C.

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We do not believe in preserving things in amber. We know that buildings have to change and have to be flexible with, you know, growing families and changes in use and that sort of thing. So we work with property owners and architects and contractors every day on making alterations to historic buildings so that they can continue to serve future generations. 

Welcome to Tangible Remnants. I'm Nakita Reed, and this is my show where I explore the interconnectedness of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it.  Welcome back. Well, I am preparing to hit the road to keynote a few industry conferences over the next few weeks.

So Tuesday, March 26th, I'll be in Charlottesville, Virginia, talking at the Traditional Building Conference.  And then on April 3rd, I'll be giving the open plenary remarks at the National Trusts for Historic Preservation's virtual Pass Forward Conference.  Then a few weeks after that, I'll be in Rochester, New York, giving the keynote at the New York statewide preservation conference. 

I'm looking forward to engaging with some new folks. And anytime I get to talk about the intersections of preservation, sustainability, and equity, I'm excited about it.  So if you'll be at any of these events, please make sure to say hello.  All right. Well, let's get into the episode. So this week's episode features a cool conversation with Lauren McHale of the L'Enfant Trust. 

For those of you not from DC or a French-speaking area, L'Enfant is spelled L apostrophe E N F A N T and L'Enfant as in Pierre L'Enfant, the American French military engineer who's credited with designing the basic plan for DC. That's where the impetus of the name comes from. And the Lafa Trust is a nonprofit in DC that's doing great work with restoring historic homes for local families. 

Their mission is to preserve and revitalize Washington DC's neighborhoods through programs that connect residents to their collective history, protect the city's architectural heritage, and activate neglected properties within their community.  And in this episode, Lauren and I talk about a building that is lovingly called Big Green.

And you have to see the current state of this house to really appreciate the work that they are undertaking. So head over to our Instagram page to see photos of the building and get a better understanding of the lean that we discussed in this episode.  And Lauren was so fun to talk to and has deep preservation credentials.

Here's a bit of her bio. So you have some context. So Lauren was appointed the president of the Lavant Trust in 2017. After serving as Executive Director and Director of Preservation in 2012, she initiated the Trust's Historic Properties Redevelopment program. Lauren has a BA in Art history, as well as historic preservation and community planning from the College of Charleston and an MS in Historic Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

She is the past chair of the Preservation Action Foundation and past president of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.  Lauren currently serves as an ACE DC Mentor Program board member and a citizen member of the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee of Washington, D.

C. 's Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C.  So as you hear, Lauren has the credentials and the experience to back up the work that she's doing, and it was such a joy to be able to talk to her and learn more about this project.  So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this conversation between me and Lauren McHale. 

Well, Lauren, I am so excited to have you on the show. I would love for you to introduce yourself to the audience. Thanks. Well, I'm excited to be here too, Nikita. Thanks for having me. I'm Lauren McHale. I'm president and CEO of the Lawn Font Trust. And we are a small historical preservation organization based in Washington, D.

C. We were founded in 1978 when preservation law in D. C. was just, uh, beginning. And we certainly didn't have the number of historic districts that we have now and that sort of thing. So preservation was kind of new. And our founder, a longtime Washingtonian, saw a lot of destruction of his city.

neighborhood in DuPont Circle that he loved so much, a lot of midnight demolition where you'd have this, you know, building that you've seen your whole life, and then you wake up one morning and it's gone and it was pretty startling, and, and he, you know, was like, there's a way that people can protect their own buildings, even after they've moved on in the form of a conservation easement, or we sometimes call them preservation easements. 

And so in 1978, he formed the long font trust to hold these conservation easements on privately owned properties in DC, and it could be a residence. It could be a commercial property, institutional building, and we, as a lot of trust were the qualified nonprofit. Holder of those easements and essentially an easement is just a promise between the property owner.

And the easement holding organization that no changes to the exterior of the property or the surrounding open space. And sometimes that includes interiors depends will be changed without the consent or will not be changed without the consent of the easement holding organization. So essentially it's just making sure that, you know, people don't just.

Decide one day that they want a new house and they tear their house down or they build something onto it. That's not in keeping with the store nature of the neighborhood or, you know, make other insensitive alterations. So, and it runs with the property. So, even after that donor has moved on, subsequent owners are still obliged to fulfill the, the.

Terms of the easement that said, we do not believe in preserving things in amber. We know that buildings have to change and have to be flexible with, you know, growing families and changes in use and that sort of thing. So we work with property owners and architects and contractors every day on making alterations to historic buildings so that they can continue to serve future generations.

So that that's, yeah, that's a big part of what we do. Yeah. I'm so glad that the organization exists and I'm curious about the easements that you hold though. So then I know some organizations have easements that only last for a certain amount of time and other ones have perpetual easements, uh, which kind of do the law and fund trust. 

Yeah, we have, we hold perpetual easements and you know, you do find term easements sometimes with, you know, grant programs that might be funding a certain project or something like that. They want to make sure that their investment in that property is. Is protected for a certain amount of time, but a lot of our properties that are donated to us, the owners are wanting to take advantage of the tax deduction that can sometimes at a company an easement, which is a great incentive to preserve your property.

And one of the requirements of that program is that the easement is perpetual. So all of our ease, and that's something that we feel strongly about too, whether or not you want to take the tax deduction or not, we, we want it to be perpetual. So that's. That's how we. Yeah, that makes sense.  It's also interesting because knowing that a couple of generations ago, this idea of easements wasn't a big thing and people were just doing midnight demolitions and buildings weren't as protected.

So I'm glad that there are tools in place now to help. Buildings stay a little bit longer, have a little bit more longevity, and also be a benefit to the owners and all that stuff. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.  That's awesome. And so then one of the projects that I know we're going to talk about is a project in Anacostia that has been there for a very long time and been vacant for a very long time.

And so I would love for you to talk about the property or the building that is lovingly  Sure. Absolutely. Well, just to give you a little bit of background, like, Oh, just over 10 years ago, we decided to start what we call our historic properties redevelopment program. And we wanted to get into more proactive preservation and we saw a lot of need in certain neighborhoods that, you know, Weren't getting the attention that the Cleveland parks and DuPont circles, get and, and we wanted, you know, we had a lot of real estate experience.

So we thought this is something that we could do. and so our historic properties redevelopment program is essentially a revolving fund for historic preservation. So our model is to acquire historic properties. We have them and then, and then sell them, and then the proceeds from those sales go back into the fund to do it all over again. 

So we started our, our program in historic Anacostia for a number of reasons. 1 is it's 1 of the oldest historic districts in DC. Amazing history so important to the story of Washington DC,  and we found a lot of people that have long-time Washingtonians didn't realize.  You know what they're missing, they have not, you know, they haven't visited Anacostia.

They haven't been to the Frederick Douglass home. There didn't really know much about the history. And we thought that was a shame. And we also saw a lot of potential there with buildings that had not had investment in it for a long time. So we decided to do our work there and had our 1st, 2 projects in that neighborhood.

And then a few years later. You know, working with the community and talking to them and hearing about their concerns, we really kind of specified for buildings that were owned by the city at that time and started to have some conversations with the city about what their plans were for these buildings that they owned and had been, you know.

Nothing had been done with them for many, many years. And so we, uh, we started those conversations. We started a conversation with Chairman Phil Mendelsohn of the D. C. Council kind of educated him on these properties. They had been sitting vacant, deteriorated for so many years in Anacostia, and he and some of his colleagues created legislation to have 4 of those properties transferred to our program.

And Big Green is one of those four. And so we're happy to say that the first three are completed, fully rehabilitated, wonderful homes. First-time homebuyers are enjoying them now, and they're now back into productive use and part of the neighborhood. So we're thrilled about that and really anxious to get started on Big Green, which will be our final one of these three.

Formally city-owned properties. And big Green is a 1902 Queen-style house that was originally a two-flat. So it's a two-family home originally, which is a little unusual for Anacostia. So, you know, When zoning laws came into play, it was unusual. It's reduced to a single-family home at that time. I think there were still two families living in there for a while, but at some point during the history, it was downzoned to single family.

But we, we have gotten permission from the zoning office to take it back to a two-family home. So we're excited about that because it's, it's a large property. There's plenty of room for two families. And yeah. You know, we all need as much affordable housing as possible. And that's what this will be. Part of our agreement with the city was that these four properties would be sold to workforce, housing, you know, workforce families. 

So we've worked with the city on, Marketing them to first-time home buyers that meet certain income requirements. So, um, that will be the same with big green and we really have our work cut out for us on this one.  It's, um, yeah, Nikita, I know you're very familiar with the green.  She is, has lots of issues going on right now, mostly structural.

And unfortunately, over the years, you know, whether it was somebody who was trying to do some work on the property or stabilization or whatever. And, and just materials deteriorating over time. Big green is leaning. It's currently stabilized. It's a stabilized lean if you want to call it that. But, uh, yeah, we will have to, you know, we're working with our engineers at Selman on coming up with a plan to straighten the building back up, make it plum.

And also, you know, at the same time, redo the foundation and save as much, uh, original materials possible. So I kind of explain it like the. The game Jenga, where, you know, you have this like tower and you have to take pieces out, but the whole thing can't fall down. That's kind of big.  So it's, uh, it's a challenging project.

Yes. But we're really excited. And, and the, you know, the community has been rallying behind us and encouraging us, and they're so excited to see big green brought back to life. And it's, you know, at a very prominent intersection in, in Anacostia. So I, you know, we're, um. Just grateful to have this opportunity to, to bring it, bring it back.

Yeah. And it's such a big and beautiful project where you can, you can just imagine and see what it used to be. And, I guess the first time I was introduced to it a couple of years ago was by Amania Price, uh, who was helping out on, uh, APTDC. community engagement project when the trust was having one of their conferences in DC.

And so we were working actually across the, across the street, literally across the intersection from Big Green. And when we were trying to do some work for that nonprofit we were working with, it was like, well, what is that building? And so kind of learning more about Big Green and a lot of the other amazing historic sites in historic Anacostia.

It was super fun.  And that was a fun community engagement one.  Tiffany simple and, um, Amani, we were kind of co-chairing trying to get something to happen across the street. Yes. And so I'm excited to hear big green is, you know, has the stabilized lane going on.  Uh, and I  know with Anacostia getting so much more attention and more people coming to it,  particularly, I know Anacostia was a predominantly black neighborhood for a very long time, which is also part of why many white Washingtonians stayed out of it for a little while.

But now that there is some renewed. Interest in Anacostia, I know gentrification is something that's been coming up a lot and concerns around that. So I'm loving hearing that Big Green and the other 3 projects are going to be workforce, housing and really working with the community. But can you talk a bit more about the work that has been doing with the community?

To still help with progress, but then also be mindful of not displacing people. Right. Absolutely. With these properties, I mean, we, we tried to stay very engaged with the community and, and listen to their concerns and, and be very transparent about what we're doing and, and we'd certainly understand that you know, you come into a neighborhood and you.

You know, you start to, you take this abandoned building that's been abandoned for years and fix it up. And it's a, it's a beautiful home again, you know,  that has an effect on the neighborhood, you know, good and bad sometimes, you know, so we have to be mindful of that. And so we, with these properties, we partnered with Mana, which is an affordable housing developer and housing counselor.

In DC, they do amazing work and they helped us to market these properties to engage with the community because we really wanted to focus. Uh, on people who are existing presidents of Ward 8. So we partnered with the Ward 8 Homebuyers Club, which MANA, you know, manages and, you know, we, we did open houses and before the pandemic started, of course,  that we've tried to do a lot of that, but really, You know, trying to concentrate our efforts on the existing community and giving people that are currently renters in Ward 8 the opportunity to purchase a building.

And I'm happy to say that, you know, 2 of our families, 2 of the 3, I mean, they're all 3 wonderful, but 2 of the 3 had very strong ties to Anacostia. They were, you know, their children went to school there, they grew up there, you know, so those were big wins for us. And yeah, so it's, you know, the affordable housing crisis is.

It's so big, and we need to come at it from so many directions to solve this problem, but I feel like what we're doing is very small and incremental, but, you know, it has a really positive effect on the neighborhood with, you know, Wealth building with affordable home ownership with, you know, families moving in and the schools are, you know, getting stronger and, you know, more economic development on the, on the commercial corridors and all of it, you know, there's, there's a ripple effect.

So it's in a small way, but I think we're, you know, we're helping.  Yeah, absolutely. And it's also a great case study because it's one of its rehabs. And so it's very manageable in terms of, uh, other people being able to learn from the successes and some lessons learned, and also being able to repeat it in different cities where they are as well. 

Oh, no, I was just going to say, it's wonderful to, talk to people who've lived in the neighborhood for so long because they have great stories about it. These houses. And, you know, we've heard from so many people like, Oh, you know, I, I remember the woman who used to live in this house and I would come and sit in her kitchen, you know, or I used to play with the kids who lived in this house and stuff like that.

So to see it come back to life is. It's, you know, something that's just really important for those legacy residents of the neighborhood.  That's awesome.  And so one of the things that I'm, all right, so now I want to circle back, back to big green and also let's talk about the lean a little bit because yeah, I know.

You mentioned that Sillman is working on helping to stabilize it and straighten it out. And shout out to Sillman. They are an amazing engineering firm. And we also were working with them on that community engagement project that Dan Acostia was mentioning. But the most people, when they see buildings, historic buildings, old buildings that have a little bit of a lean, they automatically think to tear it down.

And so I guess what are some of the lessons learned or some of the conversations that you all had with Sillman when you were undertaking the project to get a sense of. Okay, well, this is what it looks like, but Is this salvageable? What can we do to make sure we don't tear it down and all that sort of stuff?

Right, right. Well, we're still figuring out some of those, answering those questions. We're still have some to answer, but you know, basically, you know, we want to just kind of think about the building in small sections at this point because, um, it is a frame structure and, you know, it's, once you start moving things around, you know, you've got joists that aren't, Setting quite the way they should and all the, you know, in a foundation brick foundation that is buckled.

And so there's just all these things you have to think about. But I think our plan right now is to kind of think about it in small sections and we will have to remove some, you know, citing and trim so that we can kind of get to the underlying structure and try to straighten it back up. But, you know, we're, you know, we want, we, Are going to work with a very experienced team, um, to, you know, remove those historic finishes as carefully as we can so that they can be, you know, reused and reinstalled on the building.

So it's, it's going to be a very technical process. Our other houses. We didn't have to remove trim. And citing to rehab those, so this is a little bit different where we're going to have some deconstruction, but you know, we're certainly not taking the, the whole thing down to the foundation. So, you know, so well, I'll have more on that as we progress.

 I still, when it's still trying to figure some things out and we have not selected our general contractor yet. So that will also will be a lot of going back and forth with them on the feasibility of, of Zillman's plan. Gotcha. But I love you're in the, you're in the messy middle. We are in the messy middle.

Yes.  Yeah. And it's one of those things where like the importance of having the right partners to work with you through the messy middle, particularly when it comes to engineers and architects who are familiar with how to work with these buildings because there could be some engineers who would just say, Nope, got to tear it down.

It's not straight anymore. And that's, that's not always true. And, and I've talked to many of them and I, you know, um, so yes, you're absolutely right there. You know, you have to find the right team with the right skill set and willing to take on a challenge,  right? Exactly.  And the payback to the community is going to be huge because you're right.

All of the memories that people are holding around that building, all the history that already exists there, that's going to be able to live on for another couple of generations. So that's super exciting. So,  yeah. So then as you've been doing this work in and around Anacostia, have there been any, a little bit of a curve ball, but have there been any lessons learned or any best practices that you've discovered as you've been working with the community or on the different projects?

Yeah. Well, I think as far as Best practices go, you know, engaging with the community early and often is really the, I think, probably the greatest lesson. And I mean, just something that we try to try to do. And, you know, other preservation organizations, I encourage them to do the same, you know, it's hard to reach everyone.

Of course, you know, that's always a challenge, but. You want people to know who you are and you want them to feel comfortable calling on you. Or if I'm not on-site, they come up and say, hi, and ask me questions and just letting them know what's going on. But, you know, we heard from a lot of residents in Anacostia that, you know, a lot of people would come in, buy up property.

They don't, no one told them what was going on. They didn't understand the timeline or what the buildings were going to be used for, you know, just a lot of questions. And so trying to. To make sure that people understand what we're doing and if they have concerns and questions, they can come to us.  And I think too, the partnerships is huge.

like I said, we partnered with Manna and we were new to affordable housing. And so we had a lot to learn and if it wasn't for our partnership with Manna, we, you know, We would have been lost, you know, in, in this process and, and their vast network of people who work in affordable housing and people who are looking for affordable housing, you know, those were amazing connections to have.

So, you know, I think having a dialogue with community and partnerships, you just can't go wrong.  Yeah. Good answers. I dig it.  Well, wow. Time's already flying by. Well, as we are wrapping up, are there any other topics that you want to touch on? Well, I think, you know, just back to affordable housing for a minute, you know, it's, it's such rewarding work and you know, it's so important and so needed, but I think one thing that, that I've really learned in this process and I hope We'll continue to learn more about is just all the players that come into affordable housing and how we really all need to work together and, you know, the nonprofit developer, the for-profit developer.

You know, lenders, the city agencies that regulate and, you know, create affordable housing, housing counselors, down payment assistance programs. There's all these different players, and I think we all have to work together to try to solve this issue. And, you know, sometimes.  You'll have the two players trying to do the right thing, but they're kind of working against each other, you know?

And so I think, you know, I just think that would be, you know, an important goal for, um, affordable housing, not only in DC but around the country is kind of bringing all these players together and figuring out a solution.  Makes sense. And so where would you like people to find you and to learn more information about?

Your organization or the project? Well, our website is a long font. org. Um, no apostrophe and long font. And we have information there also on our social media platforms, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. we even have a tick talk video. 

And we also have a monthly newsletter that, um, you can find there's a page on our website where you can sign up for that and you'll get all the latest information. And, and if someone's interested in acquiring, uh, 1 of our affordable units, We also have a mailing list for that too. So you can stay apprised on, you know, when things will be available and that's what the requirements are and that sort of thing.

So yeah, check out our website. It's the best source of information.  Thank you so much for listening. Links to amazing resources can be found in the episode's show notes. Special thanks to Sarah Gilbert for allowing me to use snippets of her song Fireflies from her debut album, Other People's secrets, which by the way, is available wherever music is sold. 

If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to the show.  And now that Tangible Remnants is part of the Gable Media Network, you can listen and subscribe to all network partner content at gablemedia. com. That's G A B L media. com.  Until next time, remember that historic preservation is a present conversation with our past about our future.

We don't inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children. So let's make sure we're telling our inclusive history.  I saw the first fireflies of summer And right then  I thought of you  Oh, I could see us catching them and setting them free Honey that's what you do 

That's what you do to me 

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