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HPRB Denies Height for 16th Street Office Building and Church Plan; Calls for Redesign

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

HPRB’s afternoon session was primarily devoted to the even more contentious issue of the design of a proposed office building for construction on the site of the existing Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16th and I Streets, NW; the Mayor’s Agent has authorized a raze permit once the design of a replacement building has been approved.

The proposed new office building would include a replacement Third Church and would incorporate the remainder of the Landmarked site as well, namely the Christian Science Monitor Building and the plaza between it and the church building. The proposed new building would be nine stories — a reduction of two floors from the initial design — with limestone and glass framing rather than the previous bronze and glass framing, a 93-foot front façade for the first eight stories, with a 30-foot setback on 16th Street and a 15-foot setback on I Street for a ninth story that would raise the building to a height of 107 feet. The allowable mechanical penthouse would rise another 16 feet — all this according to the 16-page HPO staff memorandum on the case, but consistent with the applicant’s presentation.

The remainder of the staff memorandum, however, was primarily devoted to a lawyer-like zoning brief arguing an historical case that 16th Street from the White House to Scott Circle is by statute and tradition inviolably limited to buildings no higher — in any fashion — than 90 feet. In support of its extended thesis, HPO invoked the 1791 L’enfant Plan, Congressional zoning regulations from 1894, the Federal Height Act of 1910, the 1958 comprehensive revision of the DC zoning regulations, numerous excerpts from the current Comprehensive Plan for the District of Columbia, and photographs of buildings allegedly proving HPO’s case. The unusual length of this HPO staff memorandum — a 16th Street height restriction protestation – -was even more interesting for what it did not include regarding the applicant’s proposal.

Reading from his written testimony, church spokesman Darrow Kirkpatrick pointed out that in the staff memorandum, “No mention is made, however, of the lawsuit filed by preservation groups in the District Court of Appeals which seeks to rescind our procedurally granted right to redevelop our property, nor our case in Federal District Court for being denied our religious rights under [the federal statute enacted in 2000 known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, said to correct the problems of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993].”

Continuing, Kirkpatrick stated: “Both of these cases are temporarily stayed pending a satisfactory resolution to the parties of our efforts to build a new church. The Mayor’s Agent appeal and these lawsuits have taken $315,000 of very precious resources out of the collection plate to pursue our legal rights which resulted in a serious degradation in carrying our mission of ministering to the downtown community.”

Kirkpatrick praised the design of the church in the proposed new office building, expressing the congregation’s “gratitude to Robert A.M. Stern Architects for incorporating the qualities in the design that we feel are most important — light, transparency, i.e., nothing hidden, welcoming outside and inside, in a word representational.”

David Stern, principal with ICG Properties, the lead developer of the project, included in his testimony reference to a specific provision in the Comprehensive Plan for this 16th and I Street site which Stern stipulated that HPO had left out of its presentation. That provision, stated Stern, calls for high-density development of the 16th and I Street site, and high-density is defined as “characterized by buildings of greater than eight stories.” His assertion went unchallenged.

Stern further noted the absence of any mention of the nearby Hay Adams Hotel at 16th and H Streets and its recently approved and constructed addition overlooking the White House. “In fact,” said Stern, “our top floor is lower, and our setback is more than three times as deep. As a result, our top floor is virtually invisible from within the historic district. The HPO report, however, never mentions the Hay Adams, nor is it highlighted or even visible in any of the report’s thirty-eight photographs.”

Stern Architects’ Graham Wyatt formally presented to the board the revised design of the proposed building, stressing the desire of the church to remain downtown and the historic importance of the site. Wyatt further described the iterative process by which the proposed height of the building was first reduced by one and then by two floors and with the bronze framing being replaced by limestone framing. He also noted the importance of materials for this special building and the developer’s intention to preserve the church bells.

The gloves were fully removed when the Dupont Circle ANC commissioners gave their testimony. First, Commissioner Victor Wexler blasted HPO for once again slapping down a proposal that had been already modified in accordance with its own staff’s recommendations to raise the cornice height, to remove two floors, and to replace bronze with limestone framing; Commissioner Mike Silverstein asserted, among other charges, that “there is no question in my mind that some of the opposition to this proposal is payback or retribution because the church dared to exercise its constitutional rights under religious civil rights law — laws that you still will not address — and they did so in defiance of the preservationist community”; and Commissioner and ANC Chair Will Stevens reminded the board and HPO of its seeming refusal to grant “great weight,” as required by DC law,  to ANC resolutions that differ in recommendations from decisions of the board and of its practice of tightly restricting the testimony of the ANC — on zoning matters, for example — while allowing HPO to devote all the time it cares to on zoning. Stevens further noted that he brought up the issue of great weight “in particular today because the staff report on this project does not even mention the ANC once in its 16 pages.”

The preservation community roared back with testimony from former HPRB member Charles Robertson, speaking on behalf of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, who praised the architecture of the present Third Church building as the finest example of Brutalist architecture in the entire Washington area, extolled the HPO staff report and recommendation that an absolute height limitation of 90 feet be observed, and agreed that the applicants should be directed to restudy their proposed building design. Sally Lichtenstein Berk, a prominent member of the DC Preservation League, though speaking for herself, urged the HPRB, as phrased in her submitted statement, “to reject the applicant’s proposal on the grounds that it presupposes the demolition of the Monitor Building; the design is incompatible with the 16th Street Historic District; and the order by the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation which would allow the demolition of the Third Church sanctuary is predicated on receiving a construction permit for a new church on the site. I see no church.” Other preservationists piled on, and as the evening drew nigh, fewer and fewer questions were asked, and tighter time restrictions were observed.

At the end, the HPRB members voted five to two, with two members having recused themselves, to adopt the staff report, sending the applicant’s proposal back for revision and refusing to alter the absolute 90-foot height limitation recommendation from the staff — this in spite of several board members, who voted in the affirmative, expressing no concern for a rigid interpretation of the 90-foot zoning restriction. The two board members who voted in favor of the applicant also expressed no concern for the height being proposed, one member specifically citing the Hay Adams exception.

Editor’s Note: For a report on how the project design was received by the community when presented in November 2011, see “Proposed Design for 16th Street Complex to Replace Existing Brutalist-Style Third Church Christ, Scientist Near White House Well-Received by Dupont Circle ANC,” website Special Online Content section, http://tinyurl.com/cq9vjlo. And, for more background on this case, see “After Four Years of Controversy Christian Science Church Near White House on Track to Get New Home as Part of Office Complex,” The InTowner, May 2011, issue PDF page 1. All news reports are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at www.intowner.com.