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St. Thomas Church Project Crosses Another Hurdle With HPRB; Finality Remains Elusive

By Anthony L. Harvey

A doubting Thomas would be well advised to wait and see if the latest attempt to resolve the controversies surrounding the proposed St. Thomas Parish church and residential tower project have been finally resolved by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) through action taken at its July 23, 2015 public hearing. Height, massing, scale, and landscaping of the architecturally designed new structures continue to be unacceptable to ANC commissioners, Church Street neighbors, several Historic Preservation Review Board members, and City Councilmember Jack Evans, whose Ward 2 district includes the St. Thomas property at 18th and Church Streets, NW.

After contentious discussion between the applicant and the community — and HPRB members — at the June hearing on the project (see, “St. Thomas Development Project Design Not Completely OK’d; HPRB Calls for More Work,” InTowner, June 2015 issue pdf page 1), the Board voted to “approve the project and have it return on the Consent Calendar with revision of the following five items:

“The residential building should be pulled back so that the bays align with the Parish Hall façade . . . ; 2. There should be further stepping back of the upper floors to minimize perceived mass; 3. The size of the residential windows should be similarly scaled to those of the Church Street row houses; 4. The detailing of the glass should [be] further developed for the top and entrance levels of the church . . . ; 5. The landscape at the front of the church should be further developed.”

The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) asserted in its staff report and recommendations that St. Thomas had addressed these points and concluded that its architectural revisions had satisfied the concerns raised by the Board and the matter was thus placed on the Board’s consent calendar. The community and several HPRB members, however, demurred to the staff report and HPRB Chair Gretchen Pfaehler opened discussion on the matter by stating that the applicant had addressed the majority of the ANC’s concerns, several of which dealt with issues outside the Board’s purview — for example, zoning, traffic, parking — but that more design modifications needed to be made to the Church Street façades, “including rounding the corner.”

Pfaehler reminded community attendees, who sat silent during the Board’s deliberation, the public not being entitled to speak at this part of the hearing agenda, that height for this proposed project was a matter of perception and had not been made one of a numerical limit.

Board member D. Graham Davidson observed that the height and massing of the revised proposal made very modest tweaks to the earlier version, and that the fenestration for the Church Street apartments — an important Board issue — remained unchanged. Finally, he noted that unlike the earlier versions, which came complete with models, 3-D imaging, and even one with a video, nothing of that sort was presented to the Board in support of this new proposal. Another Board member, Nancy Metzger, added that there was still way too much hardscape in the landscape proposal — another serious Board concern.

A vote to remove the matter from the consent calendar and place it back on a future hearing calendar failed, 3-2. Chair Pfaehler then crafted an unusually detailed motion that achieved more unanimity among the Board members. It states:

“After acknowledging receipt of community letters and addressing the concerns raised by the ANC, the Board approved the project with the following conditions: 1) that the applicant continues to work with staff in refining detailing on elevations to strengthen its pedestrian scale; 2) that the applicants meet with staff and a member of the Board to review the revised 3-D views; 3) that the applicants investigate taking further steps to insure that the height is minimized as much as possible along Church Street; and 4) that the applicants work with staff to develop a landscape design along 18th Street to maximum the extent of vegetation.”

The vote for approval was 4-1, with Graham Davidson dissenting.