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Recent Church Re-Use and Raze Hearings Reveal Growing Public Disillusion With DC’s Historic Preservation Laws

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

A recent short span of six days in late November, 2008 — the 20th through the 25th — found a veritable army of civic activists, neighborhood critics, historic preservation architects and attorneys, and DC government bureaucrats in attendance at meetings; of the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on the 20th, the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on the 21st, and the Mayor’s Agent for raze permits of landmarked or historic district contributing structures on the 25th.

Duration of these meetings ranged from a full four hours before Chairman Vincent Gray’s Committee of the Whole on the 21st to a full day and into the early evening for the continuation session convened by the Mayor’s Agent, DC Office of Planning (OP) Director Harriet Tregoning, on the 25th.

A crowd in continuous attendance, raptly attentive, characterized all three proceedings, with a significant press contingent swelling the overflow crowd observing and participating in the Mayor’s Agent, court-like hearing. Architectural design of both old and proposed new buildings, infill development, land use standards for built neighborhoods (both those in historic districts and those soon to be designated), and the criteria and process for designating historic districts were the interweaving and overlapping subjects and issues roiling the District’s ambitious historic preservation program that was the subtext.

Resolute assertions in the midst of attempts at resolving differences were met with strenuously argued demurrals throughout this six-day period of spirited and remarkably informed civic debate. Underlying these complex surface issues were deeper concerns of civil rights and religious liberties, the design and development of new and adaptively re-used buildings, the large amounts of money involved, and old-fashion questions such as who controls a neighborhood’s property rights.

First Church Of Christ, Scientist Adaptive Re-Use

An enigmatic and somewhat opaque proposal to restore and redevelop the magnificent neo-classical Roman Temple-style Christian Science church’s edifice that overlooks the little park where Columbia Road, Champlain and Euclid Streets intersect with a companion, large Marriott-managed hotel in the Reed-Cooke neighborhood of Adams Morgan drew the smallest number of on-site attendees; others with keen interest in the matter followed on the HPRB’s convenient webcasting facility. The proposed hotel — described by its architect and developer as a 90-foot tall, irregularly fretted and tinted glass tower — would contain, in addition to a minimum of 150 rooms, a low connecting structure between the hotel and the church and several levels of underground parking. The church building’s interior would be converted to accommodate a ballroom, restaurant and bar, with community space designated on the ground floor.

The hotel project has been powerfully championed by the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) as the only way to save and restore the church building. The Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association (RCNA), however, objects. While endorsing the hotel concept for “the preservation of the church building” in a carefully crafted, five-point letter dated November 19th from RCNA President Maureen Gallagher to HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg, the following reservations and concerns were expressed — these having been adopted by the association at its November 18th open meeting:

“1. RCNA supports the concept of hotel development on [the surface parking lot and adjacent City Paper building] site . . . in support of the preservation of the church building;

“2. RCNA opposes the currently proposed height and mass of the Hotel;

“3. RCNA is concerned that a building of these dimensions is a threat to the underlying zoning of the Reed-Cooke neighborhood and 18th Street;

“4. . . . the proposed design of the exterior of the Hotel is completely out of conformity with the existing architecture and character of the other buildings in the neighborhood; and

“5. . . . the plans presented to date have been incomplete, lacking specific measurements in height and width, thereby hindering accurate comparisons with the existing neighboring buildings.”

The Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) followed the KCA’s lead in endorsing the hotel development project with only Wilson Reynolds, the ANC commissioner whose district includes the church and adjacent property site in opposition. The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) also strongly supports the hotel proposal and asserted at the HPRB hearing and in its staff memorandum recommending approval that the design of the fritted and tinted glass hotel tower was “moving in the right direction.” The Board agreed with the HPO staff, and enthusiastically endorsed the 90-foot tower, ignoring the Reed-Cooke objections.

Ironically, an earlier proposal for restoration and redevelopment of the church site that called for simply extending the rear of the building into and over the church’s adjacent surface parking lot and recasting the resultant structure as a condominium with townhouse residences facing Champlain Street was rejected by the historic preservation process because — it is asserted by the developer — the expansion structure looked too much like the old church building and DC building code required punching windows on the two rear sides of the church. The height of the expansion structure would have followed that of the existing church building — which would have been proposed for inclusion in the Reed Cooke Zoning Overlay.

Even more startling to note, neither HPRB nor HPO has any legal jurisdiction over this site — no part of which is in an historic district. Moreover, the church building itself has yet to be designated or declared an historic landmark. Thus, federal tax credits and façade tax easements, as well as property tax relief, remain hypothetical benefits to the project. More importantly still is the fact that the hotel project requires approval by the DC Zoning Commission of a Planned Unit Development (PUD) that would serve to override the restrictive Reed-Cooke Zoning Overlay and the site’s underlying zoning regulations.

A Raze Permit For The Third Church Of Christ, Scientist

If the First Church hotel project proposal hearing was enigmatic, the Mayor’s Agent proceeding regarding the request of Third Church for a raze permit, denied by HPRB on recommendation of DC’s State Historic Preservation Officer David Mahoney, was surreal. The church building — an organic Brutalist-style abstraction made of an informal, variegated gray colored raw concrete — stands at the corner of 16th and I Streets, NW, within a two-block sight line of the White House across Lafayette Square Park. This church building is a monument to an architect’s own ingenious modernist architectural program, one that is unintelligible from the exterior; if anything, the building is an “art form,” as characterized by Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the DC Preservation League (DCPL) in her hearing testimony on the issue.

Built in the early 1970s and described by the federal Fine Arts Commission in its published survey of notable 16th Street buildings as having the appearance of a World War II bunker. The structure has, according to church members, never served well the church’s Christian Science fundamental programmatic needs for worship, healing or direct outreach to the downtown Washington community. Maintenance costs for what many consider a visually unattractive and unwelcoming building have become prohibitive. The Wall Street Journal headlined its November 20, 2008 article on the controversy, “A Congregation Fights for the Right to Raze its Ugly Church.”

Third Church members further noted that their unchanged membership, 150 congregants, is one-third that of the present structure’s capacity. The church’s former First Reader, Darrow Kirkpatrick, summarized the congregation’s long standing problems with the structure as follows:

“a) The main entrance is hidden from three of the four directions from which one approaches the building. This location conveys an erroneous impression that we are not open to strangers or newcomers, or worse yet that something secretive goes on inside, all of which directly impinges on our religious mission and practice. Most generally, people don’t even recognize the building as being a church;

“b) The massive exterior walls, with no windows or doors on the sides facing the streets and sidewalks give a forbidding appearance to the average passerby and create a silent barrier to the community;

“c) The plaza terminates in a high, gray, plain, vertical reinforced concrete wall that offers no [visual] interest to the passerby;

“d) The walkways in the plaza of the church, and the plaza design itself, direct eye and foot to the office building, not the church;

“e) The cavernous auditorium seating 400 is more than needed and presents a dark enclosed environment;

“f) The electric lighting, which fully covers the ceiling and must be used for services, further detracts from a feeling of communion with God or man;

“g) The smell of dampness in the auditorium, the cold walls, the spalling of concrete, the HVAC system having to operate 24-7 an inordinate number of days result not only in discomfort for the congregation but also in unconventionally high heating and cooling bills.”

Kirkpatrick, continued his testimony before the Mayor’s Agent, DC Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, with a disquisition on economic hardship, the only grounds by which a landmarked or contributing historic structure can be razed absent an approved proposal for a project of “so-called” special merit. Kirkpatrick further noted, “Our membership currently faces a dire financial situation, which if left unabated, may cause its demise within three to five years or sooner.”

Kirkpatrick’s documentary evidence supporting this assertion was relentlessly challenged by attorneys for the preservation league (DCPL) and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, original sponsors of the building’s landmarking over the objections of the congregation.

Impassioned support for the Church’s constitutional and statutorily reinforced rights of religious freedom and the liberty to determine its own land use and structural needs was provided by Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson on behalf of a unanimous ANC 2B, echoing the Commission’s earlier equally unanimous vote against the landmark designation. “We still seethe,” testified Jacobson, “at the HPRB Chairman’s cavalier dismissal of the Church’s First Amendment [religious freedom] argument.”

Terry Lynch, Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, echoed Jacobson’s support both for historic preservation and for the Constitutional First Amendment rights of Third Church to raze its building.

Historic preservationist and architectural historian Sally Lichtenstein Berk argued on behalf of the Committee of 100 that the Church had failed to demonstrate any efforts to raise money commercially, such as by renting out its auditorium to other churches or organizations as is done by the nearby National Geographic Society or the former Adas Israel Synagogue at 6th and I Streets, NW.

Both the Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom Conservancies echoed the view of the Committee of 100, testifying also in opposition to the raze permit. So, also, did noted Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who electrified the long day’s proceeding with a fascinating architectural concept by which he showed a possible massing of potential new space that would create a five-story structure built over the entire Christian Science site — the church, the plaza, and the Christian Science Monitor Building. $90 to $100 million of economic value could be added to the site through construction of this ingenious third building component to this strategic corner site, Moore stated. How this would address Third Church’s objections to their present building’s hostile environment, other than the proposal’s inclusion of new punched doors and windows in the Church’s concrete walls, was left for another day.

The Mayor’s Agent promised a decision 30 days following the availability of transcripts from the day’s proceedings.

DC Council Committee Historic Preservation Hearing

In marked contrast to usual DC Council committee hearings on historic preservation matters, where a smaller number of public witnesses usually join HPO, OP, and HPRB members in almost absolute unanimity, the November 21st afternoon session of the Committee of the Whole found a spirited group of contrarians present and well-prepared to report experiences in Chevy Chase, Brookland, Lanier Heights, and Dupont Circle — and ready to debate with a larger group of opponents the merits of Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Muriel Bowser’s proposed bill, the “Public Participation in Historic [District] Designation Amendment Act of 2008.” If enacted, this legislation would establish the following requirement:

“Before any proposed historic district is designated as a historic district, the owners of the properties within the proposed district shall be given the opportunity (including a reasonable period of time) to concur in, or object to, the nomination of such district for such inclusion or designation. If a majority of the owners of such properties within the district object to such inclusion or designation, such district shall not be so included, and the Review Board shall not consider an application for a substantially similar district for a period of three years thereafter.”

Guided through a long and contentious afternoon by the thoughtful questioning of witnesses — both for and against — by Chairman Vincent Gray, the four-hour hearing moved briskly. Attorney Andrea Ferster, representing the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, opened the afternoon’s testimony by sounding several themes and points of view that would be echoed in the testimony of representatives of the DC Historic Districts Coalition, the DC Preservation League, and several neighborhood historic preservation groups (Chevy Chase, Dupont Circle, Mt. Pleasant, Sheridan-Kalorama, Shaw/Mt. Vernon). The testimony of these witnesses aserted first and foremost that the Cheh/Bowser bill is unnecessary. Ferster phrased it this way: “There are already extensive mechanisms in existing law that provide for broad notice and that allow for meaningful public participation, welcoming input into historic district designation decisions at each state of the lengthy review process.”

Indeed, HPRB and HPO do publish a notice and inform prospective historic district property owners when the HPRB Board is ready to make an historic district designation and has placed the matter on one of its tightly scheduled and fast-paced public hearing agendas. ANCs are also provided with lists of prospective monthly committee hearing calendar items, and public participation in the process has typically been led by ANCs and individual citizens as recent experiences in Chevy Chase dramatically attest.

As Robert Leland, a resident of that neighborhood noted, “The recently completed community vote conducted by the ANC and the Chevy Chase Citizens Association overwhelmingly rejected the historic district nomination application of the Historic Chevy Chase organization. Of 474 ballots cast, 363 — or more than 71 percent — were votes to reject the idea of an historic district.” Leland further noted that a majority of 51 percent of the 930 prospectively affected property owners returned their ballots. Mary Rowse of Historic Chevy Chase disputed the significance of the vote, asserting that many property owners didn’t vote and that many who did were misinformed.

Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein reprised a number of matters that have disturbed his ANC: the Boston House apartment window replacement controversy; the handicap accessibility issue in Mt. Pleasant (see, “DC’s Historic Preservation Process, Policies Debated at Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Forum; Residents Protest Program is Too Inflexible,” The InTowner, April 2007, page 1.); illegal search and seizure by HPO on Capitol Hill (see, “Homeowners Score Major Win in Federal Court Against DC with Decision Upholding Violation of Fourth Amendment Civil Rights Protections,” The InTowner, January 2007, page 1); and the denial of constitutional civil rights and religious freedom to the congregation of Third Church of Christ Scientist (see, “Preservation Board’s Order Landmarking Church Being Challenged in Federal Court,” The InTowner, January 2008, page 1.)

Silverstein recommended a broadening of the Cheh/Bowser bill to include voters, as did Takoma DC ANC Commissioner Sara Green, who back-peddled to join fellow and former ANC Commissioners Loretta Neumann and Faith Wheeler in expressing doubts that ordinary citizens were capable of judging or voting on historic preservation matters. All three also explored the questions of good public policy — and protecting such from being overturned by popular votes — and the enshrining of historic preservation in the recently adopted revision of the District’s comprehensive plan.

Darrow Kirkpatrick challenged HPO and HPRB assertions that applications are not moved forward if they do not have broad support. “To the contrary,” said Kirkpatrick, “when the 16th Street Historic District was expanded to include Third Church in 2007, vocal opposition from affected property owners was dismissed by simply characterizing the designation as a boundary increase. The landmark application on our building,” Kirkpatrick continued, “was filed without our knowledge or consent, and was opposed by three Council Members, the Deputy Mayor, our ANC, the Episcopal Diocese, the Catholic Archdiocese, and four other broad based religious organizations. Yet we were landmarked.”

Equally resolute was the testimony of Brookland resident Carolyn Steptoe, who recounted how the community and its ANC scuttled an historic district designation about which they knew nothing even as it was entering its third and final phase.

A contrasting experience was recounted in concise testimony by Shaw neighborhood ANC Commissioner Alexander Padro regarding the Shaw and Mt. Vernon historic districts: “Were it not for the designation of these historic districts, coupled with the [Convention Center building] moratorium, Shaw would look very different today. In all likelihood, development pressures and rising property values in an area where the zoning envelope is substantially under-built would have resulted in scores or even hundreds of buildings being demolished, severely compromising the integrity of the historic districts and the neighborhood.”

After a broad-ranging discussion of these and related issues, the afternoon’s lengthy session ended inconclusively with a panel of government witnesses who left Chairman Gray and Councilmembers Cheh and Bowser appearing unsatisfied with some of their responses to issues raised with them, such as Gray’s questioning of the proposed bill’s constitutionality, Bowser’s regarding the apparent absence of any objective criteria or standards for what constitutes a prospective historic district and its consequent boundaries, and Cheh’s persistent query as to why residents were seemingly deemed at least technically incapable of making historic district recommendations or participating fully in the determination of such districts.

Chairman Gray closed the hearing with a reminder to the government witnesses of their promise to provide the Council’s Committee of the Whole with draft HPO/HPRB regulations codifying new and improved procedures for ensuring meaningful public participation in historic preservation designation processes and decisions.