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DC Preservation Board Flatly Rejects St. Thomas Church Site Development Plan; Dupont Neighbors Feel Vindicated

Accompanying images can be viewed in the October 2014 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Before a crowded hearing room filled with St. Thomas Church parishioners and church officials, together with Dupont Circle residents and ANC commissioners, the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) forcefully rejected St. Thomas’ conceptual proposals for the design and construction of a new mixed-use church/residential building.

The proposed plan would provide a primary entrance for the church on 18th Street along with an abutting seven story apartment house complex facing Church Street, complete with tall penthouse structures and incorporating the present parish hall and cloister at the rear of the church site.

The new, modernist-designed church building would serve to replace St. Thomas’s magnificent, historic landmarked, turn of the 20th century Gothic-style structure,

one which was destroyed in 1970 by an arsonist’s torch, leaving in its wake a vacant lot backed by a ruined limestone gable wall adorned with such interior items as the church altar, chancel, reredos and other interior fragments, all of which, according to expert testimony, were stabilized before being left exposed to the elements.

These remnants of the Church became known as the “St. Thomas Ruins,” and were immediately the focal point for this initially vacant site, after extensive landscape design, blossomed into a beloved neighborhood park, one designed to express the spiritual nature of the place; and a park which is fully accessible to the general public.

Plans and proposals for rebuilding, redeveloping, or reusing the site have percolated among St. Thomas Parish’s congregants from at least the late 1980s through the present day, with a fully articulated design completed four years ago for a new church building on the site that was approved by HPRB and applauded by the community. (See, “Dupont Circle’s St. Thomas’ Parish Planning to Build Anew,” InTowner, March 2010 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/lrzeqrl.)

The present 2014 design reflects the failure of the Parish to secure full funding for the construction and maintenance of the 2010 design and the subsequent decision by St. Thomas and the Washington Episcopal Diocese to pursue a part church/part commercial development on the 18th & Church Street site as a financially viable approach to securing a new church facility that could accommodate its growing congregation and the programs for which the church presently has no space. (See, “St. Thomas’ New Church Building Plan May be Scrapped; Partnering With a Developer Offered as Possible Solution,” InTowner, October 2012 issue PDF page 3; http://tinyurl.com/ogrkjoo.)

With timing as a factor — the condominium market in such highly desirable locations as Dupont Circle is a hot market and the value of the Church’s site has risen significantly, St. Thomas embarked on the planning and articulation of a church/residential structure with CAS Riegler Development company.

The result of this endeavor has not been warmly received by the community or by the professional historic preservation bodies with most, but not all, of the project site’s immediate neighbors vigorously denouncing the height and massing of the residential components, the blandness and boxy nature together with the projecting flat roof of the church design, and the failure to integrate the design of the residential components — they read as separately designed façades — as well as the inappropriate relationship of the taller residential building to the replacement church building, rather than the architects designing the residential building as visually subordinate to the church.

The staff report prepared by the District’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO), which is part of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development’s Office of Planning, is a document threading the needles of two imperatives — one being Mayor Gray’s priorities for economic development with its emphasis on infill projects in residential or mixed residential/commercial districts, the other being a continued and determined professional commitment to the idealistic goals of historic preservation. HPO was thus somehow able to find the proposed project not incompatible with the historic character of the Dupont Circle historic district — and historic preservation guidelines generally — and yet include in that same affirmation document a devastating appraisal of the design deficiencies of the present St. Thomas church/residential project proposal.

Joining this professional critique were more negative assessments from Stephen A. Hansen of DC Historic Designs LLC, Lance P. Salonia of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), and historic preservationists seeking protection for the St. Thomas Ruins and for the exploration of alternative parkland/green solutions to at least part of the site.

Robin Diener, co-chair of DCCA’s Parks and Environment Committee provided an impassioned plea for parks and sustainability on the site and Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Abigail Nichols, who continues to advance the cause before the ANC of purchasing the existing park from St. Thomas Parish and creating a history park in its place, submitted testimony. Both Hansen’s and Salonia’s professional assessments concluded that the project proposal was not at all compatible with the Dupont Circle historic district — to say nothing of the Dupont Circle Zoning Overlay, which further articulates the nature of the low-rise row house dwellings on the narrow grid streets of Dupont Circle.

A notable exception to these assertions and proposed alternatives was that of Greater/Greater Washington’s founder David Alpert, whose Church street home is directly opposite the St. Thomas Parish site. Alpert provided the HPRB with a statement supporting the church proposal but including a gentle and thoughtful riff on the many design deficiencies of the exiting proposal, much in the vein of the critique found in the HPO report. The most nuanced assessment of the proposal was provided by the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), whose chairman Noah Smith relayed the Commission’s statement of support to the St. Thomas proposal, that support being only with the following five conditions:

“(1) At the proposed residential building adjacent to the church, a significant setback is established beginning at the fourth or fifth floor as it faces Church Street; perhaps our most significant condition is that the residential component which faces church street should be set back beginning at the fourth or fifth floor to reduce visibility from the street and help the building feel smaller for the passing pedestrian . . . ;

“(2)The project team begins active participation in a committee made up of neighbors, the church and the ANC to proactively address potential zoning and quality-of-life related matters prior to submitting an application for any zoning relief . . . ;

“(3) The project team hires a professional arborist and submits plans to the ANC and HPRB that include methods to protect and preserve existing trees to the extent possible and, where not possible, to replace them . . . ;

“(4) We believe that as a pedestrian on Church Street, facing a six story flat wall up to the edge of the sidewalk is simply unacceptable. We strongly recommend that a setback be required on the entirety of the Church Street side and that as much landscaped green space is added as possible. This again helps to reduce the bulky feel of the project . . . ;

“(5) As recommended in the HPO staff report, the project team re-examine some of the earlier design elements as they relate to expression of the project at the pedestrian level and determine ways to improve the design’s relation to the street and overall unity of the two components. . . .”

Critiques by HPRB members were even more unkind to the quality and work product of the architects and designers, with the HPRB Chair Gretchen Pfaehler questioning whether or not the applicant, St. Thomas Parish, had selected the right staff for the job.

Several Board members searchingly questioned the height and massing and nearly all of the members harshly questioned the design quality of the presentation, especially the lack of integration of the residential components and the relationship between the residences and the proposed church building — which was more than once referred to as not qualifying as a replacement for a previously landmarked edifice.

Board member Joseph Eugene Taylor repeatedly asserted that the height, massing, and design being presented created a project proposal that was simply not compatible with the historic district. Chairman Pfaehler softened the phrasing of that judgment with an alternative articulation of the same judgment; she asserted that, simply stated, the St. Thomas proposal should be rethought and resubmitted by the applicant after working with the neighborhood, the ANC, and staff of the HPO. The chair’s phrasing was adopted unanimously by the Board.