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St. Thomas Development Project Gets New HPRB Hearing; Church Design Nearing Approval But Condo Design & Massing Criticized

Accompanying images can be viewed in the April 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

An agreement forged by the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) with the development team for the proposed new St. Thomas Church and condominium residences at 18th and Church Streets NW — supported by the Church — seemed to unravel in the face of questions and confusions at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) March 26th continuation of its public hearing from last fall on the concept designs for this multi-purpose adaptive re-use and new construction application.

[For an account of the earlier hearing, see “DC Preservation Board Flatly Rejects St. Thomas Church Site Development Plan; Dupont Neighbors Feel Vindicated,” InTowner, October 2014 issue pdf page 1;]

Well attended by both proponents and opponents of the proposed new project, the controversy centered on the apparent misapprehension by the ANC and the developers of the direction being articulated by the Board at its October 2, 2014 hearing on the matter. This imprecision caused developer CAS Riegle, St. Thomas’ partner for the project, and the ANC seemingly to focus on the issue of a “perceived” height for the residential component of the project being limited to a perception of a height of no more than 59 feet for a person standing on Church Street and looking up at the project’s Church Street residential façade — this to be achieved by additional setbacks on the upper floors and the penthouse structure.

Further, improving the pedestrian experience on Church Street, providing a better resolution of the dominant/subordinate relationship between the condominiums and the church, and producing an improved and more prominent design for the church were also addressed. The applicants were also told by the HPRB chair that they needed a new staff of designers for the church.

The Board’s summary ruling on the matter, however, in the customary compromise language of HPRB resolutions, stated that the “proposed reuse of the existing ruins within the new church to be an acceptable preservation treatment and the extent of alteration and addition to the parish hall [being designed for incorporation into the residential condominium building] would not compromise its character or constitute demolition as defined in the preservation regulations.”

Continuing, the Board further ruled in this split vote resolution (5-3 in favor, with one abstention) that “the church building was found to be generally compatible in height and size, but that significant further design work was needed to improve its relationship to the historic district, with specific attention needed with regard to the massing, materials use, and the building’s base.” The Board also asserted that “the church building should be more distinct and the dominant element in the overall composition. The residential building’s height, mass and architectural character should continue to be significantly redesigned to be more residential in character and secondary to the church.”

The Board vote on the matter was 5-3, with one member absent. Nothing was said about such matters as a limitation of a “perceived” height of no more than 59 feet or the pedestrian experience on Church Street.

The staff report and recommendation presented its take on this same matter by stating, “At the [earlier, 2014] meeting the Board made the following findings:

“The church should be designed to be the dominant element in the composition;

“The project needed to more welcoming and compatible at the pedestrian street level;

“The composition needed to be further thought through with regard to scale, materials, and hierarchy of church to residential;

“Increased setbacks at upper floors were needed to decrease the perceived height and mass of the residential building; [and]

“The residential component needed to be more clearly residential in character and detail.”

The well-organized and professionally advised community group calling itself Church Street Neighbors, primarily consists of immediate residents to the St. Thomas project in the 1700 block of Church Street NW and adjacent streets, concluded its 16-page, March 4, 2015 Power Point presentation to the Dupont Circle ANC’s zoning, preservation, and development Committee with statements made by HPRB members at the fall 2014 public meeting, highlighting those by three of its four architect members.

D. Graham Davidson said, “It’s pretty clear to me . . . that the maximum height of development on this site should be in the yellow zone [on the developer’s color coded map] the 40 to 59 feet. And the 59 feet is really a stretch because the majority of the buildings along [Church] street . . . is three to four stories, more in the range of the 40 feet dimension. . . And therefore I would propose that this residential building should have a maximum height — including the penthouse, because the buildings along Church Street don’t have penthouses for the most part — of 59 feet. And maybe it of course should even be lower.”

Joseph Eugene Taylor asserted, “Before we get to that, I think it’s [the residential building] it’s too tall.”

And the group’s chair, Gretchen Pfaehler, speaking about the two streets immediately surrounding St. Thomas, stated, “They’re very different environments from a preservation architecture perspective. The scale is different. The experience of people as they move along those streets are different. I drive my car one speed on 18th Street and then a different speed on Church Street. I ride my bike differently on those two streets. And so recognizing the hierarchy that exists within the site in which you’re building is important.”

The HPRB Hearing

The Board first heard a concise presentation from CAS Riegler of the major revisions to the project, including the additional setbacks to the 5th, 6th, 7th, and penthouse floors, the new design for the Church building, including the incorporation of the altar ruins in toto in the new and more prominent sanctuary, the movement back of the condominium from the Church Street property line, which corresponds with the sidewalk, to allow for a strip of green, the flipping of the parish hall and the terrace, and the articulation in the new church proposal of a unique design of an “ascension theme” employing a terracotta veil screen. The church model’s inner illumination brought an enthusiastic response, the 3-D wrap around video of the revised project with block, massing images for the neighborhood context less so.

The characteristically concise and professional Historic Preserve Office (HPO) staff report summarized its judgments of the relative successes and failures of this revision, by pointing out, for example, the following:

“The residential block is still expressed in three distinct masses. The piece with the most notable changes is the main block next to the church which comprises the bulk of the building. Three protruding metal bays with shallow balconies and large glazed openings delineate the main residential façade for the first 4 floors. These metal bays are framed by a brick back drop up to the 5th floor, and then a metal and glass window wall system frame out the 6th and 7th floors. The revised design includes several more setbacks than in the previous design—3’ at the 5th floor, 7’-3” at the 6th floor, 12’-7” at the 7th floor and another 11’-11” at the penthouse.”

Still, however, the HPO report noted that the “number of layers and materials is overly complicated and fails to come together into a resolved whole. As currently proposed, the façade consists of metal bays attached to a larger heavy brick bay that is attached to a metal/glass frame that is then attached to a brick building. Finding a balance between articulating the setbacks with an edited and more consistent language of materials and scale is needed.”

The ANC resolution on the matter concluded its “whereas clauses” with the assertion, echoing that of the Church Street Neighbors, “that the changes since previous concept design has pushed massing towards the public alley rather than re-conceptualizing the design; [that] the residential design as presented on March 4th, 2015 at the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation, and Development Committee meeting would be supportable if the residential component in height or bulk were compatible with the historic character and texture of the Dupont Circle neighborhood and in particular with the 1700 block of Church Street, NW; [that] many residents of the Dupont Circle neighborhood have expressed opinions that the designs of the two structures do not relate as well to the street as other buildings in the historic district, lack pedestrian-scale detailing, interfere with sight lines and maintain a horizontal and ‘boxy’ appearance.”

Resolution’s Resolve Clause

“RESOLVED that ANC 2B recommends that the HPRB find the proposal compatible with the Dupont Circle Historic District if and only if the following is met,” of which the following two examples are illustrative:

“Alterations are made to make the church and residential exterior, materials and design more compatible with the historic character and scale of the neighborhood, representative of the remaining low density residential townhomes and buildings as intended by the letter and the spirit of the Dupont Circle Overlay. ANC 2B finds that the buildings are too angular, too symmetrical and lack architectural character that would enable the buildings to blend into the neighborhood, particularly in relation to Church Street. And, The residential building seen from adjacent at-grade vantage points including the entirety of Church Street, P Street, 18th Street, and the public alley between Church and P Streets be between 40 and 59 feet tall, including mechanicals, and maintain existing setbacks.” Other design and massing issues are followed by a stipulation that a formal mechanism be devised for future collaboration between the development partners and the community.

ANC Chair Noah Smith, in beginning his testimony on the ANC resolution, was startled by HPRB Chair Phaehler’s and board member Davidson’s challenge on the “perceivability” of a 59-foot height limit. “Where did you get that?” asked Phaehler. And Davidson clarified his use of 59 feet as being that of actual height, including penthouse, and not perceived height.

Testimony was presented in support of the revised concept plans (on a split vote of eight in favor and four against) by the Dupont Circle Conservancy and in strenuous opposition by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA).

Also testifying, but in strong opposition, were Jim McGrath for the Residential Action Coalition and Stephen A. Hansen, lead consultant for the Church Street Neighbors. Prominent historic preservation architect Don Hawkins provided a complex and fascinating architectural critique of the church design and program, and Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the DC Preservation League, commended the improvements in the revised design but asserted that the project was still not compatible with the historic district.

Eloquence was provided by the church’s building committee chair Ryan Winfield’s testimony in support of the revised plan for the church building. With clarity and poetic phrasing, Winfield articulated the concepts and intentions being employed by his progressive parish and its architectural team for the creation of a welcoming, spiritually engaging, and progressive new structure. Winfield concluded his remarks with a reference to Chair Pfaehler’s comment at the previous hearing that that [earlier] design looked as it had landed at 18th and Church: “When I look at this [new design] I see a church rising up . . . like a phoenix taking flight.”

Spirited board discussion following the public testimony included that of the Board’s fourth architect member Rauzia Ally, who summed up the details of her critique which included recommending the removal of the bays to further downplay the prominence of the residential portion of the building by invoking the words of Thoreau, “simplify, simplify, simplify,” she pleaded. Pfaehler noted the conditions of the ANC’s recommendation and her continuing concerns regarding design materials. Davidson suggested lopping off a couple of layers off the top to make the project “compatible,” and chastised the developers for taking advantage of the community’s politeness and giving them an office building style for K Street rather than a building style for Church Street. He also expressed support for Don Hawkins’ architectural critique. Taylor asked that the landscaping at the church entrance be increased and that “the massing at the southeast corner of the building be decreased so you’re not a thug to the alley.” While he expressed pleasure at the new church design — as did other Board members, he noted that the tower is not grounded and that it should be. He further recommended that the bays not be grounded. Nancy Metzger asked that the entrances, especially that of the church, be re-examined, and expressed displeasure at the glass box on top of the church; she further stated that the bays did not work well and that there was too much height on top of the cloister entrance. Individual neighbors also weighed in echoing opposition positions articulated in depth by such as the ANC, the DCCA, and the Church Street Neighbors.

Chair Pfaehler articulated a Board resolution calling for the applicant to continue to refine the design to better achieve the feeling of the existing St. Thomas site and that of the textures of the buildings on Church Street, lower the penthouses and take into account the Board’s concerns and the staff report and recommendations and that the applicant pay special attention to the structure and contents of the resolutions of the ANC and the neighborhood organizations and those of the community — e.g. DCCA and the Conservancy — whereupon the Board adopted the staff report by unanimous vote.