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St. Thomas Development Project Design Not Completely OK’d; HPRB Calls for More Work

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

The on-going saga of the St. Thomas Parish project’s proposed new church building and adjacent residential structure at 18th and Church Streets in historic Dupont Circle continues before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB).

At the Board’s March 2015 formal meeting, the second of two public hearings on the matter, the Board approved the concept of the building — as proposed and subsequently modified following an earlier September 2014 session before the Board — with the following caveats to the developer, as summarized by staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) in its written report and recommendation to the Board:

“(1) Simplify and edit the architecture and materials of the residential building; (2) Develop the church design so that this building is the dominant element of the overall composition; (3) Refine the church design so that [the] tower becomes more grounded, and continue studying the texture and materiality; (4) Design public space at front of church to include green space and to inform entry to the building; (5) Minimize the penthouses; (6) Provide a preservation plan; and (7) Address the points articulated in the ANC resolution” at the March 2015 session” which, in addition to design and compatibility issues, emphasized the ANC and neighborhoods objections to the height and massing of the proposed new construction.

[For a full account of the March hearing, see “St. Thomas Development Project Gets New HPRB Hearing; Church Design Nearing Ok But Condo Design & Massing Criticized,” InTowner, April 2015 issue pdf page 1. Here can be viewed the architects’ previously prepared renderings which can be compared with those that were subsequently modified based on the Board’s concerns stated at its March meeting.]

The developer’s response to this extensive order, as documented and presented at the May 2015 public meeting with extensive models, a new 3-D video of architectural renderings of a constructed project, complete with late spring trees and plantings, and revised plans and drawings, was followed by a summary from the DC-based real estate development and investment company CAS Riegler, of specific changes and revisions made to the project since last March. These included, as listed in the developer’s PowerPoint display, the following:

To the Church, “penthouse reduced; tower has been grounded; proportions of the sanctuary improved; Church Street side simplified; [and] glass lessened at fourth floor.” To the residential component, “Church Street bays now brick, with detailing echoing [the existing residential structures on] Church Street; window patterns simplified; 4×5 [foot] planters provided between bays; alley balconies eliminated; alley facade simplified; [and] Parish Hall windows simplified.”

HPO’s report echoed the assertions of the developer, concluding with the bald statement that the revised massing of the residential component “responds to concerns from the Board, HPO, and the ANC.” Continuing, HPO asserted that “the Church elevations have been effectively refined with a focus on adjusting the proportions and minimizing the penthouse mass . . . [and] the tower element has been grounded by bringing the glass corner [to] continue to the ground to form the entry to the building.”

In summation, HPO recommended that the Board approve the developer’s revised application, “encourage the applicant to incorporate comments as outlined in the staff report, and delegate final approval to HPO staff.”

The staff report’s assertion that the developer had responded to concerns from the ANC, however, was immediately challenged by the lead-off public witness, ANC 2B Commissioner Justine Underhill, on behalf of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

On Wednesday May 13, 2015, ANC 2B passed its formal resolution by a vote of 7-0 regarding the church’s development project, including two amendments to the resolution’s text presented by Commissioner Maltz. Those amendments were based on language that CAS Riegler, the project’s developer, had quietly circulated to select commissioners — but not to Commissioner Underhill, who, as the one representing the residents of the single member district in which the project is located should have been consulted in accordance with normal ANC protocol; she did not learn of the developer’s role in this until after the May 13th meeting had adjourned. Most importantly, her desired opening phrase, “opposes this proposal” for the resolution’s final “THEREFORE, be it RESOLVED” clause was watered down to “finds the proposal not in compliance with the March 2015 ANC 2B resolution.”

Included in the ANC’s formal resolution submitted to the HPRB, the following clauses are of particular interest to neighboring residents:

“WHEREAS while most stipulations were met, ANC 2B believes the following two stipulations were not met:
‘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.’

[and]

‘Alterations are made to the exterior design so that the corrugation of the Church Street buildings’ facades and the rhythm of the Church Street buildings’ roof lines are in scale with the surrounding buildings.’; and

“WHEREAS ANC 2B believes the residential component of the project as presented does not satisfy the height stipulation from many at grade vantage points on Church Street, 18th St, and in the public alley— including from the corner of 18th and P, Church Street from 17th Street to four rowhouses from the parish hall, and from the 17th Street vantage point in the alley.”

The ANC added an additional matter to its objections, namely that the project, in order “. . . to fit the rhythm of the surrounding context, ANC 2B believes the bays on the residential component, which abut the property line, should be set back such that they are in line [with] the Church Street buildings’ facades.”

The Church Street Neighbors continued its well-documented opposition to the project’s height, massing, and incompatibility with the surrounding area through the submission of an additional, professionally prepared series of illustrations, the first initially submitted at the ANC’s May meeting. The second, prepared for the HPRB’s June public hearing, included a color-coded slide (based on an analysis of CAS Riegler materials by well-known DC architect and historic preservation historian and mapmaker Don Hawkins) of the extent to which the current project design exceeds the 59-foot upper limit of perceived height – which was the agreed-upon compromise.

Individual neighbors testified both for and against the developer’s latest revisions with Richard Busch on behalf of the Dupont Circle Conservancy providing the Board with the following resolution from its May 12th meeting:

“The Conservancy supports the project as presented, and notes that the changes incorporated in this iteration have been responsive to our past comments. Some Conservancy members note continued reservations with the massing and materials as they relate to the historic district.”

HPRB Chair Gretchen Phaehler and Board member D. Graham Davidson, two of the five architects on the Board, articulated the most commentary in response to, and critique of, the presentation and testimony of the developers and the community.

Davidson commended the developers for the penthouse reduction, noting that it sharply improved the massing of the project. He also commented on improvements from the reapportioning of the glass and terra cotta components of the church façade. But, as for the appropriateness of the proposed project’s height and massing as revealed in the submitted renderings showing the views down Church Street, about which during the previous meetings he had been especially critical, he stated that the developer needed to rework the residential height to correspond with Church Street residences.

Board Member Nancy Metzger seconded Davidson’s comments on the Church structure and emphasized her concern with the 18th Street public space where the landscape element, she asserted, should predominate. Chair Phaehler commended the ANC’s efforts with the project, noting that HPRB’s jurisdiction in the matter was only over a slice of what was before Commission. She called for the developer to complete its historic preservation plan; noted that the bays were still a problem; expressed a liking for the church tower but stated that more work needed to be done with the glazing on the church and that the top floor of the residential component needs alley and street modifications, including that on the Church Street side part of the residential top floor may need to be removed.

The Board then considered adoption of the HPO staff report and recommendation which, in summary, called for determinate by the Boards that:

“1. The additional setbacks at the church Street elevation and the alley and the elimination of the top floor for the residential building result in a height and mass that is compatible with the historic district and the perceived height is compatible with the scale of Church Street;

“2. The refined church design successfully articulates a distinct corner building with its own identity and creates a hierarchy of spaces;

“3. Encourage the applicant to incorporate comments as outlined in the staff report and delegate final approval to HPO staff.”

However, instead of the HPO motion, the Board adopted the staff report as critiqued with the Board’s design recommendations, especially with regard to the visual perception of the residential component’s height, and called for a return to the Board of these revisions for inclusion on the Consent Calendar if these revisions were found to be in agreement with the community and on the regular hearing calendar if not.