New Renderings of the St. Thomas’ Parish Church Redevelopment

by Lark Turner

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A view of the development on Church Street looking toward 18th.

New renderings of a proposed redevelopment of the St. Thomas’ Parish Church were revealed at an ANC committee meeting on Monday night.

The project planned for 1772 Church Street NW (map) would replace the ruins of the old English Gothic church, most of which was burned to the ground in an arson attack 44 years ago. Since then, the place where the church once stood has become a rare piece of green space fronting 18th Street that’s enjoyed by neighbors and students at a nearby school. Meanwhile the church has crowded into a parish hall fronting Church Street that it says its congregation has outgrown.

To pay for the new building, which the Episcopal church wants to place on 18th Street where the old building stood, the church is selling off the rest of its land to developer CAS Riegler, which plans to build a 70-foot, 50-60 unit residential building on the site in partnership with architect Hickok Cole. More than 450 people have signed a petition, Save Church Street, opposing the development. The church building has a separate developer and architect.

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The design of the residential building has changed significantly since the church first announced its plans to redevelop the property this winter. A boxier look has given way to a seven-story building that’s taller but more set back as a result of conversations with neighbors. The church is planning to retain parts of the damaged historic structure, and the development will appear before the Historic Preservation Review Board later this month.

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An alley view of the development.

The tone at Monday night’s meeting was much more civil than some previous public developer-neighbor conversations, four of which have been held since February. Still, it included a neighbor request that the project be delayed so residents could try and raise money for the church property; the repeat of the axiom “no good deed goes unpunished”; and an admonishment about the unlikelihood of millionaires “popping out of the sky” to help form a compromise with the church and the community.

One commissioner even invoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” concept to assure residents and the church that the stand-off between the opposing parties would ultimately end.

ANC 2B-09 Commissioner Noah Smith said he appreciated the church’s efforts with the community but ultimately believes the residential development is “just too big” for Church Street.

Robin Bettarel, CAS Riegler’s director of development, said despite opposition to the project’s density, the land is actually in an ideal location for high-density development.

“You’re two blocks from a metro and every urban planner in the country would tell you that that’s exactly where they want high density going forward,” she said.

Bettarel also suggested that within limits, the church could do with its land what it wants.

“I know change is difficult. I know people have enjoyed this land for a very long time, but it is their private land,” she said. “It’s just a shame that we can’t be supportive of that.”

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The church, designed by MTFA Architecture, will front 18th Street.

ANC 2B-05 commissioner Abigail Nichols, who asked the ANC to try and delay the project so the neighborhood could figure out a way to reduce the density of the development by donating money to the church, was answered by a neighbor who told her that was highly unlikely.

“Your sentiments are commendable,” said John Hoskinson. “I just think they’re wildly unrealistic.”

The ANC 2B zoning committee ultimately closed the meeting with plans to draft a lengthy resolution outlining standards the church must meet to receive the full ANC’s support for the development, including addressing concerns about traffic, outdoor space and historic standards.

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Developers said the residential building will “feel like” a four-story building.

Smith also asked the church why it decided to go forward with both projects at once, suggesting the dual projects make it difficult for neighbors to figure out how to oppose the residential portion of the project while supporting the church’s plan to rebuild.

“The church … is tying itself to the residential component in a very formal and close way,” he said. “It’s not going well so far.”

Robert Moluf, a member of the church who’s aiding in the redevelopment process, responded that the church was still involved because it wanted to make sure the project was done right. Moluf said the church could have easily sold off the land and walked away from the project entirely.

“One gigantic developer recommended we do exactly that,” he said. “We chose not to do that because we, too, are neighbors and we care about what happens on Church Street.”

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/new_renderings_of_the_proposed_st._thomas_parish_church_redevelopment/8706

2 Comments

  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 4:09 pm on Tuesday July 8, 2014:

    The apartment building is looking more and more designed by committee. And it’s more than a touch dull.  But it seems okay, and in any case, the idea that this street and site are so super-precious that anything bigger than a rowhouse (really anything at all) will prove disastrous is nothing more than self-centered poppycock.

    The primary problem is the church’s design, which is at least partly the result of the side-by-side arrangement.  This program, one would think, would have secondary church spaces at the lower floors (where the floor plates are naturally deeper) and apartments above (where the floor plates naturally step back).  The sanctuary would be a jewel on 18th Street.  But for some reason, it’s a side-by-side arrangement, where the sanctuary is sandwiched between other church spaces and the deeper lower floors of the apartment building will produce deep, dark units.  A lose-lose scenario for everyone: the church, the apartments’ future occupants, and the public.  Too bad.

    Beyond that, we have the church’s design.  It provokes a “WTF” reaction from me.  It’s styled like a 1960s fab-modern church, almost as if Minoru Yamasaki (the architect of the late World Trade Center) did it in 1965. (Probably as a mosque, given all those arabesque geometric ornamentations.)  But the “period of significance” for the Dupont Circle Historic District is about 1875-1920, and the building’s construction is hoped for 2015.  I suppose 1965 meets half way, approximately, but really it manages to have no relationship to either our time or the neighborhood’s original time. 

    Baffling thought the style choices may be, the bigger problem is the blocky massing and height of the church.  No grace whatsoever, and the apartment building would fit in a lot better if the church fit more easily among its 18th Street neighbors.  We know from 14th Street that mass and height in the middle of a block works better than mass and height at the corners.

    The neighbors may be classic self-absorbed NIMBYs, but that doesn’t mean this is a good project, at least not yet.  Let’s hope that the process has the beneficial side effect of buying time for good design to gestate.

  1. Nathaniel Martin said at 12:29 am on Wednesday July 9, 2014:

    The design of the church is inexplicable.  As skidrowedc states, it is indeed reminiscent of the work of Minoru Yamasaki, and I have to say that that architect’s aesthetic generally hasn’t held up very well.  It seems very out of place in this location—and I am not by any means a strict contextualist, so that’s saying something. 

    A while back, I saw a radically different design for this site—much more modern and sculptural—that I thought had promise.  The current design is a weird mix of the bland (the apartments) and the bizarre (the church).

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