CROSSROADS The Price of Change at 14th and T
A Boom Giveth, and It Taketh Away
Monday, November 14, 2005
When Church of the Rapture sells for $10 million this year, the Pentecostal storefront on the corner of 14th and T streets NW hits the jackpot. Pastor Theresa Garrison always says that God channels his wishes through her, and when He said, "Sell," it was near the peak of a commercial real estate boom on 14th Street.
The buyer is the West Group Development Co., a behemoth developer from McLean, in partnership with Ellis Development Group in the District.
The West Group built Tysons Corner. Although the chief executive of the Ellis company, Chip Ellis, has no sprawling office parks on his resume, he brings another asset. He was born in Shaw, the historic soul of black Washington and right where the development team hopes to convert a black church into half-million-dollar condos.
Church of the Rapture also has a share in the deal, and to make sure that three decades of shouting down Satan at 14th and T won't be forgotten, the 40-unit development would be called Rapture Lofts.
Like a veil lifting on the future, the blueprints reveal the dramatic remaking of the corner: glamorous industrial lofts of glass and steel with underground parking and first-floor retail.
To test the community's support, the developers hold a meeting in the church. There is no lament for the loss of the church. Nearly every question from the mostly white audience involves parking, construction inconveniences and what kind of restaurant might go in the ground floor.
The first official hurdle is the District's Histor-
ic Preservation Review Board. The hodgepodge-painted Church of the Rapture building was an auto showroom built in 1919. A smaller adjoining structure also owned by the church was one of the city's first department stores that catered to African Americans. Both buildings are in the Greater U Street Historic District.
Besides dealing in the arcana of corbelled cornices, the preservation review board has the authority to limit the height and scale of construction. The idea that 11 preservationists could hinder the development team's profits angers Charlton Woodyard, a church member who wants the lofts to go as high as possible for maximum financial return.
"If you can't make money, what good is that gonna be?" Woodyard asks. "Now they are talking 'Historic Anacostia.' Where were you when we needed you? When guns were splayed and people were dying?"
To woo the review board, the developers put together some heavy street credibility. Architect Suman Sorg has transformed other buildings on 14th, including another auto showroom. Emily Eig, an architectural historian, is brought on as a preservation consultant.
On the day of the hearing, the bona fides of Shaw's descendants are on display as much as the blueprints. Ellis speaks on behalf of the project, introducing himself as a fourth-generation Washingtonian born at Freedmen's Hospital, now Howard University Hospital. Another supporter enlisted by the lofts project, preservationist Lori Dodson, tells the board that her grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in Shaw and that Ellis understands the importance of those roots. "He himself embodies the history, just as the buildings do, so he carries those memories with him," Dodson says.