Preservationists Want Fenty Adviser Off Case

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A fortress-like church is at the center of a dispute between D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and historic preservationists, who contend that the mayor is exerting undue political muscle to help congregants demolish their landmark sanctuary.

The D.C. Preservation League is demanding that a senior adviser to Fenty (D) disqualify herself from ruling on the Third Church of Christ, Scientist's appeal to raze its building at 16th and I streets NW.

The preservationists contend that Harriet Tregoning, the District planning director who began presiding over the case yesterday, cannot rule impartially because her boss, Deputy Mayor Neil Albert, has already backed demolition.

For more than a decade, a little-known administrative law judge has served in the role of mayor's agent on such matters. But in recent weeks, Fenty has taken the unusual step of assigning Tregoning to rule on the church's appeal.

Andrew Potts, a D.C. Preservation League trustee, said that Fenty's action is "going to have negative consequences for the administration of justice."

"It puts us on the path to go back to the old days where political appointees make the decisions and the public does not have confidence in the integrity of the outcomes," he said. "The result will be litigiousness and less confidence that people are getting a fair shake."

Mafara Hobson, Fenty's spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the mayor has the legal right to assign Tregoning to the case and that he did so because her "background and experience makes her an excellent selection for the position."

Tregoning, who declined to comment on her appointment, scheduled another public hearing for next month.

The District's Historic Preservation Review Board last December conferred landmark status on the 36-year-old church despite opposition from congregants and civic leaders who derided the sanctuary's modernist architecture as a blight.

Preservationists argued that the church is among the city's most significant examples of brutalism, a postwar architectural movement that celebrated the use of roughly cast concrete.

Albert was among the opponents, writing in a letter to the board that the "bunker-like" church "weakened" the 16th Street corridor. He also wrote that the church is not old enough "to permit professional evaluation" of it in its historic context.

The landmark designation halted Third Church's plan to redevelop the site. The church then appealed the review board's refusal of a demolition permit. It contended that, with a declining membership, it cannot afford to maintain the 400-seat sanctuary.

Rohulamin Quander, a senior administrative law judge, had expected to preside over the case. But Quander said he was told several weeks ago that Tregoning would take over. He said it was the first time in "almost 11 years" that he has received such a notification. But he said, he served at Fenty's pleasure.

Tregoning's appointment prompted council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to ask in a letter to the planning director that the administration reconsider and make an appointment that will not be questioned. He said the appointment "creates an inappropriate appearance" that is unhelpful.

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