Developers are proceeding with plans to demolish a historic church

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, November 22, 2010

Builders planning to tear down a concrete church after a years-long feud over the historic value of D.C. buildings are moving forward in earnest after a major local developer bought into the property as a partner.

For more than two years, debate raged over the fate of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist after ICG Properties bought it in 2006 and -- with the congregation's support -- planned to tear it down and build a new office building with worship space for the church.

Located two blocks north of the White House at 16th and I streets NW, the church was designed by the firm of architect I.M. Pei in 1971 and is one of a limited number of Washington examples of Brutalist architecture.

After the purchase, ICG weathered furious debate between preservationists, who argued that the building had historic value and should not be demolished, and advocates for property rights and religious freedom, who said the building was out of date and that opposing the church constituted a violation of religious freedom.

In 2007 the city's Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to name the church a historic landmark. But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty then appointed Planning Director Harriet Tregoning to oversee preservation issues. In 2009 Tregoning said preventing demolition would "result in the inevitable demise of the Third Church as a downtown congregation" and allowed it to proceed.

But even with the reversal in hand, ICG's equity partner on the project pulled out in December 2009. That left development plans in limbo until August, when the JBG Cos., a Chevy Chase developer and investor that completed a $575 million real estate fundraising drive in January, quietly bought into the project.

"What we were looking for was a long-term capital partner who wanted to be involved not just in the near term and entitlement [when the project is cleared for construction] but that wanted to build a building, and they fit that," said ICG principal David Stern.

Despite being a much smaller company, ICG will remain lead developer of the project until the plans are fully approved.

"We're basically backing them," said W. Matt Kelly, managing director of JBG investment management. "We're the minority investor, we're backing them, they're in the lead, and then when we have the site entitled, that equation will shift."

Stern said he expects to submit the project for zoning changes in the first half of 2011. ICG has begun its search for an architect that he said will ensure that the property will continue to showcase landmark design.

"This is a corner that deserves exemplary and monumental architecture," he said.

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