Since 1913, the mosaic inscription "The Gospel of St. Matthew" has identified Washington's Roman Catholic cathedral at 1727 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Now, a chartreuse poster tacked to the verdigris offers a more secular message: "Public Hearing Notice of a Zoning Proposal."
St. Matthew's, under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Washington, has asked the city to rezone four houses adjacent to its rectory on Rhode Island Avenue between Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street NW.
The cathedral made the request because it said it lacked funds to restore the houses and hoped to raise additional funds for its programs and activities.
If the plan is approved, the site would be approved for high-density commercial use, and the Kaempfer Co. would restore the four houses and build a 10-story office building behind them.
The site, valued at $12.8 million in documents filed with the zoning commission, is near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and M Street, a few blocks from two Metro stations.
Under current use as church offices, it brings no revenue either to the city or the parish.
If zoning approval is given, Kaempfer will pay the church about $1 million annually, and the property will be taxable.
Herman Gohn, executive director of the adjacent YMCA, said that he has written to the zoning commission in support of the project. "We're not averse to that kind of development," Gohn said.
But other neighbors plan to object at a hearing scheduled for today. "The ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission established by the District to represent neighborhood concerns] has consistently opposed the project on the grounds of bulk and height," said ANC staff coordinator Vernon Palmer. Palmer said that the ANC is concerned that the proposal would lead to more traffic in the alley between Rhode Island Avenue and N Street NW.
The law offices of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton, at 1752 N St. NW, abut the alley. "We're concerned about the impact on alley usage," Michael Duncan said. The firm has hired a traffic consultant to report to the zoning commission on potential congestion in the alley.
Phyllis Nelson, secretary of the zoning committee of the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association, said that the group does not oppose the building as much as it does the change in zoning.
"We would very much like to see it stay SP-1," Nelson said. The proposed zoning, C-3-C, would allow retail space and general offices. SP-1, or special purposes zoning, restricts offices to professionals and nonprofit organizations.
The buildings are used for church and community services. "We felt that the property was really high-priced for diocesan offices," said Monsignor W. Louis Quinn, pastor of St. Matthew's.
So about four years ago, the archdiocese began accepting bids for development, with hopes of restoring the once-splendid houses and of raising funds to expand social programs.
"We wanted to maintain the historical buildings, and to bring the neighborhood something special," Quinn said.
Kaempfer chose Skidmore, Owings and Merrill as architects for the project, and hired Emily Eig, an architectural historian, to explore the site's past. All preparation costs are to be paid by the developers, who have established a ground lease with the archdiocese.
About $600,000 of Kaempfer's annual payments to the church would go to the support of the Catholic school system, which Quinn describes as having "a heavy percentage of those who are not Catholics, and a very, very heavy percentage of minority students."
In addition, the church would like to expand its community outreach programs, add a Spanish-speaking priest and start scholarship programs for neighborhood students, Quinn said.
The plan would create about 170,000 square feet of office space in the new building and the two eastern houses, and would provide refurbished space for the church in the two houses closer to the church. Parking for 89 cars would be provided underground.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the church acquired the four houses, which had been private homes. For 24 years, 1717 Rhode Island Ave. was the residence of Edward Douglas White, chief justice of the United States. The restoration of White's law library would highlight the project, said Steve Levin of Kaempfer.
"It should not at all change the character of the neighborhood," said Mary Mottershead of Kaempfer. "There is C-3-C and C-4 [high-density commercial] space all around here, and N Street is almost all commercial."
On weekday holidays, the church fills with workers from the downtown area, and tourists come to see the site of slain president John F. Kennedy's requiem mass, Quinn said. And though he said that he is happy to have them, "they are not the same as parishoners," who can be counted on to drop their tithe in the collection basket week after week.
Quinn said maintenance of the marble and mosaics within the church severely strains parish funds: A recent interior cleaning cost $90,000, and the replacement of a vandalized statue took six years and cost $40,000.
But, Quinn said, "We are blessed" by the cathedral's holdings in a high-rent area. "Many other cathedral parishes have ended up in decaying areas of cities, and they are a terrible drain" on diocesan funds, he said.
If the zoning commission grants the request, the land controlled by Kaempfer will be taxable, and the church will have a sizable income.
"It becomes more valuable for the city and for us," Quinn said.