Controversial plans to build housing around a historic black church in Southwest were delayed last week to enable developers to discuss a scaled-down project with neighborhood leaders.
The Historic Preservation Review Board postponed action on architect Shalom Baranes' plans for the land around the historic home of the Friendship Baptist Church, which is believed to have been built by former slaves 117 years ago.
"The board is extremely sensitive to the importance of the church in our city," said Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the board. "Our fundamental purpose is to save the church and do so in a way that is compatible with providing the economic engine" to achieve that purpose, he said.
The sanctuary at H Street and Delaware Avenue SW has been vacant for more than two years since its last church owners moved out and sold the property to developer Steve Tanner.
The land has become overgrown with weeds and has been used for criminal activity, including drug use and prostitution, neighbors say. It is one of the few remaining original structures in Southwest, which was bulldozed for urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tanner won historic landmark status for the exterior of the church earlier this year, but the neighborhood has become polarized, largely along racial lines, over his plans to build housing.
The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) voted to support the condominium project 4-3, with white commissioners supporting the developer and black commissioners in opposition. Since then, Tanner and Baranes have substantially lowered the height of the proposed building and moved an underground parking ramp to a less obtrusive location, among other changes.
"The ANC supported the project, and [since then] we have reduced its size," said Cynthia Giordano, an attorney for the developer.
But Ahmed Assalam, the ANC chairman, said the proposals were causing "hurt" among his constituents. The church is a "beacon of hope in a community still plagued by the effects of slavery," he said. He urged the preservation board to protect additions built in 1930 and 1952 and to force the developer to consult with the community over its latest plans.
Mary C. Williams, the ANC commissioner who represents the adjacent area where the current, larger Friendship Baptist Church was built in 1965, said, "I can't tell you how passionate the community is about this issue."
Historic Preservation Review Board member Gail S. Lowe begged the two sides to work out their differences.
She compared the church to a child, and the two sides to parents fighting over it. "We don't want to split the baby," she said. "We want to bring life to Delaware and H. Everybody needs to take a deep breath."