A Latin jazz quartet may soon replace the sounds of gospel hymns coming from a Capitol Hill church, and some neighborhood residents are mobilizing to stop that change of tune.
The battleground is the People's Church, a storefront space at 535 Eighth St. SE that was founded in 1962 as an interracial place of worship in a neighborhood that was deeply divided along racial lines. After more than 40 years on the Hill, with a mixed congregation of about 150 and a reputation for a fantastic choir, the church is looking to relocate to a place with better parking and more space, said the Rev. Michael Hall, its pastor.
When the for-sale sign went up, 44 potential buyers toured the 4,000-square-foot church, which started out as a silent-film theater in 1900. But only a single bid was offered.
A team of buyers calling themselves East Side Trio LLC wants to turn the People's Church into Zagora, a high-end restaurant with a sidewalk cafe, Latin jazz and a disc jockey. The proposed menu is a racy fusion of Latino mainstays and sushi, with offerings such as mango ceviche; arepas, or cornmeal cakes, stuffed with calamari; crispy yucca fingers; and silver corn soup.
"This is a great restaurateur. Everything they do is first-class, very sexy, very stylish. They have other great restaurants," said Bill McLeod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, a nonprofit group on Capitol Hill that is working to upgrade Eighth Street SE. "But what they do doesn't belong here."
Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld disagrees. The skin-bald furniture designer, restaurant promoter and East Side Trio member, who also owns the Chi-Cha Lounge in Adams Morgan, Agua Ardiente in the West End, Gazuza in Dupont Circle and Gua-Rapo in Arlington, is trying to bring his version of luxurious urban lounging to Capitol Hill. Spots owned by Fraga-Rosenfeld, one of the area's most vociferous cool-hunters, are swanky dens that blend Middle Eastern, Indian and Latino decor and food to draw D.C.'s au courant, see-and-be-seen set.
"These tend to be neighborhood places. They bring a beautiful clientele. They're not loud, but they have a lot of energy," Fraga-Rosenthal said. He says his restaurant belongs on Capitol Hill because it represents the neighborhood's changing population.
For Zagora, he envisions the inside as a plush Asian temple, with chandeliers hanging down from the high ceilings and a theatrical dining experience. "We want this to be a high-end experience. We don't want to be a nightclub. We are going to put $3.5 million into the place, and we want a clientele who will appreciate all of this -- well-educated, worldly people."
Along with business partners Mustapha Meliani and Said Oudghiri, Fraga-Rosenfeld offered the People's Church $2.5 million for the space in a contract contingent on the approval of a liquor license, said Eli Hurwitz, attorney for the buyers.
At a rowdy meeting of multiple Advisory Neighborhood Commissions recently, several dozen residents protested Zagora's plan. The commission voted to oppose the restaurant's license application.
"It's just too big for Eighth Street," said Julie S. Olson, one of the neighborhood commissioners. "It's basically a nightclub. We just don't think the neighborhood needs something like that."
Olson would like to see retail shops in the space. McLeod is hoping the church will return to its roots as a theater, perhaps hosting community performances.
The People's Church is an anchor on a part of Eighth Street that has almost two dozen small neighborhood restaurants and scattered boutiques and shops. Some residents worry that Zagora, with a capacity of about 300, won't draw only the pedestrians that most of the other places do; it will attract crowds and their cars.
"I have no qualms that these people will run a decent place, but it's so large, and the traffic problems will be a nightmare," said Norman Metzger, a resident who has created a Web site, www.futureofpeopleschurch.com, to organize against the establishment.
Metzger points out that although the prospective owners said the business would be a restaurant and not a nightclub, their liquor license application states that they plan to have a dance floor. That sounds like a nightclub to Metzger.
But Hurwitz, the buyers' attorney, said there would be no central dance floor. "If you want to get up and dance in the aisles, that's okay with us," Hurwitz said. "But this is a restaurant, not a nightclub."
Hurwitz said that his clients' biggest concern is parking, and that they've spoken with several schools in the area about using their open space for valet parking at night.
All of those issues will be discussed at the approval hearing for the liquor license on June 29, when some residents plan to voice their disapproval of the plan.
"The fact is, we're very frank with everybody. We're not trying to sneak in as a restaurant and turn into a nightclub. We've told everybody what the plans are," Hurwitz said. "If the community doesn't really want us, we'll say thank you and take our concept elsewhere. But I think we're going to service the community."