Promises aren't made to be broken, but sometimes it turns out that way.
And a broken promise now has neighbors of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in the Massachusetts Avenue Heights section, angry over the church's plan to rent out its new three-story building -- a dispute that puts Rock Creek International School in the middle of a community controversy.
The private school is in talks with St. Sophia to move Rock Creek International's middle school into the church's new facility. But some of St. Sophia's neighbors, who already contend with traffic overflow from other private schools, say church officials are reneging on an oral agreement they made with neighbors in 1999.
"When they first came up with the plan to put up the building, the understanding was that they were not going to rent the building," said Ginger Hubbard, whose house is 100 feet from St. Sophia. "No sooner than it is completed, they rent it out to a school. This neighborhood has five big schools here already."
St. Sophia decided to rent out its new building, which is next to the church at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, because the price tag doubled during construction, said the Rev. John T. Tavlarides, dean of St. Sophia.
"We made a commitment, but commitments can be broken at times," he said. "This was going to be an injurious commitment."
Originally, the building was a $4 million project to be used for church-related activities. The cost ballooned to $8.5 million during construction.
Rather than let the building sit vacant during much of the weekday, the church decided that renting out the space made the most sense economically. The church was also in talks with a charter school, but settled on Rock Creek International.
Rock Creek International wants to use the St. Sophia facility to move 80 middle school students from their current location at 1621 New Hampshire Ave. NW. The school, which offers dual-language immersion programs from elementary to middle school, wants to open an upper school in the New Hampshire Avenue building. The new upper school and relocated middle school would open in the fall of 2006, pending approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Enrollment at the middle school could grow to 150, said Daniel Hollinger, head of school. Hollinger met with concerned neighbors in July and has scheduled another meeting for September.
"Our goal is to come to the neighborhood and say that we are interested in moving, that we want to be good neighbors and that we want a constructive relationship," Hollinger said. "We want to know the issues and concerns."
Hollinger said he could not address neighbors' complaints about St. Sophia breaking the oral agreement, but added: "If St. Sophia's has decided to go ahead and lease out the building, that's where we come in."
Neighbors complain that the community is already saturated with private schools and that the addition of another one would only worsen the parking, noise and litter problems. Hollinger said that most of Rock Creek International's students would be bused to school and that the church's parking lot could accommodate its faculty, staff, and parents. Most after-school activities would take place off-site.
"We're not going to have a huge number of students, and on top of that with the bus transportation, that is a real advantage to reducing traffic congestion," Hollinger said. "I'm optimistic that we will be able to work out a good arrangement for both parties."
Hubbard and others have their doubts and say there is only so much the school can do to regulate traffic flow and parking.
And they say that Rock Creek International, however small, would still change the neighborhood.
"They can have 150 students 100 feet from the back of my house, and I'm not going to notice?" Hubbard asked. "That's just not possible, it's just not reasonable."
Despite their frustrations, many neighbors see the move as inevitable and are working with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C to find a compromise. "There are differences of opinion about negotiating with Rock Creek or the church; I think we should do both," said Susan Dienelt, who lives a few houses down from St. Sophia. "I don't think we have a choice."