Joseph Gunde, a 64-year-old, retired maintenance mechanic living on his Social Security income, is concerned with preserving Anacostia's historic area. But faced with a plan to build a 21,000-square-foot church with three parking lots around his house at 1217 W St. SE, he's more concerned about his own future.
"It's not only going to ruin the neighborhood, but it's going to cause me a lot of nuisance," Gunde said of the proposal by the Union Temple Baptist Church to erect its new building in a section of Anacostia's Historic District near Martin Luther King Avenue.
Gunde fears the church will destroy the residential character of his block and lower the selling value of his 100-year-old house, which he bought in 1962 and shares with his two sons. The church would be on one side of his house, and there would be a parking lot to the rear of the church and another one on the other side of Gunde's house.
"My house is worth a lot for the comfort of me and the kids. But I'm not talking about cash" value, he said.
Gunde is one of several area residents opposed to the 1,200-member church's proposal, which is being considered by the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment. While the church is legally permitted to build in the residential zone, a new city law requires it to provide ample parking.
In this case, there is not enough land for a traditional parking lot, so the church is seeking a special exception for "stacked parking," which means cars are parked bumper to bumper, and an attendant is needed to retrieve them.
If the special parking application is denied, the church effectively would be barred from moving to the site, unless major design changes were made, such as making the facility smaller.
Church officials contend that the larger building is needed to house the many activities organized by Union Temple. The church is now situated at 2002 14th St. SE, approximately five blocks from the proposed site.
Critics of the proposal say they are not opposed to a church in their neighborhood, but are against the crammed parking lots and numerous church-sponsored activities that will take place at the facility seven days a week.
Rev. Willie Wilson, Union Temple's pastor, acknowledged that part of the building plans call for a physical fitness center in which the church expects to offer exercise classes to church members and the public, and a dining room for church suppers and drama productions. A hall of history, which Wilson said he hopes would be added to the bus route of tours going to the nearby Frederick Douglass Home, also is planned for the three-story church structure.
"What we're proposing will be a positive improvement on the community," said Wilson, who added that he doesn't view the church's activities as "commercial ventures."
But opponents of the proposal claim the church and its activities not only will increase congestion in an already busy area, but will disrupt the historic district.
"The community was especially concerned the church would seek variances to operate other facilities and that a historic area zoned residential would eventually become a commercial area under the guise of church activities," Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C said in a letter to the BZA outlining its opposition to the Union Temple application.
The ANC also said the parking proposal "might be a step toward the destruction of the historic district."
At an ANC meeting last week, Union Temple officials again appealed to the community representatives for their support. The ANC did not reverse its earlier vote. ANC Chairman Frieda Murray declined to say whether the panel is reconsidering its position. Others also oppose the church's construction plans.
"The proposed site plan is an assault on the neighborhood and on the integrity of the city's zoning regulations," said Anthony Motley, a member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, an organization of community and business leaders concerned with the economic revitalization of the area.
"The church, with that much parking, represents a gross overburdening of that site," said Dorn McGrath, a professor in George Washington University's urban and regional planning department who has been involved with Anacostia planning groups for more than a decade.
"This is a delicate neighborhood," said McGrath, who argued that the proposal is not in line with the numerous preservation activities that are taking place in the neighborhood.
"Have you ever heard of acres of parking lots in the middle of a 19th century historic district?" he asked.
He added that, although the church plan "is innovative," the building design is "too large for too small of a site."
Andrew Bryant, Union Temple's architect, said he considered the historic neighborhood when designing the 865-seat church.
He said that because of its design, the building's size "doesn't present any key problems for the neighborhood."
The District's Historic Preservation Review Board, which considered the case because the church is attempting to build in an historic zone, has given "a concept approval" to the preliminary designs, a department spokesman said.
Final board approval depends on the actions of the BZA, which has scheduled a hearing for the case on March 19 at the District Building.
Union Temple's Wilson maintains there is no "great controversy" over the application, despite the opposition expressed by the area's civic groups and neighbors.
"We have the overwhelming support in this community," he said, pointing to a petition with 400 signatures supporting the church plan. Critics said that the church's members are the only ones supporting the construction plans.
Wilson said his church has worked with the block's residents to satisfy their concerns and will continue to do so.
But Gunde and Marjorie Davis, who lives across the street from the proposed church, said the only way they heard about the application was through a letter from the city government. "I'm concerned that they haven't been up-front with the neighbors," Gunde said.
Davis, who bought her W Street house five years ago, said she is upset that the labor and money she has invested in renovating her 100-year-old home will be negated if the church plans are approved. "I think they're going to ruin the neighborhood," said Davis, an Anacostia resident for 25 years.