A debate over the reconstruction of St. Thomas Church in DuPont Circle is headed to the Historical Preservation Review Board (HPRB) after the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission recommended approval of the project with reservations.
Ward 2B commissioners last week rubber-stamped the recommendations of DuPont Circle Conservancy (DCC) after that group failed to come up with a resolution on the conflict pitting the church against its neighbors on Church Street.
The local community is opposed to the project because of a seven-story residential building that is set to be erected on a parcel that the parish sold to CAS Riegler, a real estate developer. The funds generated in that sale will be used to finance rebuilding the church, which was partially destroyed in a fire in 1970.
Residents claim the 50-unit residential building is too intrusive for their neighborhood. They want the ruins of the church, which they see as part of the fabric of the neighborhood, and a park, which sprouted from the ashes of the fire years ago, preserved.
Church leaders have said that they have a unique opportunity to leverage the value of their property so they can expand their sanctuary and services for the parish, where Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson once prayed.
Last week, ANC commissioners based their recommendation on a DCC resolution passed the night before after a lengthy debate. The DCC resolution passed on July 8 asks HPRB to give guidance on how the church design, which they termed “box-like”, can be improved to ensure it fits in the townhouse character of its 18th St. neighborhood.
And while the conservancy supports the residential building concept, it is concerned that the size presents an incongruous transition with the rest of the block on Church St.
“We suggest that the designers revisit the massing with the intent of reducing bulk adjacent to the townhouses on Church St. with a more gradual increase in height from the east to west,” its resolution reads in part.
Some neighbors, who staged a spirited fight at the meeting, faulted the ANC’s move to adopt DCC’s resolution, saying they never elected the leaders of the conservancy.
“The commissioners failed to their job by adopting the resolution of a private entity,” Jose Labarca, 53, an international development specialist who lives one half block away from the church on Church St., said.
Several commissioners defended their decision, saying it is common that portions or the whole of DCC resolution be adopted by ANC as an amendment to the ANC’s report to HPRB.
Commissioner Mike Silverstein said DCC’s resolutions— just like ANC’s— are valued and respected by the HPRB.
“DCC is made up of volunteers who are specialists in historical preservation, architecture and design. Majority of us (ANC) are not architects, we rely on DCC for the expertise they provide to the city,” he said.
But the fight still isn’t over. The neighbors have hired an architectural historian to fight for their interests when the parish and CAS Riegler appear before HPRB on July 31.