James Nero was confirmed at Asbury United Methodist Church more than 70 years ago. He was married there. So was his son. His parents, two sisters, two brothers and four uncles all had their funerals there.
Now Nero, who turned 82 on Thanksgiving, is worried that the stone sanctuary in downtown Washington that has been so central to so much of his life will be undercut — spiritually and structurally — by the city’s plan to stretch a streetcar line down K Street NW.
“You are just knocking out the . . . togetherness of the congregation,” Nero said, standing under the church’s soaring, century-old Gothic bell tower just a block from the massive new CityCenterDC development that typifies the type of growth that D.C. officials say demands investment in a far-reaching streetcar system.
Beside him was a makeshift banner duct-taped to wooden stakes in the grass.
“Asburyans Unite — You have nothing to lose BUT Your Front Lawn,” it reads.
A pair of streetcar routes that city officials are weighing as part of a federally funded environmental review would run tracks from the end of the city’s long-delayed and still unopened streetcar line near Union Station to the Georgetown waterfront, mostly along busy K Street. Many parking spaces and service lanes that span K Street would be ditched in favor of dedicated transit lanes for streetcars, and perhaps buses, for part of the way.
Not much is clear about the future of the District’s fledgling streetcar system, which has faced planning problems and repeated delays and was sharply scaled back last month after the D.C. Council cut planned funding roughly in half. Slower-moving streetcars taking practice runs on the still unopened line on H Street and Benning Road NE have gummed up commuter buses and other traffic. City officials have repeatedly set year’s end as their most recent deadline for opening to passengers, but transportation officials still lack the needed safety certifications.
But there is one idea that streetcar backers are sure they want to see happen: stretching a line down K Street, connecting the District’s east and west in what supporters call the “One City Line.”
Members of Asbury United Methodist, which has been at 11th and K streets NW for 178 years, worry that one proposal under consideration would take away crucial street parking in front of its main entrance on K Street. An alternative would take over about 12 feet of lawn, uproot a majestic Dutch elm tree and pare back space for gathering, members say.
The church has about two dozen funerals a year, said Nero, a retired federal personnel officer and home improvement contractor who chairs the church’s board of trustees. “That means staging out front here,” he said. “I have seen 27 cars leave here and go to the cemetery. . . . We need parking for the families and the parishioners.”
And not just for funerals.
“It’s weddings, as well,” said the Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills, Asbury’s senior pastor. “Anybody getting married here wants to be able to enter through this grand entrance.”
They also fear a repeat of the years-long construction disruptions that came with building the H Street-Benning line, problems that they say would create obstacles for seniors trying to reach the church. Parishioners worry that the shaking caused by building the line will damage the church’s intricate stained-glass panels and its main stone structure, which was rebuilt in 1915. Construction of an adjacent building damaged the concrete floor and elevator in the church’s more modern, and much less vulnerable, education building, church members said.
The congregation provided refuge as a stop on the Underground Railroad and later as a stopover for civil rights activists heading to the March on Washington. It serves the elderly and the homeless and is seeking to grow and diversify, with plans for a Saturday evening service targeted at new residents moving into nearby condos.
Church members said a streetcar plan fails to take into account an early 20th-century land-use quirk: About 100 years ago, part of the front of the church was built on public land. That means the streetcar work actually comes closer to their structure than is shown in the preliminary drawings. It also means the church does not own all the land it is using. The grass in front and the church’s stone marquee are also on public space between their building and the street, church members said.
“The lawn is as much a part of the sanctity of the church as the interior of the church,” Nero said.
“It’s not like we’re a restaurant that can just move somewhere. That’s not what this is,” said Robert Mallett, a church member and former city administrator under former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. “This is an institution in this community, and you give more deference to them.”
Mallett invited City Administrator Allen Y. Lew to tour the church in recent weeks.
“He could offer no commitments on it. He just wanted to see the impacts,” Mallett said. “It was kind of a surprise to him.”
City officials said that church members are right to seize this moment to raise issues about the route, which has not been finalized, and about potential construction damage, which the District will take extraordinary measures to avoid. They said that the proposal to take some of the lawn in front of the church was part of an effort to add spaces for parking, and that even that option would leave a buffer of several feet between the refurbished roadway and the church steps. They also are looking at ways to avoid widening the road there altogether, they said. None of the plans would bring traffic — neither automobile or streetcar — closer to the church, the officials said.
When a dozen church members showed up at a recent D.C. Council oversight hearing on the streetcar system, they found some immediate support in council member David Grosso (I-At Large).
“Unless that plan shows rails up the middle of K Street, where we rebuild the whole thing and accommodate parking and don’t disturb people’s lives like we did on H Street, I think we have a lot more to do to move forward with this program,” Grosso said.
As for the endangered elm in front of the church, Grosso said his neighbor’s elm shades his own home. “I certainly would not support the loss of a tree like that in the city. We’ve lost enough elms in history to not lose this one as well,” he said.
Others were less committal. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the presence of parishioners underscored “what we need to fix about our streetcar planning and programming, and that is the need for extensive community outreach.”
“We need transit. We need a streetcar system,” said Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “Will the streetcar, wherever the line is, cause disruption? Yes, it will.” But, she added, it’s possible to come up with a route and the mitigations necessary “to not harm our businesses, not harm our churches.”
The line to Georgetown would start at 3rd and H streets NE, near the western end of the H Street-Benning line. It would continue over the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, hang a right on New Jersey Avenue NW, then make a left onto K Street NW. Once on K Street, according to proposals under review, it would cut around Mount Vernon Square, continue on K Street under Washington Circle and finally stop under the Whitehurst Freeway on the Georgetown waterfront.
Joe Sternlieb, president and chief executive of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said he supports extending streetcars along K Street, but only if it is done the right way.
“We in Georgetown are all for the streetcar as long as it’s incredibly fast, reliable, affordable, comfortable transportation between Georgetown and points east,” Sternlieb said. There should be dedicated transit lanes along the entire stretch, not just sections, and the city should push for federal permission to cut through the southern edge of Mt. Vernon Square to make for a straight shot on K Street to avoid traffic snarls near the convention center, he said. It also should go all the way to Georgetown University, he said.
“If you can get from Georgetown to Union station in 22 minutes on a streetcar, or it takes you 40 minutes in your private car, you’re going to take the streetcar,” Sternlieb said.
People in the city have to be creative enough — and have the fortitude — to handle concerns raised by those up and down the route, Sternlieb said. “We can’t just throw up our arms and say, ‘The adjacent property owner doesn’t want us to run transit on the public streets so we just won’t do that.’ ”