Greater Greater Washington

Preservationists ask to shrink 3rd Church replacement

Historic preservation staff want to remove 2 floors from the proposed building that will replace the Brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist and the Christian Science Monitor building at 16th and I in downtown DC.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Responding to pressure from preservation groups and the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the owners shrank down their original proposal to one with very little visible bulk beyond any other building on 16th Street, but HPO is recommending that the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) reject anything larger than the typical building size along the street.

The current structure is a small octagonal church that turns its back to the street, a larger office building, and a brick plaza in between. In 2008, the church asked to raze the building and build a new, larger combined office building and church on the site. They said that the building was too hard to heat, too expensive to light, and poorly suited to their needs as a congregation.

In one of DC's most controversial preservation cases, the HPRB rejected the application, since the church had been designated as historic. The owners appealed, and Mayor Fenty asked planning director Harriet Tregoning to personally sit as the Mayor's Agent, which hears such appeals. Using the broader discretion available to the Mayor's Agent, she granted the raze, but only once the owners present a new design that gets past historic and other review.

Separately, the church and developer also reached a settlement with the DC Preservation League where they gave $450,000 for DCPL's operations preservation programs involving religious properties in exchange for DCPL ending their fight against the project, the staff report notes; other groups such as the Committee of 100 continued to oppose razing the structure.

Earlier this year, the developers working with the church proposed an 11-story building with ground floor retail, offices above, and a church space on the first 3 floors at one end. Since the buildings along 16th have cornices at 90 feet above the street, they designed a building with its own cornice line slightly below that height. Behind and set back, a glassier structure would rise to the higher point.


Original proposal. Image scanned from submission by ICG Properties.

This building would still not be as tall as the adjacent one to the west on I Street, which falls into a different zone and isn't part of the historic district.

At a community meeting with residents of the Dupont and Golden Triangle area a few months ago, people were generally enthusiastic about the proposal. Architect and former HPO staffer Michael Beidler suggested some ways to set the upper portion back slightly more to create more separation.

Last month, however, the designers presented a different and significantly smaller proposal. Staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and some of the groups that opposed the original raze, opposed having a building taller than the 90 feet prevailing along the street. In response, the architects shrank the top portion to a single extra floor, set significantly back and only minimally visible from anywhere outside.


Revised "compromise" proposal. Image scanned from submission by ICG Properties.

In their staff report, HPO rejects even that proposal. The report argues that on 16th Street, it is not historically appropriate to allow any buildings over the prevailing 90 foot size. A few buildings have penthouses, but not ones with space for people to use, and the report seeks to draw a firm line there; if this building can even have a single floor of occupiable penthouse, then the St. Regis hotel will want a rooftop restaurant, it says, and several other buildings will likely follow suit.

The property owner's argument is also more difficult in that they're looking to exceed zoning, though in legally permissible ways. In the typical preservation density dispute, staff want to restrict a building far more than the zoning permits in that area. Here, the owners want to rezone the property from SP-2 to C-3-C as well, which would give greater flexibility, and also to seek a Planned Unit Development, where the Zoning Commission reviews the project in exchange for even more flexibility.

Still, if successful, HPO's action has consequences for the city far beyond the look of the street. To take away the top 2 floors whe moving from the original proposal to what the owners call the "compromise" proposal, they reduced the interior space from about 14,000 to 10,000 square feet, they said during a presentation. At a typical rule of thumb of 250 square feet per office, that would cut 152 potential jobs from downtown DC. HPO's recommended limits would squeeze that further.

Jobs are the centerpiece of Mayor Gray's agenda, and one prerequisite for jobs is space. Already, many companies DC would love to attract, like technology companies, have trouble finding affordable office space compared to the suburbs or other cities.

Downtown, in particular, is the best place for jobs because it already has the transportation infrastructure to move more people in and out than in any other part of the region. It has the restaurants and the office supply stores and more. Plus, residents of many neighborhoods don't want too many office buildings coming into their areas; Dupont residents fought for decades to prevent the neighborhood from completely changing into an office-only extension of the Golden Triangle, for instance. Jobs, and space for jobs, downtown reduces the pressure elsewhere.

To me, the original concept doesn't look out of place in downtown. The grand avenue leading to the White House would be just as grand, if not grander, if buildings flanking it had slightly taller sections behind the main cornice lines that more closely matched the buildings right off 16th.

The report makes a good point that it would be better to set limits for the entire street, rather than piecemeal. However, this debate should more properly be part of a zoning discussion. If piecemeal rezoning a block of an SP-2 district to C-3-C is inappropriate, then it should be inappropriate in an SP-2 zone not subject to historic review. The Zoning Commission has the power to decide whether this should be a C-3-C PUD or just a standard SP-2; they should properly make that decision, not HPRB.

If this were already C-3-C, or if the Zoning Commission decides to rezone it, then a building of this size isn't inappropriate. The report makes repeated reference to provisions in the Comprehensive Plan about preserving the "historic, majestic, and beautiful" avenues, but an avenue can still be all of these things with buildings scaled to downtown.

The developers have some legitimate gripes about this process. They were originally scheduled for an HPRB meeting on May 3, but HPO did not issue its staff report by the Friday before the meeting, as usual. That forced them to postpone the project since there would not be enough time to respond to the staff report, said Sylianos Christofides, a principal at ICG, the project's developer.

In the meantime, the Dupont Conservancy, which initially endorsed the "compromise" approach, reversed its position between the two meetings. They say that ICG changed the project, warranting re-review, but Christofides insists they made no changes. Disclosure: I am a member of the Conservancy and was present at the meeting where the project first came up, but not at the second one.

This process also misses opportunities to create a more appealing building. When applying for the raze, the developers insisted that they would replace it with a top-quality building; I wrote that "HPRB now has a chance to shape some excellent architecture at this site."


Proposed glass above church entrance. Image scanned from submission by ICG Properties.

The church entrance will have an interesting faceted glass arrangement (which hopefully would not be too hard to clean), but the rest of the building, while perfectly reasonable for an office building (and far better than some of the concrete boxes nearby), isn't especially interesting either. Instead of pushing for more significant architecture on the rest of the project, HPO has focused on just asking for a smaller building.

A grand avenue might have been better served by a building which stands out for its detailing and architectural quality instead of just having to get smaller so as to fade away and not impinge upon the consciousness. In past eras, the grand avenue leading to the White House was a place for notable and visible buildings, not invisible ones. Sadly, our preservation process has more recently evolved into one that tries to make each building as close to nonexistent as possible rather than truly great.

Update: Rebecca Miller of DCPL emailed in with additional information about what the $450,000 payment will fund:

The fund is to be used towards educational and outreach programs related to religious properties and mid-century modernism. The fund will also have a grant component to which congregations will be able to apply to the fund for bricks and mortar money or other projects such as research etc.
Miller was concerned that when I wrote "DCPL's operations" it sounded like that was to fund staff or office space and so forth. That was not my intention and I have updated the post.
David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Anything is better than the existing Brutalist concrete structure, including just building a temporary parking lot on the site for a couple of years while they sort things out.

That 1960s angular church bunker/structure is one of the ugliest eyesores in the District, if not the worst. The sooner it is razed and replaced with either proposed building, the better.

by Poshboy on May 21, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

A good reminder that the Height Act is far from the only barrier to better utilizing our limited resources.

I support historic preservation, but our current bureaucracy is stifling.

by Gavin on May 21, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport

I just don't buy the suggestion (if I misunderstood, I apologize) that more height would somehow liberate the building from boring design. The original building was not very interesting, save for the Fortress of Solitude like entryway to the Church, despite its increased height.

At the end of the day, developers are going to maximize the amount of leasable space regardless of the height. Give them a few stories and everything will look the same still -only higher. I can't think of anybody (preservationist or otherwise) that would say "oh yes, please give us a boring box." But architects have latitude in how they interpret compatible architeture, meaning the argument gets very subjective. The argument therefore ends up getting fixated on height because it is one of the most tangible elements.

BTW... in the computation of square footage, and the estimation of jobs, were you including the church space? Because the calculation will be very differnt....

by EH on May 21, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

Oy. If you can't even build a reasonably-sized building here, in the heart of downtown and blocks from three Metro stops, where can they? These restrictions are ridiculous.

by Dan Miller on May 21, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

EH: I'm not saying more height would make it less boring, but rather that HPO and preservation groups could have spent time and effort pushing the developer to make the architecture more interesting, and instead just pushed them to make it smaller.

Also, as it gets smaller, the developer is less likely to be able to afford to put some nicer detailing on. Probably they had some amount of buffer in there at the start; we could say, shrink your footprint and make less money, or we could say, spend some of that profit on a more interesting building. And by interesting, I don't mean wacky modern stuff, but how about more human-scaled detailing like old buildings have, even if it's more contemporary looking detailing.

As for the job calculation, I wasn't including the church, because I was just looking at the # of square feet lost, and none of that is church space.

by David Alpert on May 21, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

@Dan

I think one can debate what is "reasonably sized." I know I'm in the minority, but I don't think all of the restrictions are ridculous. This isn't just any city - it's our nation's Capitol. It has a ceremonial and iconic role as well. Sixteeth street recognizes this - and as a primary viewshed of the White House, I think it deserves more thought than just what would be ideal density and transit-oriented development.

@ David

Thanks for clarifying. To be sure, I think the building is a disappointment - particularly given the fact they hired Stern. I suspect once the height issue is worked out, you will find the preservationists moving on to design. So maybe we will see something more interesting. We can always hope, anyway.

by EH on May 21, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

HPO is regressing. Historic preservation is NOT zoning, nor should it ever be. They honestly should never comment about height. It's a travesty that the regressive types are able to influence something that the zoning board is responsible for. This is not even a truly historic neighborhood!!!

by SG on May 21, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Oy. If you can't even build a reasonably-sized building here, in the heart of downtown and blocks from three Metro stops, where can they?

Yeah, this isn't the first time stuff like this has happened. It's not just in the "historic" parts of the city, it's out by Friendship Heights, as well.

It's getting hard to look at the metro as anything other than a huge waste of money, given the public opposition to economic development and density in favor of sprawl in the DC metro area.

by JustMe on May 21, 2012 12:37 pm • linkreport

I know people hate the 3rd Church, but the replacement is 100 times more boring. Hopefully it will have something to offer the street, which will make it a little less terrible.

I've come around on this issue. If the church wants to get rid of its building, so be it. But don't try to convince me that introducing a square box in place of something that was at least visually interesting is an improvement.

In short, not just anything is better than the current structure.

by Eric H. on May 21, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

"In past eras, the grand avenue leading to the White House was a place for notable and visible buildings, not invisible ones."

In past eras, architects where trained to make beautiful buildings with out relying on nicer detailing. They where even trained to be defferential to their neighbors, which this building seems too, although somewhat blandly. Even if the HPO could have tried for a better design, is that in their perview?

All that being said, it's funny you are tying a lopped off two floors to the economic vitality of this city. There's ton's of vacant office space available as the Washington Business Journal recently pointed out.

EH had it right saying the height limit won't have any effect on the quality of design. For that, we'd have to train our architects with less emphasis on the latest drafting technology and more enphasis on beauty, but that's a four letter word in architecture school.

BTW David, it will be very hard to keep that glassy entrance clean, but considering that's the most interesting part of the building, I'd say it's worth it.

by Thayer-D on May 21, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

@EH

I know you'll probably disagree, but you touch on something that I think is somewhat overblown. 16th St. is one of the primary viewsheds of the the White House, but I don't see why some feel that taller buildings facing these viewshed streets would ruin the viewshed. If you're talking about being able to look out your 10th floor window and maybe have certain views, that's another thing, but I think we can see from some other cities that having these wide avenues and diagonal streets can create attractive viewsheds whether there are tall buildings facing them or short ones.

Another comment I have is related to the debate as to whether taller buildings would lead to better designs. Whether or not architects are building for developers who want to maximize the leasable square footage or not, I think having more volume as an option would increase the number of features or options that architects could incorporate into their design.

by Vik on May 21, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

SG hits the nail on the head. HPO is getting into issues of height, density, and land use that are the domain of the Zoning Commission. The HPO's job begins and ends with whether the materials used and overall design that are visible from the street are in keeping with the remainder of the neighborhood. In this case, I think it's a clear yes. Any issues about rooftop restaurants and other land uses are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

by Adam L on May 21, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

This was an odd structure since day one...and I remember day one. It would be nice to have something a bit more 'classic' on that block...but a compromise pleasing no-one will likely be struck. Too bad on such a choice DC parcel.

by Pelham1861 on May 21, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

Bothers me that the DC Preservation League has taken $450,000 from this developer. Last week's CP story on the K Street mansion mentioned Jemal had funded the DC Preservation League also.

by Tom Coumaris on May 21, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

@ Vik

"16th St. is one of the primary viewsheds of the the White House, but I don't see why some feel that taller buildings facing these viewshed streets would ruin the viewshed."

In my opinion, the viewshed is not just the ability to see straight down 16th street at its terminus at the White House, but the larger streetscape on either side of the streeet forming a uniform height pattern. This is a characteristic that gives more prominance to our iconic memorials, monuments and governmental buildings. A jagged roofline looking north or south on either side of the street, in my opinion, would compete with the the larger picture. I know some will disagree. It's just my opinion.

@SG

If "The HPO's job begins and ends with whether the materials used and overall design that are visible from the street are in keeping with the remainder of the neighborhood," I would think height and density are a part of the equation. Projects don't happen in a vacuum - you have to balance preservation, transportation & planning needs, public safety, zoning, etc.... there is overlap.

by EH on May 21, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

I'm having trouble parsing out the difference between HPO and HPRB. Could someone please clarify for me?

by W on May 21, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

W: HPRB is a board of mayorally-appointed, council-confirmed people who make the decisions about preservation. HPO is the staff which manages the preservation process and makes recommendations to the board.

by David Alpert on May 21, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

HPO is the Historic Preservation Office. They are city employees with experience in historic preservation planning.

HPRB is the Historic Preservation Review Board. These are political positions appointed by the Mayor, though there are qualifications that certain members much fulfill if DC is to receive their share of federal funding from the National Park Service. The HPO serves as the staff for the HPRB,providing the case reports and recommendations for the appointed members. The HPRB reviews and approves exterior alterations (not simple things like paint colors) to historically designated buildings (and those within historic districts).

A project is submitted to the HPO, they often comment and help advise the applicant prior to it being submitted to the HPRB for approval.

by EH on May 21, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

I think a developer should just go ahead build a 20 story tower downtown anyway. With the way this city operates it will be long complete before anyone files the necessary orders to stop construction.

by Michael on May 21, 2012 5:28 pm • linkreport

@EH, it may be the capital, but it's also a living and breathing major American city. In such a city, a building that tall--or even taller--is by no means unreasonable, especially in the heart of downtown at possibly the most transit-accessible place in the District.

by Dan Miller on May 21, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

My first question would be, How did a religious property get a historic designation? And how did it get a historic designation when it was only 21 years old (built in 1970, designated in 1991)? The architect is not someone of significant importance to the field of architecture. There seem to be a lot of questions that should be answered regarding the designation. I'm not familiar with the criteria for a property to be considered historic in Washington DC, but it would not qualify for a Federal historic designation.

by slinky on May 21, 2012 6:45 pm • linkreport

@Dan, So do you think Paris and London should also allow the type of buildings you think are typical of major cities?

by Lance on May 21, 2012 6:52 pm • linkreport

@David, The C100 didn't continue to oppose. Similarly agreed not to oppose ... on condition that input on design of the new building be allowed. As far as I know, that didn't occur. Should we ne surprised given past actions by the church?

by Lance on May 21, 2012 6:56 pm • linkreport

Also, the reason the Conservancy changed its position is that the blueprints (released after the meeting ... After much pressing) didn't match the drawings or the explanatiins given at the first meeting. For example we were told 30 ft setback for recessed floors on both exposures. It turns out that the setback on I St was only 15 ft. This would be view coming north ... Which conveniently wasn't included in the designs projected on the screen that night. Did you not wonder why no handouts were available? In brief we were blatantly lied to at that meeting.

by Lance on May 21, 2012 7:04 pm • linkreport

@Lance

DC doesn't have as much historic architecture downtown as London and Paris do in the areas that are basically cordoned off for development or highly regulated. For most of the buildings in the CBD, the common characteristic is height, not a particular style of architecture or something more meaningful.

Psris is compact, dense, and built-out with lots of historic architecture going back hundreds of years. DC will see a lot of its buildings gutted and replaced with similar-in-height buildings in the span of several decades.

London is actually building a number of highrises that aren't necessarily typical of major cities. They realize that there's a lot of crappy lowrise architecture to be found in some of its commercial districts and that they can preserve historic buildings while being a bit bolder and building taller. It's adding to the excitement and dynamism of the city at the ground level and from afar.

by Vik on May 21, 2012 7:46 pm • linkreport

@ slinky

"My first question would be, How did a religious property get a historic designation? And how did it get a historic designation when it was only 21 years old (built in 1970, designated in 1991)? The architect is not someone of significant importance to the field of architecture. There seem to be a lot of questions that should be answered regarding the designation. "

The building was designed by Araldo Cassutta while he was at I.M. Pei and Partners. So, yes, it is considered to be work by an important architect. In fact early brochures from the Church touted the design as a world-class work of a major architectural firm.

The fact it is a Church does not matter - church buildings can be historically designated. Similarly, there is no arbitrary age for historic designation, although typically the 50-year rule is considered standard. The Watergate was listed not very long ago and it is of a similar vintage.

What set this building apart was its unique composition. Unfortunately, I think had an appropriate landscape been incorporated, we probably would have been less hostile towards it. Imagine some trees planted on the corner of 16th & I Streets, and some geometrically trimmed Ivy growing up the blank wall. Similar tree and shrub plantings on the plaza making it a serene retreat from the street would have made the space more special, and I think we would have had a different reaction. Instead of another box, we would have had a place for quiet reflection off of the street. Oh well, opportunity missed.

by EH on May 21, 2012 8:36 pm • linkreport

There's a lot of what passes for architecture in DC that could use some ivy.

by Tom Coumaris on May 21, 2012 10:11 pm • linkreport

The existing building isn't pretty, but is a more interesting and instructive example of brutalism than say the FBI HQ. The Church that owns it is in decline, like most Christian Scientist Churches and the "Christian" thing would be to find some non-profit institutional user for whom it would be a gift, like the AIA, perhaps. The proposed building is the most generic stuff imaginable. DC has a lot of generic post-WWII architecture, but little that is really notable. The quality of new er buildings is often better, but hardly adventurous (like this) or easily forgotten.

by Rich on May 21, 2012 10:32 pm • linkreport

@Vik-

l"Enfant's Washington is at least as historic as Haussman's Paris- in fact Paris is a copy of Washington in many ways.

Their height limit and green spaces are there for similar reasons.

by Tom Coumaris on May 21, 2012 11:44 pm • linkreport

I can't stand Ronald Reagan, but I'll paraphrase him here: "Washington, DC... Tear down this horrid church." I'm a huge fan of historic preservation. Historic preservation should not include horridly crappy architecture that destroys a section of downtown. It's not the last Brutalist building in America and something just gotta go.

If people think the church is that important to save, move it or rebuild it.

@Rich, you are assuming that churches act in a "christian manner," Have you been following this election?

by MikeR on May 22, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

Nobody wants to touch the green spaces, but the height limit as the single common characteristic in DC isn't as significant as what exists in Paris with centuries-old buildings with classic architecture all over the place. It's more understandable that Paris, which is built-out, would push highrise development to the outer parts of the city and into the suburbs, keeping what's truly worth preserving standing. Our equivalent of that is the federal enclave, not the entire city or even the entire CBD.

by Vik on May 22, 2012 9:41 am • linkreport

I would hardly call 16th Street a "grand avenue". We should look to Paris or Barcelona on how to make 16th Street "grand". 16th should be lined with one, uniform species of trees that are propertly pruned and maintained to a uniform height. The center of the street should be a beautifully landscaped median instead of a turn lane. The lighting should be unique and ornate. Until we make our infrastructure grand, I see no reason to demand anything from a developer.

by Scott on May 22, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

@ Vik,
The only reason DC's downtown isn't full of historic buildings like Paris is that we demoed them while Paris decided to pass on modernism and keep it the heck out of their beloved city. I think that's perfectly resonable until one can be sure what would replace it would be as beautiful, especially since they get so many tourist dollars from keeping their town historic. I'd like to believe that someday thsociety will re-embrace the values that made those historic cities worth preserving, instead of the disposable architecture we get. It's no coincidence that the last vestige of our downtown (Chinatown) is the most vibrant part of downtown.

BTW, I agree with Scott that if we can't even plant a uniform row of trees, we have a long way to go before asking for really urbane buildings. In the mean time we'll argue over concrete bunkers by famous architects!

by Thayer-D on May 22, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

"The only reason DC's downtown isn't full of historic buildings like Paris is that we demoed them while Paris decided to pass on modernism and keep it the heck out of their beloved city."

Its not because DC didnt exist in the 17th century, and was a small town during the the reign of Napoleon III??

I don't recall any of the blocks in downtown DC where there are now modern office buildings ever being considered comparable to Paris.

"I'd like to believe that someday thsociety will re-embrace the values that made those historic cities worth preserving, instead of the disposable architecture we get. "

architecture has always been disposable. Fires, earthquakes, wars, etc have mean cities have constantly been torn down and rebuilt. Hausman tore down lots of Paris.

Time to reconsider the Ruskin quote.

It's no coincidence that the last vestige of our downtown (Chinatown) is the most vibrant part of downtown. "

I know, I like the Verizon Center too :;

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 22, 2012 11:12 am • linkreport

@Walker,
Paris is mostly a 19th century city, not a 17th century city. To quote you "Hausman tore down lots of Paris". And if you don't think any block of 19th century DC compares to 19th century Paris, we have a different idea of beauty. I find the jumbled and picturesque turn of the century American skyline the equal if better than the somewhat monotonous yet polite uniformity of Hausmanns boulevards, but modernists love uniformity, so no suprise there.

As far as disposable architecture, thanks for explaining how "Fires, earthquakes, wars" are responsible for us "disposing" of our building stock. Maybe we could get a beer down in Crystal City sometime and catch a show at the Birchmere, I hear you wouln't even recognize the place.

Always a pleasure to talk with you!

by Thayer-D on May 22, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

@ Slinky

The National Register for Historic Places makes some exceptions (called Criteria Considerations) for designating properties that aren't typically eligible for listing under Criteria A, B, C, or D. They are spelled out very clearly in the National Register Bulletin 15 (http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb15/nrb15_7.htm). Criteria Considerations are made for both religious properties AND those that have achieved significance within the last 50 years (among others), so yes, the church does meet the criteria for listing in the National Register.

by Lynn on May 22, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

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