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Posts about Third Church


Preservation very different up the coast

For good or ill, it's much, much easier to landmark a building in DC than in our fellow Northeastern cities. In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission doesn't even act on many landmark requests, and can't stop developers from ripping off historic cornices to avoid landmark designation. The Commission declined to preserve St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, partly because of opposition from the Catholic Church yet despite community support and the endorsement of Congressman Charles Rangel.

St. Thomas in Harlem. Photo by the Harlem Preservation Foundation.

In DC, I can't imagine such a building not being designated in the blink of an eye, or HPRB actually ignoring an application to expand a historic district. And that's good. St. Thomas should become a landmark, and New York's disinterest in preservation is burying many beautiful and valuable old Brooklyn warehouses that could easily become great loft buildings or offices.

The Times article explains how many NYC churches, including quite beautiful ones, are opposing landmark status because of the immense profit possible from selling their land. That's a factor in DC's Third Church fight as well. At last week's hearing, preservationists made many suggestions for saving the building, but the congregation either believes those options wouldn't work or simply isn't interested in anything less than the full sum they could earn from redeveloping the site completely.

Dupont ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson predicted the demise of the church, saying that "No one is tearing down the National Cathedral here to put up a Wal-Mart. Everyone here today wants to preserve a church. The difference [between us] is whether the church is a building or the people within it." But the National Cathedral is a building, too, as is St. Thomas, and if those congregations wanted to tear those buildings down, we'd protest loudly.

That's why a church victory on First Amendment or RLUIPA grounds, setting a broad precedent against preservation of churches like St. Thomas as well as Third Church, would be the worst possible outcome. The real difference between these buildings is that the bunker-like and anti-pedestrian Third Church does not contribute to a sense of place at this downtown corner in DC, while an elegant Gothic cathedral very much does for Harlem or on Wisconsin Avenue.

In Boston, Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham last week lamented the imminent loss of the Shreve, Crump & Low building at Boylston and Arlington. Boston's Landmarks Commission "decided the building is not sufficiently architecturally significant beyond its neighborhood." (Can you imagine HPRB saying that about something like this?)

Abraham reserves her harshest words for the developer's proposal, dubbing it one of Boston's "generic genuflections to 19th-century architecture" because of its "enormous bay windows and its segmented faÁade echoing a row of brownstones." Personally, I think echoing Boston's beloved brownstones is a nice architectural mix of the new with the tried-and-true old. Abraham says "we can't re-create the 19th century," but why must we abandon it entirely and its great success in favor of something like the ICA, which is one of Abraham's favorites despite being boxy and (at least temporarily) un-urban?

I guess some things don't change from city to city, like the inexplicable fondness among architects and critics for buildings that only look good from distant vantage points far from the everyday pedestrian experience.



Historic preservation is a political movement

The church anti-preservation bill, first introduced and withdrawn by Jack Evans and then reintroduced by Marion Barry, will not be considered this year. Chairman Gray has decided not to proceed with the bill, designed primarily to get rid of Third Church, until after the Mayor's Agent hearing now scheduled for November 25th.

Photo by Stop Climate Chaos Coalition on Flickr.

After the hearing, the church will either win and get permission to tear down their building, or lose and have to keep it. If they win, then there will be no political reason to re-introduce the bill, and the church will drop their civil rights lawsuit. Both the bill and the lawsuit threaten to set bad precedent that could let other, more widely agreed-upon historic houses of worship tear down important historic buildings, even to create ugly surface parking lots.

If there's ever an example of winning the battle and losing the war, this church fight is it. Winning the Mayor's Agent hearing could be the worst thing to happen to preservation in a generation. I admire the strict preservationists' fortitude in standing up for what they believe, but preservationists need to realize an important fact: preservation is a political movement.

For all the talk about how preservation retains even buildings that are unpopular (since tastes change), preservation got started saving buildings that were popular. Masses rose up unsuccessfully to save the old Penn Station, still New York City's most deeply-felt loss. In historic neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle, neighbors banded together to stop undesirable change. Our historic preservation laws came from the political force of many citizens dismayed at the changes happening around them.

Since then, the political climate has changed. Preservation's zeal to protect the very same buildings that, when constructed, prompted preservation in the first place, doesn't help. In Chevy Chase DC, two historic district opponents defeated pro-historic district candidates, one an incumbent. If I were a leader in the historic preservation movement, I'd be very worried that the movement is heading down the same route as the Virginia Republican Party: toward irrelevance in pursuit of ideological purity.

A political movement's success depends on finding issues where undecided people agree with their side, and playing up those issues. Democrats want to talk about health care and education, where they know most Americans are on their side. Preservationists need to play up the areas where they enjoy broad support. And they're working on education, organizing events to teach people about modernism, which is a good strategy.

In the case of the defeated Chevy Chase historic district, the loss seems part PR, part ideology. Neighbors who worried preservation might threaten their front-porch rocking horses didn't help, and proponents could have done more to illustrate the damage from teardowns. And, as I've written, we should explore compromises involving an intermediate level of protection. Much as progressives might want universal single-payer health care, there's wisdom in leaders' approach to bite off one politically viable piece of the problem at a time.

Finally, the preservation movement needs to steer the headlines away from the controversial cases damaging to preservation's reputation. When an individual unfamiliar with the nuances of preservation, as I was earlier this year, reads an article like Marc Fisher's criticism of the church, they may not only conclude that this building should be torn down, but that the historic preservation movement is a bad idea altogether. Politicians are introducing overly broad legislation that will cause collateral damage in an effort to remove the church, and a court could very well issue a ruling against preservation that goes far beyond this little concrete box in a city with many concrete boxes.

Republican corruption and xenophobia has turned a generation of young people, minorities, and educated suburbanites toward the Democratic party, creating what could be a lasting coalition. Preservation had its coalition in the 1970s and 80s. With the failure in Chevy Chase, it's clear that coalition is gone. I don't want to see new residents similarly set their minds against preservation in all forms for a generation, simply for the sake of a few, widely reviled modern buildings.



Third Church: Decide another day

Acting as the Mayor's Agent in deciding whether to allow Third Chuch to raze their Brutalist building, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning granted a request by the DC Preservation League to "continue" the hearing in a month. The Preservation League just received Third Church's financial information on Friday, and argued that they hadn't had sufficient time to prepare a rebuttal or find expert witnesses. The financial hardship of maintaining the current church is one of Third Church's main arguments. After conferring privately with the attorneys, Tregoning announced she had reached a "reluctant agreement" to resume on November 25th, two days before Thanksgiving.

Harriet Tregoning and HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg at a January 2008 DCCA meeting. Photo by David Alpert.

GGW will be out of town then, and is disappointed that Harriet Tregoning afterward expressed her wish not to broadcast the hearing, as the Zoning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustment, and HPRB now do along with the DC Council. DC has many public hearings, and there's no reason that "public" ought to be restricted to only those citizens with time to actually travel to a hearing; everyone interested in seeing our government at work should have the opportunity to do so.

Tregoning's Office of Planning does a great job of making policy, and unlike some agencies (such as DDOT), its decisionmaking follows a clear process with ample chance for public participation. It's too bad she doesn't wish to expand public accessibility to this hearing. Tregoning did point out to me the technical obstacles of broadcasting, since the rooms at 801 North Capitol are not equipped for the job, but if they can't use the Zoning and HPRB hearing room at 441 4th Street, a portable setup, even to record and then post after the fact, isn't such a technical hurdle in the modern day.

At this morning's session, Tregoning also heard and ruled on other motions. Without justification or comment, she denied DCPL's motion that she recuse herself because of a conflict of interest. As Richard Layman covered last night, they argued that since the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, of which she is part, already weighed in against landmarking, an impartial judge rather than a political appointee ought to hear the case. Typically, an administrative law judge, not Tregoning, presides even though Tregoning is the official Mayor's Agent. Tregoning denied this motion, saying that the final written opinion would explain her reasons.

DCPL's attorney, Tom Papson, also moved to dismiss the church's "special merit" claim. A landmark can be demolished to construct a project of special merit, but the church has never shown any plans for what they wish to construct. The church said that they won't be presenting a special merit argument and withdrew this portion of their application. DCPL had also moved to dismiss the religious liberty claim by the church, who argue that "being forced to maintain a place of worship" that doesn't fit with their beliefs violates federal RFRA and RLUIPA statutes. Papson argued that, just as HPRB decided it doesn't have the authority to decide a constitutional quesiton, neither does the Mayor's Agent. The Church's attorney, Keyes, countered that in a previous case about the Frasier Mansion, the Mayor's Agent determined federal religious freedom didn't apply to the placement of a cross. Therefore, said Keyes, it's proper for the Mayor's Agent to consider religious liberty. Tregoning decided to allow the applicant to provide testimony and "make a record" on the subject before she decides whether to dismiss that claim.

The hearing had its share of procedural quibbling, common to legal proceedings. Third Church's attorney moved to deny party status to DCPL and the Committee of 100 because they hadn't filed the proper letters designating their attorneys (Tregoning denied the motion). Papson asked for more documents about the church's financial agreements with developer ICG Properties, to whom they sold the land (Tregoning agreed to ask for specific documents, but resisted turning the request into a "fishing expedition").

The hearing on the 25th will last as long as it takes to hear the case. That'll probably be quite a while, since the church expects to need 90 minutes to present their case and interview their witnesses, DCPL and the Committee of 100 estimated that they need two hours, and those times don't include cross-examination or rebuttals. Plus, public agencies, affected ANCs (in this case, that's Dupont's ANC 2B), and members of the public are all allowed to comment as well. It'll be a long night, but not for me; I'll interview interested people from the church, the preservation commmunity, and the ANC to bring you the latest news on this fascinating, educational, and quite intricate saga.



Breakfast links: Raze baby raze?

Third Church first to go? Today is the Mayor's Agent hearing on whether to allow Third Church of Christ, Scientist to tear down and redevelop their landmarked building at 16th and I. I'll be there to watch and report. Observers think the church is probably going down; allowing a raze would also forestall civil rights litigation and legislation that might have far-reaching and damaging repercussions. Richard Layman finds the process dirty if not actually corrupt.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Three fewer townhouses: The Mount Vernon Triangle will lose another three Victorian townhouses to a new development. The Triangle laments that in that neighborhood, with historic properties scattered about, there's no single cluster to fight to save. Commenters wonder why the facades, at least, couldn't have become part of the new building.

How low they stoop for parking: Baltimore has had a rash of counterfeit parking permits, where people take pictures of others' permits and print them to post in their own windshields. Baltimore is cracking down. Via Inside Charm City.

More on Hill fence, parking: Hill Rag covers the debate over fencing the former Marine parking lot on 8th Street that Infosnack wrote about yesterday. The area ANC (6B) also endorsed less parking at a commercial site to allow ground-level retail; that's yet another good reason not to mandate parking (or complex and expensive variances).



Breakfast links: Paved paradise edition

AP covers parking minimums: This Associated Press article summarizes the debate over relaxing parking minimums. The article quotes Jeff Speck, who testified in favor of relaxing minumums, and Capitol Hill ANC Commissioner Ken Jarboe, who testified against. It also gives an example of a historic Milwaukee building which burned down and couldn't redevelop until the city relaxed parking requirements. Tip: Allen, Dan E.

Photo by craig1black on Flickr.

Parking point-counterpoint: Donald Shoup debates a planner from West Hollywood, CA on the merits of performance parking. Norte, the opponent, argues that we shouldn't consider parking reforms until we expand mass transit, ignoring that performance parking can be the way to pay for that expansion.

Another shot for Third Church: The "Mayor's Agent" will hear Third Church's appeal of HPRB's decision denying them permission to raze their building. A victory for the church in this process would be much better than winning their civil rights lawsuit and potentially ending up with new special rights for churches in historic preservation.

Pleasant and unpleasant non-surprises: Fairfax supervisors approve the Tysons vision; Metro needs gobs of money; The MoCo Planning Board still rejects the ICC bike trail.



Third Church brings civil rights lawsuit

The Third Church of Christ Scientist, which occupies a now-landmarked Brutalist modern building on 16th Street, has brought a civil rights lawsuit against the city after having their raze application denied by HPRB last month. According to the Post article, "the church says the landmark designation violates the First Amendment by limiting its ability to freely practice religion."

Interior of the Third Church building, Photo by rodeomilano on Flickr.

One way or another, the church is going to win. But a court victory would be the worst outcome for DC and for historic preservation in general. As I've argued before, I don't believe churches deserve special treatment in historic preservation. Instead, any owner of this building ought to be able to replace it. It's ugly, interacts badly with the street, is expensive to heat, difficult to maintain, dark, and unwelcoming. The problem isn't that it's a church; it's that it's a bad building.

A court decision for the church could set precedent regarding other churches. What happens when a church wants to tear down a row house to build a parking lot to accommodate their religious worship? The Becket Fund is salivating at this opportunity to find a test case for RLUIPA which is very sympathetic to their side. Judges are human, and emotional arguments sway them in close decisions. It'll be hard for a judge to side with preservationists on this awful building and against the sweet congregation members.

The church told community members that after the HPRB, they would pursue an appeal to the Mayor's Agent, but (unless the press coverage is misleading) it doesn't look like they are doing that. Maybe the church believes the Mayor's Agent won't accept their appeal, or maybe they simply want to help the Becket Fund make a larger point.

Either way, Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein made a good point in the Raw Fisher column:

The city should be careful what it wishes for in this case. This civil rights challenge, he said, has the potential to do for the District's ability to regulate churches what the recent Supreme Court ruling did to the city's authority over guns...blow it away altogether.
Many of my lawyer friends thought DC's pursuit of the gun lawsuit was foolish. After losing the circuit appeal, they could have tried to change the law to something less absolute. Instead, they shot the moon at the Supreme Court and now there's an individual right to bear arms that didn't definitively exist before. Gun control is worse off becasuse of DC's actions. If they're not smarter this time, we could end up with a general right of churches to ignore historic preservation. And that outcome would be far worse, even for the most ardent preservationist, than simply giving in on this one, scarcely historic building.


Church anti-preservation bill comes back

In March, Councilmember Jack Evans (ward 2) introduced a bill to essentially exempt churches from historic preservation. It was clearly designed for Third Church, the Brutalist octagonal pipe that should not be a landmark, but would have much broader implications. Now, the bill is back, reintroduced on June 10 by Marion Barry (ward 8), Richard Layman reports.

Photo by Lush.i.ous on Flickr.

According to my I-am-not-a-lawyer-but-play-one-on-the-blog analysis, the bill would go beyond RLUIPA by allowing churches to get out of preservation (declare themselves "noncontributing") just on their say-so that the preservation rules substantially interfere with their religious exercise. Does it interfere with religious exercise when a church can't demolish nearby rowhouses to add more parking? After all, people can't pray if they can't park (unless they walk, bike or take transit of course).

Layman relates the story of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the H Street area, which let two old row houses decay and fall apart so they could put in a parking lot, and Shiloh Baptist Church, which maintains many vacant properties on Ninth Street which they refuse to use or sell, hindering the creation of a lively neighborhood.

As I've argued before, as has Layman and others, churches should not be unduly burdened because they are churches, but neither should they be unduly privileged. Third Church should go because it's a bad building for the city. If it were a hotel or a federal office building, I'd say the same thing. Let's not allow enthusiasm for tearing down that church to topple valuable protections for other churches.



Evans' church bill goes beyond RLUIPA

There have been great and thoughtful comments on my post last week about the Dupont ANC's resolution endorsing Jack Evans' bill about churches and historic preservation. Commissioners Mike Silverstein and Bill Hewitt both commented very thoughtfully on the issue on that post.

A truly historic religious building.
Photo by army.arch on Flickr.

Here is the complete text of the bill Evans introduced, then withdrew. RLUIPA, the federal law that protects religious buildings in land use regulations, has two main components. First, it prohibits any land use regulation that "imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise" of any person or religious organization, unless it "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and "is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." The second, and less controversial, provision prohibits governments from treating religious institutions differently than non-religious institutions, or treats one religion differently from another. That latter provision ensures that a city doesn't ban all churches, or block a certain religion from building in a community.

But Evans' bill and the Third Church landmarking aren't about the discrimination clause, they're about the substantial burden clause. Does landmarking the church impose a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the congregation? Maybe so. I certainly don't like the building and don't believe it should be a landmark. Evans' bill, though, would have given churches the power to decide for themselves whether historic preservation would impose a substantial burden or not. The bill doesn't specify any way for others to challenge that decision.

Might a church in a 100-year-old building decide that their current facilities aren't large enough, get their building declared non-contributing, tear it down, and and redevelop it into a modern building with glass and metal like the church redevelopment in the Penn Quarter? Might a church purchase some historic property and turn it into a parking lot, arguing that a lack of parking poses a substantial burden?

I don't know the answers. But the citizens, elected legislators, appointed officials, and the courts should participate in answering those questions. If we simply give a church the unilateral power to make that decision, we're abdicating our responsibility and undermining the purpose of historic preservation—to balance the needs of individual property owners against the collective interest of the neighborhood to preserve its architectural character and heritage.



Dupont ANC should give great thought to deserve great weight

DC's local elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are entitled to "great weight" from agencies on whose decisions the ANC has commented. But what does "great weight" mean, and are the ANCs getting the consideration they deserve? The Dupont Circle ANC has been asking this question frequently of late as the HPRB has disagreed with nearly all of their recent recommendations, such as on the Third Church landmarking or the height of the 14th and U project.

If the ANC wants to receive great weight, they should start by making sure great weight goes into their decisions. With the Dupont Circle ANC, that has sometimes been the case, and other times not at all. At last November's meeting, for example, the ANC spent about an hour and a half on the contentions Third Church landmarking issue, but only about ten minutes on the 14th and U project. And last night, they voted to endorse a controversial piece of legislation exempting churches from some historic preservation, a proposal that raises complex legal issues, without placing it on the agenda or letting members of the audience speak.

In November, neighbors had the opportunity to speak their minds on the church issue, and representatives from the preservation groups and the Historic Preservation Office attended (though they didn't choose to give much comment). On the other hand, the ANC conducted a hasty hearing with few public comments on before quickly moving to condemn the 14th and U project. In subsequent meetings, the debate was similarly brief.

Many commissioners have never spoken up about the project at all, yet they have voted unanimously time after time to support the ANC's resolution. Do they really agree, or simply not care? At least one commissioner privately told me that he didn't object to the project, less than an hour after he had voted for a resolution criticizing it.

Last night, a representative from Third Church made a plea for the ANC to endorse Jack Evans' legislation concerning churches and historic preservation, a topic that hadn't appeared on the agenda. My initial reaction to the proposal was strongly negative, because there are many churches more worthy of preservation that should remain protected by the law, and I don't feel churches should be treated differently than other buildings. Proponents argued that this simply implements the federal RLUIPA law.

What's right? I'm not yet sure, and plan to do some investigating. But the ANC wasn't sure either. There was no legal testimony about the law. There wasn't even a chance for anyone in the audience to speak up. The ANC simply heard the argument of the church representative, debated briefly among themselves, asked Michelle Molotsky of Jack Evans' office to comment (she said the legislation had been withdrawn, but couldn't comment much further) and moved quickly to unanimously vote for a resolution endorsing the legislation.

When I asked several Commissioners about the vote afterward, they admitted having little to no knowledge of the issue. Meanwhile, Commissioner William Hewitt had done considerable research on brick versus concrete concerning the 17th Street Streetscape. Why isn't every resolution due the same level of education before the Commissioners ask for great weight?

When the ANC seems to give less thoughtful consideration to an issue, it becomes difficult to argue that their resolutions ought to be taken more seriously by the relevant government agencies than letters from ordinary citizens. After all, when ordinary citizens write in, most likely they have at least given some lengthy thought to the matter. When the ANC does so, it may be that one commissioner has a strong opinion and the other eight haven't thought about it at all.


Church exemption from historic designation?

While I was debating parking zoning regulations, Councilmember Jack Evans announced a new bill that would exempt religious institutions from being designated as historic sites against their will. This is clearly aimed at the Third Church landmarking.

The recently landmarked, Brutalist
Third Church at 16th and I

I oppose protecting that building, because I see the role of historic preservation as retaining the character of neighborhoods, not about protecting a set of standalone pieces of art by various famous architects despite their impact on the street fabric. However, I also recoil at laws that prescribe favored treatment for religious buildings. The HPRB decision was wrong not because Third Church is a church, but because it is a bad building that deadens a street corner. Its treatment should be the same whether it is a hotel, a house, or a church. Richard Layman hates the bill too.

Historic preservation has been great for DC, preventing this from turning into this. But if we already have this, should we really use law to keep it the way it is? Is it more important to maintain a variety of buildings that make DC's architecture more interesting, or preserve neighborhood fabric that also fosters a lively streetscape?

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