Yesterday, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, acting as the Mayor’s Agent in the Third Church of Christ, Scientist case, gave the church permission to replace their Brutalist building with a new structure. The widely-expected decision should now make dangerous First Amendment litigation moot. But it also contains several conditions that should also forestall some of the worst scenarios that preservationists feared.
The owner of a landmark may only appeal to the Mayor’s Agent for certain reasons. One is that the city’s denial of the raze permit would cause “unreasonable economic hardship.” Another is to construct “a project special merit.” The Church had initially filed under both criteria, but at the hearing, they dropped the “special merit” claim when the DC Preservation League pointed out that the Church had never submitted sketches, plans, or any other description of the building they’d like to construct.
Why haven’t they? If the Church could design a really great building to replace this one, it might increase support for razing the current structure. However, it’s likely that they simply can’t afford to pay for architectural work without knowing whether they can build it. But some preservationists worried that the Church might actually be concealing its true plans. What if, instead of wanting to build a new church, it just hoped to make maximum profit from an office building and move somewhere else?
The Church denies this. They are committed to their downtown location, they say, and want to keep working in their community. They simply can’t afford to keep maintaining an aging concrete building which has problems with water, heating and cooling, deterioration of the concrete, and more. The building is now too large for their shrinking congregation and too inflexible to rent out. They are probably telling the truth. Tregoning’s decision, however, codifies this formally.
The order gives the Church permission to raze their building. But before they can do so, they must get approval for a new structure. And that structure has to include a new church. It might end up being part of a larger mixed-use building, like the church in the Penn Quarter. Hopefully the church will design something better than that Penn Quarter design, something that doesn’t turn blank walls to the street, as does that and the current Brutalist building.
The church itself could also occupy a different part of the site instead of the corner, if the developer that owns the adjacent Christian Science Monitor building proceeds with its one-time plans to demolish and replace that building as well. But one way or another, “that the demolition permit will be issued no sooner than a
building permit for a replacement church.”
Since the site lies inside the Sixteenth Street Historic District, HPRB must approve the new design as compatible with the existing historic character of that area. That should prevent any really bad designs. HPRB now has a chance to shape some excellent architecture at this site. They should avoid any temptation to make life difficult for Third Church just because they lost a case, and use their power judiciously to produce a new building that everyone, from architects to passersby to Third Church, can love.