Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

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.

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 Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.