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March 28, 2008, Washington Business Journal
Dispute over Christian Science church heats up
A long-running dispute over whether to demolish the Christian Science Church at 16th and K streets NW continues to escalate, according to sources close to the issue, in a case that pits the property rights of religious institutions against the legal authority of city historic preservation officials.
The Christian Science Church wants to take a wrecking ball to its building, while the land owner, D.C. developer ICG Properties, plans to build a new church alongside separate office and retail space. But the District's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) in December designated the church a historic landmark, determining that it is a rare and outstanding example of a school of midcentury modern architecture, known as Brutalism, that must be protected.
Though the two sides have been debating the building's merits for years, the dispute is coming to a head as the board weighs whether to grant the church and ICG a permit to demolish the now-landmarked building. Local politicians have also weighed in, with Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, in March introducing, then withdrawing, legislation that aimed to clear the way for the church's demolition. A hearing on the demolition permit, scheduled for March 27, was postponed indefinitely, according to sources involved in the dispute.
"To date, HPRB has been unwilling to explore redevelopment options that include demolition of the existing structures," wrote David Stern, a principal at ICG, in an e-mailed response.
Historic preservation officials could not be reached for comment.
With more than 100 churches sitting in coveted historic districts in the city, developers are closely watching the course of events. The dispute could eventually be decided in court, observers said, possibly establishing a new precedent governing the extent to which D.C. can regulate the land use of religious institutions.
"If a church property can be redeveloped, it has value for the church and for developers, and it means millions of dollars of property tax revenue for the city," said Daniel Karchem, senior vice president of development at Vornado/Charles E. Smith, whose own experience with church redevelopment includes St. Matthew's Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue NW. "I have a lot of respect for what the preservation community has done, but there are consequences to these decisions."
The latest round in the ongoing battle began almost a year ago, when the Christian Science Church in Boston sold the land beneath the D.C. church to ICG for $9 million. ICG promised to build a new, 10,000 square-foot church for the local congregation, the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, of Washington D.C., as part of a larger development that would include new office and retail space.
When negotiations between ICG and community preservation groups broke down last year, ICG asked the historic preservation board to decide on a long-dormant application by preservation groups to declare the church a historic landmark. When that application was filed in 1991, it had the effect of blocking earlier church efforts to sell its land, according to a statement from Bob Meehan, a former church member.
In typical historic preservation disputes involving churches, historic preservation officials said, negotiations ensue and in most cases a settlement can be reached that allows historic buildings to be preserved while also allowing churches to gain more value from their land through development.
"Third Church and ICG Properties worked with [historic preservation] staff for over a year exploring various design alternatives for the site, all of which required the complete demolition of the buildings, something HPRB has been unwilling to consider," church officials said in an e-mailed statement.
The board designated the church as a historic landmark on Dec. 6. The church and ICG are now seeking a permit to demolish the building.
If the board denies the demolition permit, the church and ICG likely would appeal to a D.C. administrative law judge. If the administrative judge denies the permit, the church could file a lawsuit. Church representatives would not comment on their plans.
The church at the center of the controversy is a windowless gray octagon on 16th Street NW, two blocks north of the White House. Designed by Araldo Cossutta, a partner of famed architect I.M. Pei, the building, completed in 1972, has been an albatross for the small congregation for years.
Advocates for the landmark designation called the building an outstanding example of modernism from the 1960s and early 1970s, heralding its exposed concrete and "massive, bold sculptural forms," according to testimony from the December hearing.
Representatives of the Christian Science Church do not hold the building in such high esteem. Pointing to an impractical design that left it with no insulation, little natural light and inefficient mechanical systems, church advocates argue that the congregation should not be forced to keep its expensive and crumbling home.
Moreover, the expensive upkeep and an unappealing public facade prevent it from building an effective neighborhood ministry and attracting new members. Church representatives say those things impede its constitutional right to practice its religion.
"The building has turned into a concrete straightjacket," said Roger Severino, counsel to The Becket Fund, a nonprofit religious rights law firm that represents the church.
Severino contends that blocking demolition would impose a "substantial burden" on the church, both by preventing it from building a more practical chapel and by making it more difficult to sell.
Severino and church officials also point to federal laws that, they maintain, prohibit the city from regulating church-owned property. But ambiguity in those laws and conflicting court decisions make it unclear whether churches can actually exempt themselves from the historic preservation process.