Developers may have to continue to scale back the size of the proposed St. Thomas church/condo project at 1772 Church St. NW to get community buy-in from neighbors and members of the Dupont Advisory Neighborhood Commission more than a year after they first presented plans for the new development.
A team from CAS Riegler presented a set of updated plans Tuesday to the ANC’s Zoning Preservation and Development committee that highlighted several changes from the last presentation in December, including sculpting the Church Street facade of the residential building to make it appear more like the neighborhood’s townhouses.
But neither developers nor community members could see eye-to-eye on what has become a sticking point in the project’s 13-month design process: The overall height and mass of the residential complex. The project is still too large, residents and commissioners said.
The seven-story residential building and adjoining new church for St. Thomas Episcopal Church has shrunk by approximately 8,000 square feet since its first iteration in February 2013, developers told the ANC in December.
On Tuesday, developers outlined several other changes they said made the site fit more easily into the neighborhood. Much of the site’s layout had flipped: Boxier parts of the building had shifted toward the alley side of the building and away from Church Street, and additional setbacks at the fifth story reduced visibility of a seventh-level penthouse by 50 feet. The church entrance, previously in the middle of 18th street, was moved to the corner of 18th and Church streets to preserve more green space.
Other new details: The church will be mostly stone and glass, veiled by thin pieces of terracotta in varying shades of gray. The residential building will be mostly brick, with shading to mimic the street’s townhomes. And parking access would be restricted to 18th Street.
“We feel like we’ve addressed a majority of concerns … but there are some concerns that are going to remain unanswered for a project of this size and complexity,” developer Nick Jesse said.
But neighbors said most of what appeared to be reductions in mass had been re-introduced elsewhere in the project. Likewise, the maximum height has remained steady at 70 feet, despite requests to make the development smaller.
Residents were also unhappy with some of what they called misleading renderings: A townhouse abutting the proposed residential building on Church Street, for instance, appeared four to five stories tall in a rendering from last fall, but in the new renderings on Tuesday, was drawn to appear as six.
Likewise, a map that showed the heights of buildings in the half dozen blocks surrounding the church showed several buildings standing 80 feet or higher in the neighborhood. But many of them are located along Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues, members of the Church Street Neighbors group said: Since the Dupont Circle Overlay was established in 1992, only four new buildings 80 feet or more have been built. Two of them were planned unit developments–which require greater oversight and a community benefits agreement–they said.
“We aren’t being unreasonably intransigent,” said Pennie Ojeda of the Church Street Neighbors, adding that several of the changes developers presented were not responsive to October comments from the Historic Preservation Review Board.
Commissioner Justine Underhill proposed supporting the project ahead of the ANC meeting with a few recommendations, including a height limit of 59 feet.
“Fifty-nine feet is a non-viable project,” developer Robin Bettarel told the commissioners, to which one quipped there “might not be a way to be viable in a historic district.”
Bettarel said she was frustrated that they couldn’t move beyond what seemed to be the concerns of a small group of people.
“I dont’ feel like we’ve been allowed to be heard,” she said. “It feels like we’re being attacked.”
Underhill said she’d gone door to door to piece together recommendations for developers—including a request for a traffic study as well as one for developers to continue to work with the ANC before they apply for zoning relief—as everyone tries to move the project forward.
“[Tonight]‘s process is really for the community to have a voice, and that is what I’m doing,” Underhill said.