City Paper Widget

Friday, February 28, 2014

St. Thomas' Project: "It's an Unholy Alliance"

"How can you claim you want community involvement? Every move you make is in secret. You've done everything to hide this whole process. I think it's bullshit," said a man near the beginning of the meeting.

"It's an unholy alliance," said a woman later.

This park is church property
The parishioners and leadership of St. Thomas' Parish Episcopal Church (1772 Church Street NW) had to endure some abuse on February 26, when they held their first public information session about their planned project to build both a new church and a new apartment building to finance the new church. The new church will go up on a site that has functioned as a park since 1970, when a church on the site was burnt down by a still-unknown arsonist. The apartment building will go up on a nearby property owned by the church.

As the meeting went on, the most vocal attendees subsided a bit, but there were still occasional outbursts from the inadequately-socialized. In between, representatives of the church, property developer CAS Riegler, and Arlington-based MTFA Architecture, tried to give a briefing on their vision of the process, and sometimes more thoughtful voices both for and against the project were heard.

Hostile to the church

Some seemed not to like churches on principle. A man repeatedly shouted, often over the remarks of others, that the project was a done deal, implying the meeting was a sham. A woman thought the church should fold up and move in with another Episcopal Church.

"There are 35 churches and a cathedral within five miles," she said.

This woman suggested the land be sold to a Montessori school.

Others were resentful of the tax-free status of churches, and wanted to be sure St. Thomas' gave a cut of its revenue from this project to the D.C. government.

In reply, representatives of the church stated, yes, the lot that the church stands on will continue to be tax-exempt, but not the nearby projected apartment building. However, they went on, since the income from the apartment building was not enough to completely finance the building of the church, St. Thomas' will not have any money left to tax. In fact, they will have to ask parishioners to contribute funds to complete the project.

The man quoted at the top of this article came to the meeting a few minutes late. All the seats were filled. When given a chance to speak, the man said (in addition to the remarks above) that he had arrived late due to the last-minute change of venue of the meeting. This change, the man said, was part of a campaign to minimize objecting voices.

Commissioner Leo Dwyer (district 07) from Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2B/Dupont Circle explained the venue move was not part of a conspiracy. The venue had been moved to the Chastleton Ballroom (1701 16th Street) the previous day in anticipation of a larger turnout than the tiny Dupont Circle Resource Center (9 Dupont Circle) could accommodate, he said.  Announcements of the venue change had gone out by social media and other outlets.

Over 75 people were in the audience, indicating that many had received the announcement.

Rev. Nancy Lee Jose tried to offer an olive branch.

"I am sorry that it is what it is," Rev. Jose said. "We do want to be good partners."

Cooler heads

Some, more reasonably, said they didn't want to lose a park on their front doorstep.

"You've grieved for the loss of your church for 40 years," said a woman. "Now we have to grieve for the loss of our park."

People were concerned about parking problems. The proposed site of the multi-story apartment building is now a parking lot. Kevin Riegler of CAS Riegler said the apartment building would have below-street-level parking.

A man who identified himself as a Catholic said: "No church can compete with this church for its contribution to the community."

The man continued: "The future is small-based community. Your mission is to serve the community, not architecture. You have what you need now. You are meeting your mission. Keep it up!"

In reply, a representative of St. Thomas' said the church was wasting money on stopgap maintenance measures for its aging building. In addition, since its worship space was accessible only by a staircase, handicapped people had difficulty attending. It was also impossible to host funerals, he said, because there was no way to get a casket up the stairs.

"We are not meeting our mission," he continued. "The space is falling apart around us. That wall on 18th Street was never meant to see the light of day."

Many of the complaints were about the lack of transparency in the process so far. The church leaders and development team stated repeatedly that the process had just begun, no irrevocable decisions had been made, and there will be additional community outreach. The team promised another public meeting in 3-4 weeks. They seem likely to encounter continued opposition.

"Radio silence is a bit of a problem," said Robin Deiner of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "No one wants it [the church] to leave. I see a lot of opposition going forward. This is putting a real distance between us."

"There's a great deal of rational skepticism about development in Dupont Circle," said one audience member.

"This church provides wonderful amenities," said Leo Dwyer. "If they leave it will be a loss for our community."

"This is step one of many many," said Kevin Reigler. "We're not blind or naive to the neighborhood concerns. Projects like this are never easy."

Other reports on the same meeting have appeared on the blogs Greater Greater Washington and District Source.


  1. Yelling profanity and insults at a pastor -- Dupont's longtime self-appointed venomous "activists" keeping it neighborly.

  2. Well, the pastor has alienated just about everyone in the neighbourhood.