Their nerves stretched tighter than their canvases, artists and preservationists filing into Monday morning’s public oversight hearing on the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) got a kick in the teeth.
Rumors had circulated over the weekend that DCRA had issued demolition permits to the Archdiocese of Washington for the razing of a handful of historic 19th-century storefronts on the 900 block of F Street NW—which now house some of the last downtown artist’s studios (“Raze Be to God” 7/30/99)—despite Judge Rohulamin Quander’s Nov. 10 decision against their demolition. Quander ruled that the church’s planned razing to make way for a speculative office tower, proposed in a hearing last May 25, was inconsistent with the Historic District Protection Act of 1978. Not to mention that it’s totally at odds with the philosophy behind the city’s designated downtown arts district.
But the Archdiocese’s lawyers had found a loophole: A clause in the Regulatory Reform Act of 1998 stipulates that a demolition application is deemed approved if a decision isn’t returned within 60 days of the record’s close. Quander was almost four months too late. The church appealed Quander’s ruling. The Office of the Corporation Counsel, the District’s in-house law firm, agreed, green-lighting DCRA’s issuance of the permits—without public notice—about two weeks ago.
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, chair of Monday’s meeting, was appalled. Speaking after the meeting, Ambrose seemed perplexed by Corporation Counsel’s OK of the permits for the church’s proposed “facadectomy,” as she calls it. “It doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” Ambrose said.
DCRA spokesperson Jacqueline Wallace insists that it’s her agency’s job to follow Corporation Counsel directives.
At Monday’s meeting, it was DCRA Director Lloyd Jordan’s job to pacify the preservationists. He insisted that demolition cannot begin until the church obtains a razing operations permit, for which it must obtain a construction permit, demonstrate capacity to carry out the project, and get “subdivision approval.” None of those criteria have been met, so work cannot take place. The archdiocese and the sites’ developer, the John Akridge Cos., offered no comment; nor did Corporation Counsel.
Downtown Artists Coalition co-founder Stuart Gosswein, whose studio resides in one of the threatened buildings, takes no solace in Jordan’s words: “I don’t think any of us were comforted.”
Perhaps least comforted of all was Andrea Ferster, lawyer for the D.C. Preservation League, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the Downtown Artists Coalition. Ferster says she isn’t sure all the hurdles Jordan described are specified in the permit. “What DCRA is saying is not reflected in the permit itself,” Ferster maintains. “At this point, we have no choice but to seek a court-ordered stay of demolition.” Ferster plans to file suit on behalf of her clients next week.—Jessica Dawson