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I’m writing in regard to your article “Raze Be To God” (7/30). On behalf of the Downtown Artists Coalition, I would like to make clear our position for opposing the applications filed by the Archdiocese of Washington to demolish the historic commercial buildings on the 900 block of F Street, which are contributing buildings to the downtown historic district.

The Downtown Artists Coalition is a nonprofit organization formed to preserve, foster, and maintain affordable artist’s studio spaces within the District of Columbia’s downtown arts district. Members of the coalition include all of the artists who have studios located in the buildings subject to these demolition applications. The coalition is concerned about the significant negative impact this project would have on the arts and artists in the downtown arts district and the cultural heritage of the downtown historic district.

The coalition supports and strongly endorses the testimony of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the D.C. Preservation League in opposition to the project. Both organizations contend that the applicant’s interpretation of “special merit” is improper and should not be granted.

The coalition also strongly endorses the letter of opposition submitted by Anthony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Gittens stated that the project violates Section 2 of D.C. Law 2-144 (DC Code 5-1001), the Historic Landmarks and Historic District Protection Act. This law mandates that, as a matter of public policy, districts that represent distinctive elements of the city’s cultural heritage must be protected, enhanced, and perpetuated.

This project also violates D.C. Law 12-275, the Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 1998. The properties proposed for demolition are located within the downtown arts district as defined at Section 906.3. The land-use objectives for downtown are to retain, expand, and support arts and cultural activities. The downtown arts district is being threatened by continuous office development. The proposed project would eliminate the last remaining working artists’ studios in the arts district.

The downtown historic district is being threatened, as well. The 900 block of F Street NW is the last surviving intact block to embody Washington’s 19th-century heritage. In fact, the buildings threatened by this project date back to the 1880s. Under the Historic Landmarks and Historic District Protection Act, not only must the historic nature and integrity of these affected buildings be protected, but also their cultural heritage, as embodied and reflected in the arts activities and working artists located within.

Furthermore, this project is completely inconsistent with the vision of the Arts Summit convened one year ago by the Downtown Arts Committee, the Federal City Council, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. The Arts Summit, featuring First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, approved a specific, detailed cultural plan designed to sustain and increase the arts’ presence within the downtown arts district. This plan mandated the provision of places for local artists to live, work, rehearse, perform, create, exhibit, and sell.

St. Patrick’s Church is a designated historic landmark. The height and mass of the proposed project would not only diminish and overshadow the church, but would forever block it from the sun, casting a permanent shadow over the church and plunging it into eternal darkness. It wouldn’t surprise us, if, given the choice, the parishioners of St. Patrick’s would prefer that sunlight continue to flow through its stained-glass windows, as it has for the past 200 years.

In summary, we strongly believe that the final decision regarding this project must be balanced in the public’s interest between what is lost and what is gained. The losses to the cultural heritage of our city and the continued vibrancy of the downtown arts district are staggering. The community would lose artists, their studios, a theater, and all the accompanying social and cultural benefits. All this in exchange for yet more unnecessary office space that continues to deny any possibilities for a livable downtown.

The historic preservation review process and the mayor’s agent’s considerations should be heavily weighted toward protecting our heritage of existing arts- and cultural-related activities, rather than displacing them.

This city must do more to protect its historical and cultural assets rather than destroying them. Once you’ve bulldozed history, you can’t go back.

Downtown Artists Coalition

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