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At 10 a.m. on May 25, about 30 folks are squeezing into a fluorescent-lit hearing room at 941 North Capitol St. NE, inside the snazzy new digs of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The room gains bodies by the minute, as developers, lawyers, artists, architects, clergymen, and assorted other specialists lumber through the halls. The crowd has gathered to hear whether yet another set of historic downtown D.C. buildings—this time, on the 900 block of F Street NW—will be destroyed to make way for an eminently bankable 205,000-square-foot office tower.

The proposed building—developed by the John Akridge Cos., designed by architects KCF/SHG (formerly Keyes Condon Florance), and smiled upon by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, the lot’s landowners—would reside at 921 to 941 F St. The property currently holds 11 ramshackle low-rise storefronts, most built just over 100 years ago when that stretch of F Street defined “downtown.” The Dor-Ne Corset Shoppe, a D.C. institution, shares the block with the Red Fox boutique, Scott’s Beauty and Barber Supply, and Bare Feet Shoes. In good weather, sidewalk clothing racks attract bargain hunters. Upstairs, painters and photographers buzz about in studios that some of them have rented for longer than 10 years.

But this slatternly streetscape—among the last of its kind downtown—might soon become like the rest of the business district’s uniform post-’80s blocks, if the Archdiocese has its way. The church plans to lease this land to Akridge, which would develop the property. In an effort to ease the pain of the historic buildings’ demolition, the church would renovate the neo-Gothic Carroll Hall at 924 G St. NW, itself a historic building that sits just behind the threatened low-rises and adjacent to landmarked St. Patrick’s Church. The headquarters of Catholic Charities, whose lease will expire on its current Rhode Island Avenue NE address next year, would be relocated to this block and given free rent by the Archdiocese.

Although an April 22 D.C. Historic Preservation Board meeting OK’d the conceptual plan for the church’s proposed building, another hurdle remains: demolition permits. This hearing marks the last chance for the project’s opponents to block the scheme. Hence the crowd of white-collared clergy and pinstriped lawyers rubbing shoulders in the confines of this airless hearing room.

William Lori, auxiliary bishop of Washington and vicar general, and Monsignor Kevin Farrell, the archdiocese’s director of finance, occupy the front row. Nearby, their lawyer, Norman “Chip” Glasgow, sits with affiliates from his firm, Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, a group with special expertise in the liquidation of downtown D.C. historic properties. Glasgow, pressed up against the table that holds KCF/SHG’s blanched model for the proposed building at 975 F St., pats down his hair as he waits.

Nudged several rows behind Glasgow, in the thick of the Wilkes, Artis camp, artist Michael Berman clasps his notes and papers. Berman rents a studio at 931 1/2 F St. and is co-founder, with fellow F Street artist Stuart Gosswein, of the Downtown Artists Coalition—which was incorporated in mid-May in response to the proposed demolition. The coalition represents some 20 artists working along the block in the heart of the city’s “downtown arts district,” so designated in the city’s Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 1998.

Across the room, several of the office project’s other opponents—including representatives of the Committee of 100 for the Federal City, a planning and advocacy group, and the D.C. Preservation League—chat with their lawyer, Andrea Ferster, who was retained the previous night.

A little after 10 o’clock, Judge Rohulamin Quander—the mayor’s agent who will decide this case—strolls in and installs himself behind his brass nameplate. The hearing begins.

Glasgow explains that the archdiocese’s application for demolition permits carries what bureaucrats call “special merit.” According to the D.C. code, applicants who claim special merit must offer “a plan or building having significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services.” In this case, Glasgow plays the special-merit card by arguing that it plans to renovate Carroll Hall and transform it into the headquarters of Catholic Charities—a social service organization that includes a substance abuse and health care network, as well as immigration and family services. He says that some of the money saved by the relocation and the profits from the rent of the proposed office block would fund Catholic Charities, and the demolition of the F Street buildings is therefore necessary for the greater good of the District. Glasgow adds that Catholic Charities would gain use of Carroll Hall from the archdiocese rent-free.

But, perhaps unwittingly, Bishop Lori, Glasgow’s first witness, turns part of the Church’s special-merit plea on its head. “I am authorized to commit at the outset of the project the resources of the archdiocese and Catholic Charities to the renovation project involving St. Patrick’s Carroll Hall instead of waiting…for the ground rent that was to be obtained from the office building to sustain the project,” Lori declares, producing a letter from Chevy Chase Bank ensuring a $10 million line of credit for the church.

If the church will add “special merit” services even before the go-ahead for the proposed tower, then is the demolition really necessary?

Archdiocese spokesperson Susan Gibbs later clarifies that the church “agreed to advance funds for the renovation of [Carroll Hall]…to show our commitment to the site.” She explains that the “money to pay back that advance would come from the ground lease to Akridge.” According to the church, the special merit in this case is that it is “willing to forgo commercial leasing or construction on G Street [the Carroll Hall property] in order to help Catholic Charities.” Apparently, as Gibbs phrases it, “giving up millions of dollars in potential commercial rent on that site” constitutes special merit.

After Monsignor Farrell, in his Irish brogue, explains how relocating Catholic Charities to Carroll Hall would result “in savings in excess of $200,000 per year, which will be directly returned in services to the people of the District,” Glasgow produces a handful of letters supporting the archdiocese’s project. Among the signators are the Downtown Cluster of Congregations as well as the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). A letter signed by the BID’s homeless-services coordinator, the Rev. Linda Kaufman, states that the BID is “fully supportive of your plan to renovate [Carroll Hall]…and develop a comprehensive service site.”

Curiously, the BID is the same group that sponsors tours of the now-threatened artists’ studios on F Street during its aggressively marketed “Third Thursday” art events. Turns out, Kaufman later says, her letter was written in error and does not represent the BID’s official stance. Nonetheless, the letter is now public record.

As for the building that would replace the storefronts, the archdiocese’s team produces Tom Wilbur, senior vice president of Akridge, to describe the new building’s program. Wilbur explains that the first floor would house a “retail/arts component”—which, in D.C. zoning parlance, can mean a Barnes & Noble or an art-supply store—in accordance with the city’s specifications. Citing the Host Marriott Corp.’s renovation of the Riggs Building on the corner of 9th and F and the Bernstein Cos.’ project for the Atlantic Building several doors down, Wilbur’s eyes widen at the “possibility [of having] the full block renovated” for “our dream of a more lively…downtown.”

Architect Colden “Coke” Florance of KCF/SHG rises to describe the profile of 975 F St. Gesticulating with pen in hand and frequently pausing to meet Quander’s eye, Florance explains how KCF/SHG would modulate the scales of the 11-story masonry-and-glass structure to sympathize with the streetscape. Florance ticks off the plan’s virtues—among them, its 20-foot setback from the preserved F Street facades and its cornice line matching that of the Woodies building across 10th Street. Photographs and plans are rotated. Necks crane.

The 10th Street facade is another matter. St. Patrick’s Church—a landmark that, according to the plaque out front, was “erected about 1792” as “the first church to be erected in the ‘federal city’ outside the limits of ‘George Towne’”—sits just 12 feet from the walls of the proposed tower. Florance says a two-story loggia on the north side (facing the existing church buildings) would help his tower “relate to [St. Patrick’s] transept and to Carroll Hall.”

Stomachs rumble as Quander declares lunch recess. In the hallway outside the meeting room, Larry Gallo, one of a handful of artists accompanying Berman today, looks agitated. He maintains that Akridge would be “displacing existing vibrant downtown arts activities to simply build another office building.” On the way downstairs in the elevator, Gallo notes that in addition to the artists, the Washington Stage Guild (WSG), which occupies Carroll Hall, at 924 G St., would also be displaced in the process.

The WSG—which held annual leases to Carroll Hall for 13 years before it was switched to month-to-month leases by the church last year—was offered $200,000 by Akridge’s Wilbur to defray some of the group’s moving costs and to help it stay in business. The WSG accepted the offer, and testimony to that effect is scheduled to be delivered by John MacDonald, the WSG’s producing artistic director, later today.

Gallo, disgusted with the WSG, calls Akridge’s move “buying [the WSG’s] support.”

Outside, the blazing sun reflects on the concrete plaza. Berman, angered by what appears to him to be a conspiracy, notes aloud that developer Wilbur sits on the Cultural Development Corp. board and is a Downtown Arts Committee member. Wilbur also sits on the boards of the Downtown BID and Catholic Charities.

Monsignor Farrell passes by, speaking urgently into his cell phone.

After lunch, Wilkes, Artis’ architectural historian witness, Anne Adams, sporting a taut brown bun, peers over her half-glasses to offer the history of the threatened buildings. Of the 11 buildings dating from the 1880s and controlled by the archdiocese, four would be totally demolished, and seven would remain as facades only. The Akridge proposal includes restoring the facades to their 1910 state, which Akridge has determined to be their optimum period, historically and aesthetically. Why that date? “We chose 1910 because [we have detailed] permit drawings from five of the storefronts…from around that time,” Adams explains. Later, Sally Berk, expert witness for the preservationists, will call that decision “arbitrary.”

Once Glasgow rests, attorney Ferster approaches the bench. Ferster offers a stream of witnesses—including Committee of 100 representative Patrick Lally and D.C. Preservation League Vice President Elizabeth Merritt—to argue that the plan offers limited, if any, benefits to the community: The building would dwarf landmarked St. Patrick’s Church while blocking light to its stained-glass windows; vital arts components would be lost, and the historic buildings to be demolished, according to Berk, “maintain the collage effect of the city.” Berk, auburn curls orbiting her face, points out the irony in the church’s having allowed the buildings to deteriorate so severely and then proceeding to argue that demolishing them is part of the special-merit package. “It’s sad,” she sighs.

But the testimony by Berk and her fellow opponents is gravy: The clergymen’s testimony this morning has already handicapped the church’s case. “If rent-free use of Carroll Hall is the special merit, and they’re going to [renovate] it anyway, then clearly the demolition is not necessary,” Ferster comments after the hearing.

Lally, whose passion for architectural history animates his speech, remembers registering confusion when he heard the clergy’s assertion: “At one point, I leaned in and whispered to Andrea [Ferster], ‘If the archdiocese will go forward with the project regardless…why am I testifying?’”

Just after 6:30 p.m., a long day behind them, the wilted group disperses.

Lawyers for both parties filed their findings of fact on July 19. Judge Quander expects to render a decision in the fall. Demolition may still be granted, even if the special-merit clause is undermined.

Downtown Arts Committee Project Director Anne Corbett, who facilitated the talks between displaced arts groups and Akridge, is frustrated by what she perceives as the District’s conflicting preservation and commercial interests. “The real bad guy here is that there’s no comprehensive vision in place [for the future of downtown], and the city is not taking an active role directing preferred development….There is an arts district that has no…incentive to support it. There’s just a stamp on a map that says, ‘This is an arts district.’…Is that even still important to [the city]?”

Reflecting on his testimony in favor of the archdiocese that May afternoon, WSG’s MacDonald acknowledges that the archdiocese’s “lack of communication has been monumental.” So far, the church has issued no written notification to the theater company as to whether it should start packing. The first rumblings of the project earlier this year came in the form of Mafioso-style “friendly” advice. MacDonald recalls that “the pastor said something like, ‘You might want to be out by the fall.’” MacDonald acknowledges that his group wasn’t expecting to keep its space forever: “Our leases always had a 30-day clause.” But regardless of Judge Quander’s decision, the group is now committed to moving. It’s simply a matter of where.

As for the visual artists displaced by the new project, their grumblings don’t impress MacDonald. He characterizes Berman’s afternoon cross-questioning of his pro-Akridge testimony, in which Berman implied that the WSG had been bought off by the developer, as “cheeky.” He cites a letter Berman submitted into evidence in which the artists “approached Akridge for a buyout of about $17,000.” For a group lamenting the demise of the arts district, “it undermines a lot of their credibility that they were more than willing to take $17,000 each and move,” says MacDonald.

Although Downtown Artists Coalition fliers claim that Berman and his cohorts inhabit the “last working artists studios” in the downtown arts district, one more studio building—the Wilson Arts Center at 7th and E Streets NW, which is currently home to nine artists—will remain. Nevertheless, Berman’s cluttered studio above Bare Feet Shoes, where fans whir on hot summer days, remains one of the last of downtown’s bohemian outposts, with the artist’s paintings—many hazy, impressionistic nudes—tacked on every available wall space. Berman bemoans moving from this studio he’s occupied for more than a decade, saying, “By the time I’m unpacked….set up, and feel creative again, it’ll be three months. That’s three months’ lost business.” Until official word is given, Berman and crew will sweat through what could be their final days as some of the last remaining artists in the downtown arts district. CP