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Should these houses be razed for seven parking spots? (Lydia DePillis)

Religious building projects often take forever to come to fruition—churches aren’t developers, after all, and they do have a more expansive timeline. The Third Street Church of God in the Mount Vernon Historic District is no different. It’s been trying to do something with its properties on New Jersey Avenue for a decade now, and has been thwarted at every turn: First there was a plan for an old rowhouse directly to the south, but neighbors wouldn’t agree to a necessary easement, so that project died and the Church sold the properties. Then, they tried to build on 4th Street, but the District wouldn’t allow them to demolish the existing buildings, so they gave up on that idea too.

In September 2009, Pastor Cheryl Sanders thought she had a winner, when the Historic Preservation Review Board and a host of other agencies signed off on plans for a new administrative building right next to the church. Permits are still pending for that project. The problem is, it would take away about half of the roughly 30 parking spaces they currently have. So now, Sanders is applying to raze three decrepit rowhouses that the church has owned for 20 years, which would yield an additional five to seven spaces for their congregation.

The neighbors—-highly sensitive to the issue of vacant properties, the deadening effect of surface parking lots, and demolition by neglect—-are incredulous. 

“I don’t know what your theology is, but there’s a crying need for housing in this city,” said one ANC commissioner at a planning and zoning committee meeting last night.

“It sounds like hoarding to me,” said another. “If they’re not being used as housing, I think that shouldn’t be condoned, and we shouldn’t look the other way.”

Sanders’ frustration is understandable: The church has put a lot of time and money into finding a way to secure more space. The houses are in pretty bad shape, but the Historic Preservation Office is saying that they can probably still be preserved. Meanwhile, the vacant property tax just kicked in—-tax records show that the church paid about $16,000 on the houses over the last year.

“Yes, it is true, we did not restore them. But we had to set some priorities in terms of he other major expenditures,” said a defensive Sanders. “The only answer that I can give to that is that as a church, we have limited resources.”

The Mount Vernon Triangle of 2011, though, is not the Mount Vernon Triangle of 1991. Those houses would fetch a goodly sum—-say $600,000—-which could then be used to lease parking spaces nearby and shuttle parishioners to worship, as one community member pointed out. By asking to raze them, the church is effectively asking to pay $100,000 per space, which is quite a lot.

ANC 6C’s planning and zoning committee overwhelmingly voted to deny the raze application, which will go before the HPRB at its June meeting.