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Last month, the Post reported that after a years-long legal fight over whether the Church of Christ, Scientist would be allowed to tear down its Brutalist home on 16th Street NW, developers were finally getting ready for demolition. It struck me as odd: What happened to the D.C. Preservation League’s litigation to prevent the church from being destroyed? The group had battled a tide of public opinion for nearly two decades; it seemed improbable that they would have given up and gone home now.

Recently, I found my answer: An 11-page settlement between DCPL, the Committee of 100, the Third Church, and developer ICG Properties, received by the Court of Appeals on November 24. Boiling down the legalese, the main terms are:

  • ICG may demolish the church and Monitor buildings and construct a new office building not to exceed 156,000 square feet, a new church building not more than 10,000 square feet, and a parking garage.
  • The redevelopment plan must go through DCPL’s normal review process, but DCPL may not oppose the plan, “directly or indirectly.”
  • DCPL also may not oppose ICG’s plans for an addition to 1600 K Street NW, provided certain height setbacks are incorporated.
  • Within three days after the start of demolition, Third Church must request the withdrawal of legislation proposed by Councilmembers Marion Barry and Jack Evans that would allow churches to exempt their buildings from landmarking, on the grounds of religious freedom. On top of that, Third Church may not “initiate or sponsor legislation concerning the issue of religious institutions’ rights as they relate to historic preservation practices for a term of 25 years,” unless an application for historic landmark status has been filed for another property owned or leased by Third Church.
  • Here’s the meat of the agreement: ICG will donate a flat $450,000 plus two bucks for every square foot ICG ends up building, which comes out to a maximum of $770,000, to a fund managed by DCPL. The group can take 20 percent of that amount as an administrative fee. According to a statement by the league, the fund will be used “to enhance citizens’ knowledge and understanding of modernist and religious architecture in Washington, and to provide grant funding for research, training, building rehabilitation (bricks and mortar), and other eligible projects.”

The settlement was met with surprise from some quarters in the preservation community, given that DCPL had fought so long and so hard to save the church, only to settle for a few hundred grand (the money part, at least, has precedent: DCPL got $450,000 out of Monument Realty in a case around Potomac Place in Southwest). DCPL itself could only issue this statement: “The terms of the settlement agreement are supported by the DC Preservation League and is a satisfactory resolution to the dispute among the parties.” That comports well with a provision in the settlement, which dictates that any party to speak about it publicly “shall express its full support for the terms of this settlement agreement, and shall generally represent that this settlement agreement is a fair and mutually satisfactory resolution to the dispute among the parties.”

DCPL’s reasoning is fairly easy to understand. If you can’t win the case outright, why not at least get what you can? If Evans does agree to withdraw his bill exempting churches from historic preservation, that’s an important win. And over half a million dollars for preservation, even if at least $100,000 goes to the DCPL’s overhead, isn’t peanuts either.

This isn’t the end to the Third Church saga: If it finally gets demolished, the new proposed church will have to be approved by the Historic Preservation Review Board. Considering the HPRB ordered that the church be preserved three years ago—and even though the church’s staunchest defender, Tersh Boasberg, has relinquished the chairmanship—it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the application for a replacement to be built on its ashes.

Read the settlement here:
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