St. Thomas’ Parish Episcopal Church in Dupont Circle, which is considered one of the city’s most LGBT supportive religious institutions, could be forced into bankruptcy following a D.C. government order halting construction of its new church and an adjoining residential building, according to Rev. Alex Dyer, a gay priest who leads the church.
Dyer said the church faces a financial crisis as a result of a decision by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to issue on April 23 a “stop work” order on the construction of the parish’s new church building and an adjoining 56 apartment residential building.
The DCRA says it issued the stop work order in response to a ruling by the D.C. Court of Appeals vacating a zoning variance awarded to the church by the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment. The court, in siding with an appeal opposing the building project filed by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, ruled that the Board of Zoning Adjustment failed to provide sufficient justification for awarding the zoning variance.
The court ruling says the variance could be reissued at a later date if the Board of Zoning Adjustment provides a better legal rationale to justify it.
Attorneys representing the church and CAS Riegler development company have argued in a motion asking the court for a stay on the stop work order that the court ruling did not require DCRA to issue the stop order and the order was a mistake that will cause irreparable harm to the church.
The church entered into a partnership with CAS Riegler in which it sold two-thirds of its property at 18th and Church Streets, N.W. as part of a joint project with the developer. Under the arrangement, the property sale and construction of a seven-story apartment building would pay the costs for building the new church, which the parish could not afford on its own, Dyer told the Washington Blade.
St. Thomas’ Parish has occupied that site for more than 120 years. Its original church building was destroyed by fire in 1970 in an incident that authorities listed as arson. After years of struggling to raise the funds needed to rebuild the church, while holding its worship services in what had been the church rectory, St. Thomas’ 250-member congregation was looking forward to moving into the new church building in March 2019, when it was scheduled for completion, Dyer said.
Lyle Blanchard, the church’s attorney, said he and attorneys for the developer believe they have an excellent chance of persuading the court to reverse its decision to vacate the zoning variance on appeal. But Blanchard and Dyer said the appeal process could take months to wind its way through the court, forcing St. Thomas’ Parish to continue to foot the bill for the construction crew and equipment, including the rental of a crane.
Dyer said the only means he sees to avoid bankruptcy is for the court to agree to the church and developer’s motion for a stay on the stop work order while the appeal wends its way through the court.
“This has created a serious financial strain on our church,” said Dyer. “We are losing thousands of dollars a day for the construction crew that still needs to be paid,” he said, along with the rental fee for the crane.
Dupont Circle Citizens Association President Robin Diener, one of the lead opponents of the church-apartment building project, has said the project was too large and its modern design is out of character with the neighborhood that consists mostly of Victorian era town houses.
“The order to stop construction until a valid variance is obtained is totally consistent with law and regulation, and should have been anticipated by the developer and church,” the DCCA said in a statement. “It is a direct result of their decision to proceed with construction ‘at risk’ during the pendency of the appeal,” the statement says.
“Had the developer and church awaited the court’s decision before proceeding, the community would not have been placed in this situation,” the DCCA statement says.
In a separate statement, Dyer said the church and its supporters have worked with the neighboring community during the entire process of planning for the construction, with many in the community supporting the project.
It is “truly shocking that our church is being targeted by the DCRA and a small group of citizens, who I have tried to work with on many occasion,” his statement says. “A vacant construction site benefits no one. We love Dupont Circle and this city,” he continued. “All St. Thomas’ Parish desires is to use its resources to make this city and this world a better place.”
In their court motion for a stay on the stop work order, the church and the developer point out that the existing zoning law allows the church to build on 80 percent of the lot that makes up the church’s long held property. In order for the joint project to work financially they needed slightly more than 86 percent of the land for the two buildings – just over 6 percent more than what would be allowed under the zoning law.
Dyer also points out that the apartment building is narrower in its upper floors, which places the overall impact of the building on a smaller scale than the first and second floors.
Meanwhile, with the beams and outer walls of the apartment building already built to its full seven stories in height and the first two floors of the church’s planned four floors already built, most observers don’t believe the city or the neighbors would support demolishing the partially completed buildings or leaving the site as it is.
According to Dyer, the church very much wants to negotiate a settlement with the Dupont Circle Citizens Association that would allow the project to be completed. He said that with the church’s full approval, the developer has reached out to the DCCA with an offer of financial support for neighborhood improvements.
“It was a very generous offer,” he said. “But many neighbors I talked to did not know about that.”
Among the longtime supporters of the church building project is nationally recognized Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who’s gay and who now lives in D.C.