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Washington Stage Guild relocation deal in limbo

(Published November 29, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Both historic preservationists and downtown arts advocates scored a major victory with the city’s recent rejection of plans by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to replace the last working artists’ studios downtown with an 11-story office building.

While church officials decide whether to appeal the decision, a bigger loser in the case may turn out to be the Washington Stage Guild. The theater group was forced from its home of 13 years and may not get compensated – as originally planned -- for its relocation.

Administrative Law Judge Rohulamin Quander, acting as the mayor’s agent for historic preservation, on Nov. 10 rejected every argument the church and its lawyer made to justify demolishing all but the facades of seven historic buildings it owns in the 900 block of F Street NW. The Common Denominator first reported the church’s plans on May 31.

The archdiocese had applied for a special merit exception from historic preservation rules, arguing that the new building would be leased to pay for consolidating Catholic Charities in the historic Carroll Hall and letting the nonprofit umbrella organization occupy it rent-free.

Washington Stage Guild had signed an agreement with The John Akridge Companies, which was to build the new offices for the church, that would have paid the guild $200,000 for moving out of Carroll Hall. That agreement, however, was only good if the project received approval.

The stage troupe has since moved out of its home and into temporary residence at Source Theater on 14th Street NW. Director John MacDonald said the relocation hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.

Despite having to store its props, costumes and other stage equipment in three separate locations, sharing Source Theater has not hurt this season’s attendance, he said.

"It would be more beneficial to have this arrangement with $200,000 in the bank," MacDonald said. He said he doesn’t know if the developer will still honor its pledge.

Church officials have until Dec. 3 to appeal the ruling, but a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said no decision on an appeal has been made.

"Obviously the decision is a disappointment because the project was going to help pay for services for the poor," spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said.

Michael Berman, head of the Downtown Arts Coalition, which opposed the project, said none of the 15 or so artists in the buildings has moved out. But he said he and others are still looking for new studio space because they don’t know what the church plans to do next with its buildings.

If the church doesn’t appeal the ruling, it would have to wait at least a year before filing the same proposal or a similar one.

Quander’s ruling extended "historic protection" to a variety of aspects of what is the last block of Washington’s turn-of-the-century business district. He ruled that historic preservation should go beyond just preserving the facades of the buildings by also preserving the low height and low commercial density of the block. He also ruled that eliminating the last working artist studios in downtown would be contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan that designated the area as an arts district.

Quander also ruled that the church failed to prove any "special merit" should be granted to the project just because the new office building would help pay for Catholic Charities to move in next door.

Possibly one of the most damaging pieces of testimony for the "special merit" aspect of the church’s case came when an archdiocesan representative acknowledged at a May 25 hearing that the Carroll Hall project was not dependent on the income from the proposed office building. He said the move would proceed even if the project were rejected.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator