St. Joseph’s leadership wary of redevelopment project

By Anna Harris (Image/City of Alexandria)

Though leaders of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church got major concessions from the company behind a nearby redevelopment project, concerns about the undertaking remain alive and well.

Mahmood Investment Corp. plans to raze the Travelodge motel at 700 N. Washington St. and an adjacent two-story townhouse, replacing them with a mixed-use development.

From the start, the plan posed a potential headache for parishioners at the neighboring church. The original design threatened to cast a shadow upon the house of worship, preventing sunlight from shining through the stained glass windows.

“Stained glass needs the light to have the effect,” said the Rev. Donald M. Fest. “Otherwise, you might as well just put in regular windows.”

After Fest raised his concerns, Mahmood retooled the blueprints. The resulting design — which earned City Hall’s approval last month — is significantly different from the original proposal, said attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs, who represents Mahmood.

“The original proposal was bigger than the building that was approved,” she said. “They moved the building away from the property line and stepped it back. And the highest point is in the middle now, not the sides.”

After reviewing the changes in September, Fest sent a letter of support to city officials. But the church’s other concerns about the project likely will go unresolved for the time being.

Lighting aside, Fest worries increased activity at the intersection corner will make finding on-street parking difficult for the church’s out-of-neighborhood members and visitors. Under pressure from other redevelopment projects, many have been forced out of the city over the years, Fest said.

While the project received a parking reduction — basically, officials waived a portion of the required spaces for approval — Mahmood has incorporated an underground garage in its design.

But that’s not Fest’s sole remaining concern. He worries that demolition of the motel and residential buildings at the site — not to mention the digging and drilling needed to complete the project — will undermine his church’s foundation, which was laid in 1915.

“Basically, our concern is when they’re doing the digging and foundation work … it [will] disturb our own foundation,” Fest said. “With the vibration and whatever else that takes place and the moving of earth and what have you, [we hope] that it doesn’t affect our own foundation or cause a shift and cracks.”

Despite knowledge of these potential problems, church leaders have no plans to take pre-emptive action.

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