By Erich Wagner
Members of the Board of Architectural Review for the city’s Old and Historic District praised revisions to the proposed expansion of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church, but encouraged architects to continue exploring ways to make it more porous and reflective of the surrounding neighborhood.
Representatives of Kerns Group Architects returned to the body last week with a tweaked plan to expand the historic black church, established in 1803 and located at 313 S. Alfred St. since 1818, to add a new 2,000-seat sanctuary, an office building and an underground parking garage, encompassing an entire block.
Foremost among the changes are plans to make the transitions between building segments a transparent glass, rather than brick, in an attempt to visually break up the structure.
Board members approved the concept plan for the project last November, but they encouraged church leaders and the architects to update the design to make it more porous, using alleys, courtyards or other features to break up the building visually.
Although members were broadly complementary of the progress, residents said more needs to be done for the project to fit in the neighborhood.
“This massive office and institutional complex … with the monumental traffic and parking problems it would entail, would be detrimental to and not enrich the quality of life of city residents, whether it’s those who live here 365 days a year, or those who live in the whole area surrounding this church,” said resident Al Pierce. “One can easily expect that such a massive facility with such a huge number of cars it would attract seven days a week would not maintain and increase property values, but will have severe adverse impacts on them.”
Pierce and others asked for data-based analysis of whether the project’s mass and scale fit in with surrounding blocks, which they said had not been adequately conveyed by staff.
“Even with the latest design revision, it remains a single massive structure encompassing an entire city block,” said neighbor Peter Glaser. “To be ignored on this, on such a fundamental point, frankly, shocked us. We also do not understand how the board can possibly even preliminarily approve a building whose mass and scale is so disproportionate to the town homes the church will raze and the historic structures in the surrounding neighborhood.”
Glaser drilled into the question of porosity, and argued glass did not adequately do the job.
“It’s obvious that the changes the architect has now made do not add alleys and courtyards
that are typical of an Old Town block,” he said. “[It’s] virtual porosity, because these large windows allow you to look into the interior building. But looking into a building is nothing like having a real alley breaking up the building’s mass.”
Resident Stephen Malone, who serves on the board of the Old Town Civic Association, offered the architects and board members a drawing of how the different sections of the projects could be broken up by an alleyway.
“I’ve given you a map that illustrates what others have said: it could be broken up and become a complex instead of a single building,” Malone said. “Breaking it up like this, the [historic building] is still a traditional church; it has a prominent entrance on Wolfe Street, and it allows entries for loading and unloading within the sites. The office building is nearly the same size, but meets the setback of the existing townhouses.”
BAR members praised the progress in the revised design, but encouraged the architects to continue to explore breaking up the building.
“I think it has improved from the last iteration, although I do agree with some of the speakers about the massiveness as we go around the building,” said board member Christine Roberts. “[I] really have a problem though with reviewing the whole structure coming to Wolfe Street. It seems that there’s just too much mass there.
“If there were an alley, and entries and exits oriented toward the inside of the campus rather than outside on Wolfe, that might alleviate some of the concerns about the flow and it would add porosity on this side.”
Board member Margaret Miller specifically suggested the architects explore Malone’s alley idea.
“In general I support the direction it is going in, but I am very mindful of the porosity issue that was brought up again this evening and why we’re considering glass vs. alleys or pathways,” she said. “Although I do think you’ve made improvements, I do think this drawing Mr. Malone brought was interesting, and I would ask you to address that in your next presentation to us.”
Board members did not take a formal vote on the new plan, and according to the meeting’s minutes, the issue was deferred for “restudy.”