Our View: Historic Alfred Street church sits at a crossroads

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Architects behind the planned expansion of the Alfred Street Baptist Church suggested using glass to break up the structures at a meeting last week.

(Image/City of Alexandria)

The Alfred Street Baptist Church is one of the most important institutions in the city of Alexandria. Formed in 1803, the church has been at its current location — 313 S. Alfred Street — for 199 years.

Through slavery and reconstruction, through Jim Crow and segregation, through the civil rights era and the Black Lives Matter movement, Alfred Street has been a pillar, a shelter and a beacon to its mostly black congregation and Alexandria at large.

Under the guidance of its dynamic pastor, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley — only the eighth head minister in the church’s long history — Alfred Street has grown to more than 7,000 members with 80 active ministries. Among other initiatives, the church maintains a food pantry, operates a jail and prison ministry, provides college scholarships, runs social justice programs and is raising money to buy water for residents of Flint, Mich.

This is a church with a historic past, a meaningful present and an exciting future.

Success and growth, however, can lead to challenges, and Alfred Street is at a literal and figurative crossroads. The church has outgrown its current facilities and seeks to expand at its current address. Unfortunately, its location at the corner of U.S. Route 1 and Duke Street, arguably the busiest intersection in Old Town, makes in-place expansion difficult.

The church has enlisted the respected Kerns Group Architects, which has shepherded other area churches through expansions, to design a huge compound complete with a 2,000-seat sanctuary. The original design was a whole block monolith that was met with outrage by neighbors.

The architects tweaked the initial design and brought it back before Alexandria’s Board of Architectural Review for the Old and Historic District last week. While the revamp includes some visually appealing elements like additional glass, it doesn’t significantly alter the scope of the project. The BAR was right to defer the proposal.

It is true that NIMBYism is alive and well in Alexandria, but in our opinion opposing a project of this size at this location does not fall into that category. The real elephant in the room is the reality that the historic Alfred Street location is not the right spot for a project of anywhere near this magnitude. And more minor tweaks are not going to solve the problem.

Interestingly, there is a precedent for the dilemma Alfred Street now faces. Another significant Baptist church outgrew its historic Old Town location in the 1950s. Rather than limit its offerings or attempt to expand in a cramped setting, First Baptist Church relocated to a large, suburban campus at 2932 King Street.

First Baptist Church was able to expand its membership and ministries by building a bigger facility that was appropriate to its neighborhood, while a smaller group of parishioners remained behind and launched the Downtown Baptist Church in 1954.

A similar path is the most logical for Alfred Street Baptist Church. It would be a shame for the church to limit the size of its campus — and thus the scope of its ministries — by shrinking the proposed footprint to the level appropriate for its current location. And yet anything close to the existing proposal is simply too massive for Old Town.

Surely there is a location elsewhere in Alexandria, maybe in the Eisenhower Valley corridor, that would be suitable for the type of campus Wesley and his congregation want and need. The historic church could remain on Alfred Street and part of the existing church property could be sold to fund the new campus.

Alfred Street Baptist Church has faithfully ministered to city residents for more than two centuries. Whether it decides on a reduced footprint in Old Town or a larger campus nearby, it will continue to be one of Alexandria’s treasures.

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