BAR backs Alfred Street Baptist Church concept

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BAR backs Alfred Street Baptist Church concept
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The Board of Architectural Review for the city’s Old and Historic District endorsed the concept plan for the expanded Alfred Street Baptist Church at its meeting last week.

Board members were tasked with examining the height, scale, mass and general architectural character of the church’s proposal to grow and take up the city block bounded by South Alfred, Duke, Wolfe and South Patrick streets.

As part of the BAR’s endorsement, the Kerns Group Architects were encouraged to continue exploring making the proposed structure more porous, with alleys, courtyards or other features. Multiple board members raised concerns that the current plan does not adequately break up the structure.

“I’d love a feeling of accessibility by the neighbors, by the town, to the block itself,” said board member Christine Roberts.

“Often in Old Town when you see a block, there are little alleys or horse alleys or side yards,” said BAR member Robert Adams. “When we’ve seen in-fill buildings since the 1970s, that’s one thing they’re missing.”

Alfred Street Baptist Church was founded in 1803 and has been located at 313 S. Alfred St. since 1818, on property that was initially rented by members of the Colored Baptist Society of Alexandria and then purchased in 1842.

Its proposal to expand would add a new sanctuary with more than 2,000 seats as well as more space for programming needs, classrooms, offices, rehearsal space and meeting rooms. As part of the project, a two-story parking garage with just over 200 spaces would be built underground. The plan also would construct a steeple that faces South Patrick Street, and demolish 22 nearby townhomes.

Church pastor Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley said the expansion would allow the church of more than 7,000 members to expand its outreach work in the community, something that is already a key part of its mission.

“Obviously other churches and organizations do well by the residents of Alexandria,” he said. “But you’d be hard-pressed to find any that do more or desire to do more than Alfred Street Baptist Church.”

But neighbors raised concerns about the scale and height of the project on what is a two-acre site. Several of those who testified said the proposal would be far better on a larger plot of land, and that it does not fit in that area of the Old and Historic District, which is primarily residential in nature.

“Today, Alfred Street is a residential street that has a church,” said resident Joe Clancy. “The expansion proposed does not consider or relate to the homes in the street, and as a consequence its size would overwhelm and diminish them.”

“Is it an appropriate thing to accept this amount of mass and scale in order to allow the church to have 10 rooms for the choir to practice in, in order to have a daycare center, in order to have a bookstore, in order to have a cafe?” said Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association. “I would suggest that is not an appropriate expansion of an institutional use, which I agree is permitted in a residential area.”

Resident Michael Leonard gave a brief presentation in which he explained that the church’s size would dwarf that of City Hall, the city courthouse and the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, and said the scale of the project is “unprecedented.”

But board members agreed with Mary Catherine Gibbs, the attorney for the applicant, who noted that the proposal is within the limits of height and floor area ratio guidelines and will remain an acceptable use for the townhome zone in which the church sits.

Board member Kelly Mechlin said that the church should stand out from the nearby townhomes, a view she said was likely in the “minority.”

“I think you’re doing a disservice to the history of ASBC by trying to mimic the townhomes across the street,” she said. “[The] history is important, and these important historic sites should maintain the integrity of what they are.”

The proposed steeple also received praise from the BAR, with members saying it could serve as a strong entryway for the city as motorists and other traffic proceed north on South Patrick Street — U.S. Route 1 — into Old Town.

Board member Margaret Miller acknowledged the concerns of the neighbors about the project’s size, but said its evolution over the past two years has been effective and with continued refinement it will fit well into the neighborhood, she told the architects.

“When I first looked at it, I thought this is too large, so to that extent I am of the mindset of some of the residents that are concerned,” she said. “But as I studied what has been done to it, I think that you’re heading in the right direction.”

According to a memo by city staff, the development site plan for the project could be heard and debated by the planning commission and city council next spring or summer. If approved, the project would then return to the BAR for a certificate of appropriateness and a permit to demolish.

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