The spurt of development that has brought busy cranes to Washington’s Southwest Waterfront meant a windfall for some of the neighborhood’s most steadfast fixtures: its churches.
At Riverside Baptist Church, a modest congregation of 125 people realized it was sitting on a plot of land in high demand. St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, just down Maine Avenue SW, sensed opportunity. So did St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, right next door.
Each church struck their own deal with the developers remaking this historically quiet zone where the Washington Channel juts inland — exchanging portions of their property for big payouts and new church buildings. Now, these three cornerstones of the old Southwest community face the challenge of adjusting not just to their new footprints, but to the drastically changing neighborhood that they might draw new churchgoers from.
“The resuscitation — you could say renaissance maybe, even — of these churches is pretty remarkable in this community,” said Michael Bledsoe, the pastor at Riverside.
Riverside sold part of its property to PN Hoffman, the developer creating a zone along the waterfront that it is calling the Wharf — apartment buildings, offices, 20 restaurants, even a concert space.
The church invested much of the proceeds in a new building that will cost millions of dollars, and used the rest to create the church’s first endowment. “It takes enormous courage to tell a congregation they’re going to knock the building down,” Bledsoe said. “You’ve performed these sacred rites of marriage and burial and baptism and birth. All these things take place. To say it’s a sacred space is not an exaggeration.”
Riverside traces its roots back to a Southwest Washington church founded in 1857. Before the urban renewal project that tore up much of the District’s smallest quadrant in the 1950s and ’60s, it had a thousand members. Today’s congregation, little more than a tenth of the size of that one, is racially diverse, committed to progressive causes and anticipating a change in the neighborhood as more affluent, and more white, newcomers take up residence in the many new apartment buildings opening up and those still under construction.
“I don’t know what the impact of gentrification is going to be. It’s possible we’ll see more white folks showing up,” Bledsoe said. “We welcome everyone. The demographic forces are kind of beyond me.”
Riverside just began demolition on its old building and won’t move into the new one until late 2018. St. Matthew’s, which was demolished back in 2008 after striking a deal with Trammell Crow Company, will finally reopen around the same time in a new church building — now part of a 221-unit apartment complex.
St. Augustine’s is much farther along that process: It began holding services in its glass-fronted new building, where construction is nearing completion, in late November.
Gazing out the huge window of her office in the brand-new building, the Rev. Martha Clark speculated about what she’ll be able to see, when the cranes go away someday. Her prime view of the water will probably be blocked by the forest of buildings that PN Hoffman is putting up. But Clark will still have the Washington Monument in her sights. And from the church’s second-floor sanctuary, whose entire front wall is made of windows stretching about 40 feet high at their peak, congregants will look out on both Washington and Jefferson’s memorials.
St. Augustine’s sanctuary is going to be the place to be when the fireworks go off on the Fourth of July and the Cherry Blossom Festival, Clark joked as she surveyed the new sanctuary.
The challenge now is making it the place to be the rest of the year too.
It’s a tiny congregation, with only about 65 members for this new $7 million building, and it needs to grow quickly to maintain this facility. Clark is convinced that it can at least double in membership in the near future, drawing from the new neighbors in the condo building that PN Hoffman built on the portion of the church’s property that it purchased — who are already starting to drop in for Sunday services
She also counts on new church seekers among the many District residents anxious about change under President Trump. “With the shift in our national experience, this transition time, people are looking to the church to kind of be a place of vision and hope,” she said.
Monty Hoffman, chief executive of PN Hoffman, said he was glad his company seized the opportunity to “extract value from the land” that the churches were sitting on, as PN Hoffman crafts its new cityscape on the waterfront. And he’s glad the churches, rather than being priced out of Southwest Washington, will stay there as neighborhood institutions.
“We’re building a community. The churches are an essential part of that,” Hoffman said. “If this just seemed like an office park with residential, or a ‘lifestyle zone,’ it would be hollow.”
He said he has been grateful to get to know the churches’ boards, including members with deep roots in the Southwest community. “It helps give this back story to some of the history here, going forward. It’s pretty fulfilling to have that reemerge and take a significant role in the future of the community.”
Bledsoe agreed with the value of having a church on the corner: “It kind of brings a human stature or level to what almost looks like a canyon of buildings.”
His church already inked the deal, sold its land, and made millions. But now comes the most joyful part, for his quiet waterfront church — giving a small portion of the money away.
“It’s an exquisite feeling,” Bledsoe said. At a meeting in a middle school because the Riverside building is being demolished right now, churchgoers presented checks totaling $100,000 last Sundayto more than two dozen nonprofit organizations.
This progressive church — which Bledsoe said has ordained women, since the 1970s, unlike many Baptist churches, and left the Southern Baptist Convention because of that group’s opposition to homosexuality in the early 1990s — took pride in picking out causes to support, now that it has the money to give. Some of its choices: the Gay Christian Network, the local Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, and Casa Ruby for homeless LGBT youths.
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