Dispute with local church delays Hillel building construction

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Hatchet Photographer

One year after a renovated Hillel building was slated to open, construction has not begun.

A year after Hillel at GW’s renovated center was due to open, the 30-year-old building remains unchanged.

Hillel at GW and a local church have argued for nearly three years over whether Hillel at GW could tear down and modernize their building – most recently with a suit in the D.C. Court of Appeals filed in May 2016. But the dispute has put renovations for the group’s building at the corner of H and 23rd streets on hold, forcing students to hold events in temporary locations around campus.

For at least nine years, GW Hillel has planned multimillion-dollar renovations on its building.

Hillel at GW filed an application with the D.C. Zoning Commission for the project in March 2014, and that was later combined with a GW application to amend the campus plan.

The student organization moved out of the space in 2014 and into the University Honors Program townhouse in preparation for the construction. They stayed there for two years before relocating again in November to 2101 F St. in a shared space with the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Naval Science Supply and the College of Professional Studies

In November 2015, the D.C. Zoning Commission decided Hillel could continue with the project despite attempts by the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the West End Citizens Association to convince it otherwise. St. Mary’s and WECA then went to the Court of Appeals to file a suit against the zoning commission and Hillel, continuing the conflict. For now, leaders of all parties will wait to see what the court decides in the coming months.

But leaders at St. Mary’s on 23rd Street and members of WECA say the renovations would damage the 150-year old church building and do not want any construction on the Hillel at GW building that could harm the landmark.

“St. Mary’s aging, historic buildings are unquestionably quite vulnerable to the risk of construction,” according to the St. Mary’s and WECA’s appeal brief.

WECA and St. Mary’s members were concerned about rebuilding because the construction on the Lerner Health and Wellness Center that began in 2013 damaged the church, which caused an archway to fall, closing the church’s sanctuary for three years, St. Mary’s and WECA’s appeal brief said.

“We are primarily concerned about irreparable damage to the foundation and structure of the historic buildings complex due to the utterly inappropriate request for 100 percent lot occupancy,” Barbara Kahlow, a WECA leader, said at the zoning hearing.

But Hillel at GW officials dispute those accusations, saying that they will take “proactive steps to prevent damage” and if the church is damaged, they will “make sure it is repaired,” David Avitable, Hillel’s attorney, said at a zoning commission hearing in June 2014.

Avitable deferred to Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, the executive director of GW Hillel, for comment, who declined saying Hillel at GW is “not at liberty” to discuss the construction because of the open case.

Kaiser-Blueth said at the hearing that the church cannot argue that it deserves a building more than GW Hillel, and GW Hillel needs to prepare for a growing population.

“We absolutely agree that the physical building in which the congregation worships is critically important, and Hillel’s congregation is just as entitled to its own jewel,” he said.

Reverend Brandon Anderson at St. Mary’s declined to comment on the disagreements or case but said the church supports GW’s students. WECA members, including Barbara Kahlow and Sarah Maddux, who argued the case at the 2014 hearing, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The new building would have four above-ground levels – compared to the current building’s two – and the University would lease the top two levels solely for student life and academic purposes, according to the D.C. Zoning Commission decision.

St. Mary’s and WECA said in their September appeal brief that GW Hillel did not have an “institutional need” to rebuild the center owned by Hillel International. The organization can operate fully to its number of students in the current space because Kaiser-Blueth said they have never turned away students at Friday night services, the appeal read.

“If affirmed, it would be open-season for the myriad organizations in the District of Columbia that clothe themselves in the mantle of public service to re-evaluate possible on-site renovation or redevelopment plans for their zone – complaint properties,” according to the appeal.

Santiago Mendoza and Asha McCorvey contributing reporting.

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