Hill Rag Magazine – December 2019

Page 68

.capitol streets.

PRESERVING THE DISTRICT’S DISAPPEARING ‘SACRED SPACES’ Conservancy Group Works to Find Ways to Keep Institutions in Neighborhoods by Elizabeth O’Gorek Grace Church Condos at 9th and South Carolina Ave. SE was one of the first churches on the Hill to be converted to residential housing.


y 1982, the 250 African-American congregants of Faith Baptist Church recognized that the costs of maintaining the church at Ninth St. and North Carolina Ave. SE were becoming increasingly unsustainable. The roof was leaking, heating costs were skyrocketing, and a boiler had recently exploded. Realizing the upkeep was beyond their capacity, the church sold the building to be converted into condominiums in 1985. First Baptist was not the first church to meet this fate, and most certainly was not the last. Over the past 35 years, dozens of District churches have been sold to developers. This type of threat to churches, many historically black and a part of the District’s fabric for decades, is real and shows no signs of slowing. From 2008 to 2018, Ward 6 lost 47 out of 116 houses of worship; another seven were listed for sale. Only Ward 1 saw greater attrition in the same period. The data was collected by Sacred Spaces DC, a District-based not-for-profit that works to find collaborative solutions to maintain and preserve neighborhood institutions. Hill real estate agent Tim Barley founded the non-profit organization in 2017 as


he watched community gathering spaces fall into private hands. Now, the conservancy is working with congregations to find ways for churches to survive in the District for the next generation.

Sacred Spaces Executive Director Elizabeth Laird Courtesy Sacred Spaces DC

“Losing These Spaces So Quickly” Mapping these locations allows Sacred Spaces to track change over time, but also to understand where and why buildings are being lost and to help address ways to preserve them. Sacred Spaces helps congregations with revenue generation through partnerships with other religious and community-serving groups, to identify the needs of their aging buildings and, where necessary, to guide real estate transactions to the best outcomes for the church. “You’re losing these spaces so quickly,” said Sacred Spaces Executive Director Elizabeth Laird. “It seemed like this was something that nobody was doing anything about. We saw this hole, and we thought: ‘given our talents, I think there might be some valueadds that we can bring here’.” Sacred Spaces has a small and growing board composed of four members, all DC residents from the fields of real estate and non-profit management. “It’s been this really great marriage of these two worlds that hardly ever interact and yet are both desperately needed to address this problem,” said Laird, who has a background in non-profit management. Many of the lost places are historically African-American churches that, while sometimes small, play a large role in the lives of congregants, Laird said. “For many African American churches from early in our history, the church was one of the few properties that they were allowed to

own,” she said. “So, in that sense, it holds very heavy weight as a place that has defined a community of people who have been able to stake their claim in a city that was not always warm and welcoming to African American communities in particular.“ There are a variety of reasons why churches sell. There has been a decline in church attendance nationally over the past few decades. Many congregants have moved outside of the city, and churches follow, wanting to minister where their congregants are. Finally, even when churches want to remain in the city, the costs of maintenance and utilities become prohibitive. “They’re looking at it and saying, we want to be here, we want to continue, and yet reality is staring them right in the face,” Laird said.

Planning to Stay In the last year, Sacred Spaces Conservancy has worked with about 20 congregations in the District to develop a viable plan for the long-term stewardship of the property that will allow them to continue to serve the neighborhood. Sacred Spaces offers a Technical Advisory Panel, a group of pro-bono experts who do a cursory overview of the church prop-

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