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150-Year-Old Downtown D.C. Church Looks To Build Multifamily Next Door

A historic landmark church along Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of D.C. is looking to undertake a major restoration that would include developing a nearly 40-unit apartment building on land it owns next door.

Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes at 1215 Massachusetts Ave. NW

The Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes at 1215 Massachusetts Ave. NW has enlisted DAKS Development for the project and Mellon Historic Preservation Consultants as an adviser, according to documents filed with the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board this week.

The apartment building is a key piece of the renovation project by the Episcopal church that was founded in 1874 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

For the multifamily component, the church plans to incorporate the two townhomes it owns next door, at 1217 and 1219 Massachusetts Ave., into an eight-story multifamily building with amenity spaces and units ranging from 370 to 539 SF, and a handful in the 700 to 800 SF range. The church's website, which outlines part of the restoration project, says the development will "provide a steady stream of future income."

"The interior layout and unit mix are still being studied and will be influenced by the results of the HPRB process," DAKS Development principal Dennis Anderson said in an email. "For now, we are focusing our efforts there."

The proposal also seeks to transform its chapel into a three-story complex holding a parish center, housing administrative offices and gathering spaces. The church is asking the HPRB to renovate its landmarked main building to meet code requirements and add sustainability-focused infrastructure, according to the church’s website, which describes the project as a "much-needed restoration."

The church, designed by Baltimore architectural firm Dixon & Carson and completed in 1875, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, according to D.C.'s inventory of historic sites. The inventory describes the building as an "excellent and well-preserved example of High Victorian Gothic design," highlighting its white marble facades with sandstone trim, lancet windows and its 187-foot main spire. It served as the seat of the Episcopal bishop before the construction of the National Cathedral.

Rendering of the proposed eight-story multifamily building next door to the church

There’s been a local uptick in churches turning underutilized or empty land into housing, resulting from a combination of declining church membership over the last decade, a trend made worse by the pandemic, and the prime locations these places of worship own in city centers where developable land is scarce. 

In March 2022, the D.C. government partnered with nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners to create a program through which faith-based institutions can get assistance and funding to developing affordable housing on their properties.

In a call last December for faith-based institutions to participate in the programMayor Muriel Bowser’s office pointed to an estimate from the Urban Institute that faith-based institutions own approximately 450 vacant parcels in D.C., which could assist with producing 6,000 to 29,000 new homes.  

Bowser’s administration put up $1M for the grant program, a Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson told Bisnow at the time. Enterprise Community Partners provides development consulting, organizational assessments, zoning application assistance and peer-to-peer learning sessions and matches D.C. to fund pre-development grants up to $70K. 

The Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes declined to comment on the project. Anderson didn't say if the new housing would be affordable or market-rate. The site is zoned for high-density housing with limited commercial use on or below the ground floor.