Tenleytown resident Judy Chesser has been a vocal opponent of the proposed Sunrise retirement home on Alton Place since the plans were announced in September.
However, she understands why Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church, the owner and occupier of the property for the proposed senior center, is partnering with Sunrise for a new building on the site.
“[The pastor] is looking to finance his church,” Chesser said. “That’s perfectly legitimate. But that doesn’t mean the zoning rules shouldn’t apply. You can’t start bending zoning rules because of the financial situation of a church or business.
“It’s a four-story building in a neighborhood of two-story houses – essentially more than 100 residents over 60 in a residential neighborhood.”
Sunrise Senior Living is a for-profit corporation based in McLean that runs more than 300 facilities around the country. The proposed building would contain both housing for the elderly, as well as a new church.
The Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church has been located at three different sites in Tenleytown for a century. The current church, Sunday school and office face toward Alton Place and are bound by Nebraska Avenue to the east and Yuma Street to the south.
The Reverend Lynn Bergfalk has been pastor of the church since 2000. During an interview, he presented an old architectural drawing of the entire campus planned for the site at the time of its construction in 1954. A much larger and taller sanctuary than the existing one appears in the drawing, on the south side of the existing building. A shortage of funds meant the large church never got built and explains why much of the land is vacant.
“The building is obsolete,” he said. “It is not handicapped-accessible. We just spent $3,000 to get the heat working in a wing that houses an asylum seekers assistance program.
“The church has a very valuable property, but not liquid assets. The question is how to use our assets to secure a new facility. This project [with Sunrise] would give the church a new, paid-for facility. It would empower the church to focus on the community, to provide a spiritual foundation for lives, and to serve the human needs within the community. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the church.”
In 2000, the same year Bergfalk became pastor at the church, he also founded – and still runs – Citygate, a ministry that serves low-income minority children in Wards 7 and 8 in Southeast D.C. It consists primarily of after school-programs and summer camps for children in struggling public schools. According to Bergfalk, its goal is to close the achievement gap and ensure on-time grade progression for the youngsters who participate.
City Gate serves about 300 children and their families, according to Bergfalk, and has an annual budget of $650,000. He described the church and City Gate as “partners,” but said the ministry is a separate 501(3)C.
“City Gate is a part of the DNA of the church,” he said. “City Gate is the vehicle that allows the church to be engaged in a significant way in the needs of the community.”
Bergfalk said in addition to a new physical home for his congregation, Sunrise would provide an endowment.
“The compensation is a new building and a certain amount of cash,” he said. “We will have funds for ministry purposes.”
Bergfalk said the congregation usually numbers around 40 worshippers on Sundays. A separate Filipino congregation also meets in the building.
The proposed building was the object of heated debate at the Dec. 14 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Tenleytown, Friendship Heights).
“You don’t expect a neighbor to drill a 60-foot bore hole,” said John Allen-Gifford, one of several residents along 39th Street whose houses are immediately adjacent to the property. “You don’t expect a neighbor to build a parking garage with a 12-foot drop-off next to your house.”
Another 39th Street neighbor, Gohar Sedighi, said she attended the meeting to share a mother’s perspective. She has a 1-year-old child, and said she dreads the prospect of two years of construction and increased traffic.
“I’m really worried about how this will affect our children,” Sedighi said. “I live 10 feet away [from the proposed construction]. My daughter won’t be able to play outside. I hope this doesn’t go through.”
At the ANC meeting, Philip Kroskin, an official with the Sunrise corporation, described reductions in the size of the proposed building in response to earlier feedback received from residents.
“We have lost 9,000 square feet and nine units by the reduction,” Kroskin said.
He said the lot occupancy has been cut from 69 to 63 percent. Zoning for churches in the District allows a 60 percent lot occupancy, whereas for businesses it is 40.
The initial round of reductions made last year would give it 80,000 square feet. Of that, the church congregation would occupy 13,000 square feet. The new facility would also include an underground parking garage with 54 spaces.
Kroskin told ANC members and others at the meeting that the parking garage ramp has been moved farther away from the houses on 39th Street. But, in response to a question from Sedighi, he said the building itself has moved eight feet closer to her property.
The day following the meeting, Chesser commented on this exchange in an email.
“I think the big headline from last night – the ‘light your hair on fire’ moment – was Kroskin saying that Sunrise has moved the building eight feet closer to the houses that face 39th Street – the houses that share a property line with the development property. He had recognized the families living in those houses deserve better treatment when Sunrise acknowledged, on their website, the need for the greatest buffer from the houses on 39th Street.”
In an interview, Kroskin said the side of the new building that will be closer to the 39th Street houses is smaller than originally proposed.
“While we moved it, we also removed a significant portion at the rear of the property,” Kroskin said. “We got rid of the enormous proportion of the rear of the building.”
In a subsequent email, Kroskin said the building as now designed “presents a 40 percent smaller facade to those neighbors” than previously.
Asked if Sunrise has made additional changes to the design since the December ANC 3E meeting, Kroskin said his design team is still at work.
“The community and ANC have asked for additional reductions on lot coverage,” he said. “My expectation is that there will be another change in the building.
“We’re shooting for less than 60 percent lot coverage.”
Kroskin also described the specific kind of care that will be offered at the facility. He said more than 50 percent of the building will be memory care-focussed, to accommodate the needs of those with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
At the ANC meeting, Kroskin noted that more than 5,000 senior citizens live within a three-mile radius of the Alton Place property. He characterized the neighborhood as “a desert of assisted living.” Part of the rationale for locating such a facility in Tenleytown, Kroskin said, is to allow a certain degree of aging in place.
Kroskin said the senior center would have 90 residential units, some singles and some doubles, with a maximum capacity of 105. The average age of residents at other Sunrise facilities is 87.
Jennifer Clark, another Sunrise official, said the development would be a resource for area families.
“We’re talking about a home, a senior living community, not just a building,” Clark said.
One topic of discussion at the commission meeting and since has been what will happen on the church’s property if the Sunrise project is stymied. A congregation wealthier than the Baptists there now could buy the site and undertake construction of a new building that would not require approval by the District’s zoning board.
“The status quo is not going to stay,” said one member of the audience at the meeting. “Another church will develop the property up to the maximum, 60 percent and 60 feet.”
Bergfalk confirmed that Wisconsin Avenue Baptist would have to look for other options.
“If this is not approved, you have to look at plan B or plan C,” he said. “At the ANC meeting, a broker present said there are deep-pocketed religious institutions that would love to have a site like this. They could build ‘by right’ a building at least as large or larger than the Sunrise development.”
The members of the commission also expressed views about the project at the December meeting.
Chairman Jonathan Bender said he has experienced the last stages of the seven ages of man in his own family.
“It’s grim getting old. Assisted living is an important use. You have that on your side,” Bender said, addressing the Sunrise officials present.
On Jan. 29, Commissioner Greg Ehrhardt described the official status of the project now.
“It’s up to Sunrise to reach back out to us when they want to get back on our [ANC] agenda. The proposed plan still gives people pause – whose zoning should be used? The ball is in the developer’s court.”
Both Sunrise and opponents of the development have websites about the project. A pro-project website can be viewed at sunriseseniorliving.com/tenleytowndevelopment.aspx, while one against the site can be seen at sunrisewrongsite.com