A crumbling, centenarian church at the busy intersection of West Church Road and Davis Drive in Sterling is in its final days.
Repeated attempts to stop a developer’s plans to build a mini-warehouse self-storage facility on the property—including an 11th-hour appeal to the Board of Zoning Appeals claiming the developer did not give enough notice of a public hearing—have fallen flat. A deal that would have preserved the church’s façade and placed it in a pocket park on the corner of the property also has fallen through.
Instead, the developer, The Young Group, has said there will be benches, pavers, plantings, and an art installation in the pocket park, with a historical plaque and repurposed organ pipes. According to the developer, the county staff classified the façade as a structure, meaning the mini warehouse would have been reduced in size to meet lot coverage requirements. Instead of $5,000 in seed money for the park, The Young Group says it will contribute $25,000 to whichever group wants to take over maintenance of the park.
“We’re trying to be generous,” said Young Group president Robert Young. “In my community, in Falls Church, if I told folks that I was going to give them a pocket park with a little bit of art on it, they’d go nuts and say ‘you’re the most wonderful guy in the whole damn world.’”
Disassembling, moving, reassembling, and renovating the entire church, he said, would be enormously expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The whole thing is just ridiculous and impossible,” Young said. “For a building that’s been declared non-historic, for a building that’s in very, very bad physical condition—for a building where all the architecturally important things were taken away in the ’70s—what’s left?”
He also said an unannounced visit by some of the project’s opponents to the property owner’s home in Fairfax was unwelcome.
“I don’t understand, honestly, where these people are coming from,” Young said. “As far as I’m concerned, they didn’t deal in a straightforward way with us. They were pretending to negotiate while at the same time trying all kinds of tactics behind our back to kill the project.”
Debate over who should pay to save the church is at the heart of the argument. While Young said opponents to the self-storage facility haven’t raised any money to save the church, some of those same opponents say they were never given a chance.
Aaron Gilman is the chairman of the Sterling Foundation, which was the chief organization considered to take over maintenance of the pocket park. Gilman also serves as the Sterling representative on the comprehensive plan stakeholder steering committee. He said he’s only known about the project for six months, which he said isn’t enough time to fundraise.
“I honestly don’t know that they were ever going to do something, because we kept asking, what’s your budget for teardown, and they never had a budget,” Gilman said. “If you’re two months away, you’d think you’d have that number down pat.”
The Sterling Foundation rejected a contract from The Young Group to maintain the facility, Gilman said, because it made The Sterling Group responsible for the park for 25 years without indemnity.
“It wasn’t something I can accept on behalf of The Sterling Foundation,” Gilman said.
Whether the church is a Sterling historical landmark or a long-neglected run-down building, it will soon be gone.
“We gave it a shot,” Gilman said. “I think they’re going to plow it. It’s too bad, but that’s just the way the developer wants it, and he has the right to do what he should be able to do with his property. He did go through the right avenues, he did get the right approvals, it just hurts to see Sterling history getting torn down for a five story warehouse.”