The new Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Rosemont may take up to another year to complete, but the church’s regional building committee has promised to be more communicative with the public on the building’s progress.
Concerned residents, city staff, church members and officials from the Jehovah’s Witness regional building committee met Wednesday night at Alexandria’s Durant Center to discuss construction of the new church on the corner of E. Masonic View and Commonwealth avenues.
Members of the building committee explained that there have been setbacks with the project, mainly delays in working with utility companies and uncertainty with the in-ground work on the site. Several committee members said there have been problems installing helical piers deep into the ground to support the structure.
City staff explained that the builders have done everything that has been asked of them in regards to permits, soil and drain protection and are following state building code.
That assessment didn’t comfort many of the assembled residents, who claimed to have seen little work done to the site and expressed their exasperation with the slow pace of the project.
The large lot, which sits between E. Masonic View Avenue and E. Myrtle Street along Commonwealth Avenue, is surrounded by multiple chain-link fences to protect the site and a city storm drain. Residents said the construction equipment, storage truck, piles of soil and a turquoise Jiffy John make the lot an eyesore.
“In May of 2010, the church delivered a letter to its neighbors stating that the project would be completed by December of 2010,” Myrtle Street resident Patrick Donovan said in an email sent Thursday after he attended the meeting. “In subsequent conversations, the church told neighbors that the project would be completed in approximately two to three months. The church now says that the project will not be completed until summer of 2012. This is completely unacceptable. Moreover, given the church’s previous misleading statements, I am very concerned that the project could extend to 2013 and beyond.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses utilize an all-volunteer workforce in building projects. A regional building committee connected to a local branch office oversees all construction and maintenance to multiple churches in a defined area. Volunteers are predominately skilled tradesmen, including contractors and electricians.
Joe Verbos, chairman of the building committee overseeing the project, said there are more than 1,800 volunteer workers available for church construction projects in the region. Jeff Wilson, who works on construction support with the committee, said project management protocol is being followed in Rosemont. Congregation members raised all the money for the new church and the building committee’s job is to make sure costs don’t exceed what has been saved.
John Catlett, code enforcement director with the city, said the building committee hasn’t done anything wrong in the process and that the city has worked with the staff to move things forward.
“Some of you say they’ve messed up. They haven’t,” Catlett said.
According to state law, builders only need to prove “substantial progress” every six months to have building permits renewed. Catlett’s job is to determine if progress has been made. Due to state laws, the city has very little power to push projects forward.
Catlett said another review of the church site would be conducted in August. His determination on whether progress is evident can be appealed, something Donovan believed was worth considering. City staff cautioned that an appeal might slow things down.
“In August, John Catlett, the city’s director of code administration, will have the ability ‘to revoke [the church’s] permit… if the authorized work on the site is suspended or abandoned,’” Donovan said in his email. “At this time, the church will be required to prove to Mr. Catlett that it has shown ‘substantive progress.’ The neighborhood is hopeful that Mr. Catlett will make an informed and rational decision.”
Neighbors of the construction site urged the building committee to do a better job communicating the progress of the project. Janis Keating, another Myrtle Street resident, asked that a website be created so residents can check in on the latest updates.
“The trust has eroded because there’s been no accuracy or consistency of communication,” said City Councilman Rob Krupicka, who attended the meeting. “I impress upon [the building committee], do everything you can to over-communicate because there’s a lack of honest belief that there’s urgency.”
Residents also asked the building committee to improve the landscaping and to be mindful of Commonwealth Avenue’s reputation as a tree-lined street.
“I’m not happy with progress, but I’m hopeful based on promises made,” Keating said.