Planners recommend historic protection for two-thirds of land, while allowing for construction for part of apartment community
by Jeremy Arias | Staff Writer | Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008
The Planning Board voted last week to recommend that the County Council designate two-thirds of the Falkland-Chase Apartment complex in downtown Silver Spring as protected historic structures, while the remaining third be made eligible for redevelopment.
The entire complex is currently listed on the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites, which lists all of the county's structures that are up for protection under the Master Plan for Historic Designation. If the council follows the board's recommendation, then only the southern two parcels of the complex will receive protection, and the north parcel will likely be redeveloped, according to planning spokeswoman Valerie Berton.
Berton mentioned the north parcel's location as a primary factor in the board's decision.
"The planners here recommend that the north parcel be redeveloped because of its proximity to the [Silver Spring] Metro, among other reasons," she said, explaining that development around the Silver Spring station is a county-wide priority.
In its recommendation, the board sought to broker a compromise between preservationists who feel the entire complex should be protected as a historic site and the company that owns the apartments, which has been trying to get permission to demolish and redevelop the north parcel since 2002.
While supporters of the redevelopment bid applauded the board's decision as an acceptable compromise that would bring relief from the lack of affordable housing they said is threatening the area, preservationists were outraged by the recommendation and said, if implemented by the County Council, the board's plan would assure the site's demolition and the loss of a valuable historic site.
David Rotenstein, vice chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, disagreed with the recommendation, saying it was unprecedented and ambiguous.
"What they've done is essentially create one historical district with two layers," Rotenstein said. "They've created this one sector of that district [the north parcel] that's undefined and unusual; it's historic but not historic."
While the Planning Board's vote only recommends that the County Council adopt the conditions, the board's opinion typically carries a lot of influence.
Home Properties Inc., which owns the 22-acre complex of garden-style apartments on 16th Street and East West Highway, planned to demolish the 182 units in the north parcel to construct multiple buildings between 60 and 143 feet high with an interior public park and retail space, including a grocery store. Nelson Leenhouts, cofounder and cochairman of Home Properties, had previously offered to cede the two southern parcels to historic preservation and redevelop only the north parcel.
Planning Board commissioner Joe Alfandre said the architect of the complex, Louis Justement, who designed the site plans in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and affordable housing initiative, would likely himself agree with a redevelopment strategy.
"All the practitioners of that were not thinking statically, they were thinking eternally," he said. "They themselves were thinking of redevelopment."
Despite the favorable nature of the board's recommendation, Home Properties has not submitted a formal proposal to the board regarding its intended project. Berton indicated that, without the council's vote, such a move would be premature.
Mary Reardon, preservation chairwoman of the Silver Spring Historical Society, decried the board's decision, saying the area's recent problem with increasing rents will only continue, despite the new moderately-priced dwelling units proposed for the new development.
"This one project is not going to stop the affordable housing crisis in Montgomery County, and people are acting like it is," she said. "You need places like Falkland because there are people here who can't afford these new humongous apartments with walk-in closets in the new high-rises."
Reardon and other preservationists also spoke out against what they say is the lack of interest shown by the board and demolition supporters toward the north parcel's residents.
Jane Bergwin first moved into the complex in 1971. She has since returned to the Silver Spring area and has lived in the disputed parcel for the last 18 months. She says she was not told about the possible demolition of her building and finds the board's lack of concern for its residents shocking.
"The people who are talking about affordable housing are not considering the people who are already living here. Where are we supposed to go?" she said. "There are a lot of people that have lived here for seven or 10 years who, if they had to move, they would have to start all over again, and a lot of them can't afford to live [in the expensive high-rises] around here."
Members of the Action in Montgomery group, a multi-denominational church activist group, lauded the recommendation as a step in the right direction that could nearly double the number of affordable housing units made available in the county last year from 150 to 282 in a single action.
"From our perspective, we hate to have anyone displaced," said Patty Kaczmarski, AIM co-chairwoman. "But if we have a chance to increase housing at that rate, then we have to take it."
HPC members and some preservationists are also concerned that the board has apparently granted itself the authority to approve development projects for the north parcel. Typically, historic structures on the locational atlas are under the jurisdiction of the preservation commission, a county advisory, which decides whether to approve or deny on-site projects.
"[The board has] agreed that the entire property is historic, but the solution is not consistent with the HPC's laws," Rotenstein said. "The larger story is the increasing tension between the HPC and the Planning Board."