Wheaton rec center, library project could stall due to designation -- Gazette.Net


This story was corrected on Oct. 2, 2013. An explanation follows the story.

The Wheaton Neighborhood Recreation Center now faces bigger questions, depending on your perspective, than whether Led Zeppelin ever played music in its halls early in the group’s career, as local legend says.

Montgomery County has been pursuing plans since 2011 to tear down the recreation center and erect a new building to house both the recreation center and the Wheaton Library. The two buildings stand on either side of the intersection of Hermitage and Georgia avenues.

The new plan would redirect Hermitage Avenue to Arcola Avenue, combining the two parcels. However, new discussion over whether the recreation center, built in 1963, qualifies as a historic building may stall the project, now in the design phase. Under current plans, the new building is projected to open in 2017.

If given historic designation, architects and planners would have to work with a new set of regulations to preserve the recreation center instead of demolishing it as planned.

During a meeting on Sept. 11, the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission submitted a report recommending the building for historic designation.

Commission Chair William Kirwan said that when development projects come up around the county, the HPC typically looks into whether any buildings involved should be considered for historic designation. A meeting and public hearing before the Planning Board will address the issue on Oct. 17, and the board will vote on the designation. Recommendation from the board will then go to the County Council and county executive for the final decision.

The HPC and Historic Planning Office hope the building can be preserved while the county moves forward with plans to improve the public facilities and meet today’s needs, said Clare Lise Kelly, research and designation coordinator for the Historic Preservation Office. She called the building “an outstanding example of modern architecture,” saying that it was designed by a leading modernist architect of the 1960s, Arthur Keyes, of the Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon architecture firm.

The building won an award from the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and was featured in the 1965 “AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.”

Kirwan noted the historical significance of the building to the community, as well as its architectural importance.

“When a building has resonated for so long within a community, and it has played an integral role in that community, and it tells a story of that community,” it is worth preserving, he said. “We believe these things are important in what makes strong communities. It would be a shame if it was demolished and lost forever.”

But architects working on new plans see the designation as a hindrance to capitalizing on space and resources. Maintaining the historic look would make it more difficult and expensive to achieve the LEED-Silver rating required for buildings funded by Montgomery County, said architects from Grimm and Park Architects, who are preparing plans.

“I think we can very easily prove that costs for renovating the building, and the operating costs, would be significantly larger,” if architects are required to preserve the recreation center, said Melanie Hennigan, principal at Grimm and Parker.

County Council President Nancy Navarro wrote in an email to The Gazette, “Wheaton has already waited too long for a new Library and Rec Center. I do not want this project to be delayed and I am concerned that a historic designation could compromise the County’s ability to deliver a marquee combined facility. I am hopeful that the Executive branch will work with the Historic Preservation staff to find ways to honor the history of this facility in the new design.”

The project has faced other obstacles along the way. Montgomery County owns the library and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission owns the recreation center, complicating the effort for the combined building. Current plans would span both lots, including the building, parking and green space. The county has offered to swap the Parks and Planning land for county land elsewhere, but the two haven’t been able to agree on an alternative piece of land, said Art Brodsky, a member of the County Library Board. The swap remains under negotiation.

In an planning meeting on Thursday, Recreation Specialist Kimberly Bryant, who works at the recreation center, voiced complaints about the aged facility. She said that they have had issues with mold in the building and reported a recurring lump in the basketball court floor from water, adding that the basketball court is not very useful because there is no room for spectators. And, “the gym and most of the building has a smell,” she said.

Director of Recreation for Montgomery County, Gabriel Albornoz, said that the county decided about twenty years ago that the recreation center needed to be updated to the status of a full-service recreation center due to the population density in Wheaton at the time and projected growth in the area. Full service status means a building of at least 30,000 square feet, including classrooms, a social area, weight and exercise rooms, ball fields and a three-bay gymnasium, according to Albornoz. He added, “The facility is dated for sure, but it’s also inadequately sized based on the needs for services in the community.”

The project had been delayed for years because the county had not found a site large enough to meet these criteria. When the county recognized a need for renovations in the library, the Department of General Services proposed combining the facilities, making it possible to plan a full-service recreation center. The combined plot exceeds 12 acres, according to Albornoz. “I think it’s a very progressive idea to merge the two,” he said, “It maximizes efficiencies in the county and we envision this being a real treasure in the community for many, many years to come.”

Community members have offered disparate opinions on whether the one-story recreation center should be preserved as a historic building, in response to the HPC’s call for public comment. In a letter to the HPC, two University of Maryland professors urged the commission to preserve the building, calling it “a gem of Baby Boom Modernism” architecture. The professors, Isabelle Gournay and Mary Corbin Sies, teach at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and the Department of American Studies, respectively.

Others, such as Kathy Michels, of the Sligo Headwaters Civic Association, called the building “dilapidated,” saying, “it is somewhat interesting on the outside but totally unsuited to modern needs. Library Board member Art Brodsky said, “we don’t want to see a new library scrapped or delayed because of the recreation center, because it’s not worth it.”

Because of the state of the building, Hennigan said, “you wouldn’t be preserving it, you’d be replicating it, and you’re asking yourself, why would I replicate this?”

Clare Lise Kelly’s name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.