Planning commission suggests ‘great leniency’ when reviewing future plans for building
by Sarah Scully
The Montgomery County Planning Board recommended the Wheaton Recreation Center for county historic designation Thursday, with leniency in the designation to allow for plans for an upgraded rec center and library to move forward.
Thursday was the last of several hearings on the topic since the Historic Preservation Commission recommended the recreation center, built in 1963 at the intersection of Hermitage and Georgia avenues, be considered for historic designation in September.
Planning Department staff found that the rec center’s architectural, historical and cultural significance met the criteria for historic designation. The five-member planning board voted 4-1 to recommend the rec center for historic designation with “great leniency” by the Historic Preservation Commission, to allow plans to move forward in a way that does not significantly hinder the new community center. Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss voted against the recommendation.
That designation, if approved by the Montgomery County Council, would thwart plans to replace the building with a new, much larger one to house both the rec center and the Wheaton Library.
The hearing room was unusually full for the discussion of the rec center, with children, parents and historians weighing in on whether renovating or demolishing the old rec center would better serve the community. Parents and historians debated the need for adequate space for children’s activities versus saving the center as an architectural and cultural icon of mid-century Wheaton.
The Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee opposed the designation, writing that the committee does not question the historical significance, but “such designations do not occur in a vacuum.” The committee said the potential designation should not obstruct the new building Wheaton needs and has waited for.
County Planning Board Commissioner Amy Presley said “it would be so ironic” to have a building that was designed to serve the community for recreation in the first place prevent Wheaton from fulfilling its new recreation needs.
Art Brodsky, a member of the county library board and liaison for the Wheaton Library, which would be part of the new facility, noted that many of those who testified in favor of preserving the old rec center were not Wheaton residents. He said those who wanted to preserve the building hadn’t smelled it, or brought their kids there.
In one petition submitted to the board in support of the historic designation, only two of 48 decipherable addresses of those who signed were in Wheaton. Planning Department staff also noted that most testimony the board received was from those opposing the designation.
“It’s small and it’s nasty and it’s outdated. It’s not welcoming at all,” said Bruce Braden, a 16-year Wheaton resident.
Meanwhile Marcie Stickle of the Silver Spring Historical Society countered that the “unique elegant” building can still serve many purposes for the community.
Jihan Asher of Kemp Mill, a former Glenmont resident, said, “I’ve always heard people complain about Wheaton getting the short end of the stick and I’ve honestly never felt that way until now.” The debate, she said, “really just boils down to one question: whether you want to preserve and uplift a community or a building.”
Honor the rec center by leaving the past in the past, she said.
Staff presented an option for preserving the building while moving forward with plans for a new joint library and rec center. In one plan, the size of the new building would be slightly reduced and some services would still take place in the old rec center.
The plan, though, would break up the usable green space on the site and move Charles W. Gilchrest Center for Cultural Diversity services to the old building. A major benefit of the original plan for a new building was to offer a number of services in one place, including those of the Gilchrest Center. And the remaining green space would be smaller and divided into two areas on either side of the new building.
Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier regretted that the question of historic designation had not come up before the county had come so far in the process of designing a new community center on the site. Carrier seemed torn between preserving the building and serving the needs of the community with a new center.
“I’m persuaded that the building is historic,” she said, “but I’m also persuaded that this community needs a new recreation center.”
She determined that the board did not have enough information at the Thursday night hearing to decide whether both were feasible.
“What’s feasible is one question, what’s practical is another,” Greg Ossont, deputy director of the Department of General Services, pointed out. He estimated that adding a renovation of the rec center onto the process would likely increase the project cost by several million dollars. During discussion of how the old building could be used in a new plan, he said, “we’re not here to program it. We’re building a [new] rec center so that we don’t need the current one.”
“The idea was to have one community center so you can do these things in a unified way,” Brodsky said, rather than going to a separate building for different services, or taking kids off-site for outdoor activities. “The world they described just doesn’t exist,” he said, referring to an option in which the rec center is preserved while the community’s needs are met.
Those testifying at the meetings have called the building “dilapidated” and noted a slew of recurring problems from mold to its small size.
The planning board requested more information on costs and open space in plans that preserved the rec center. They decided there was not enough evidence that it might obstruct new plans to preclude the designation.
The County Council has not yet scheduled a meeting to discuss the planning commission’s recommendation.