A majority of the County Council said Thursday that it will not designate the Wheaton Rec Center, built in 1963, as historic, after hearing from community members Tuesday night.
Six council members expressed their opposition to the Planning Board’s recommendation during a meeting of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee.
Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Takoma Park was also at the meeting where the five members of the joint committees were discussing the capital budget.
“Because the matter before us is the capital budget ... both [Councilwoman and PHED Committee Chairwoman] Nancy Floreen and I felt that we better dispose of this question early,” so the library and rec center project could move forward, said Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park. “We had a pretty clear sense that our colleagues did not want to designate it.”
The designation still needs to come before the full council for a formal vote.
Floreen and Leventhal both said that it seemed clear to them at the hearing that residents wanted more green space. Preserving the building would have cut the available green space significantly. And the project to replace the old rec center with a new joint library and rec center on their adjacent lots on Arcola Avenue has already been delayed, they said.
“We wanted to send a message to all the players,” Floreen said. “We’re going to get the project back on track and completed as soon as we can.”
In all, about 22 people testified in opposition to the historic designation and 14 supported it in Tuesday’s hearing.
Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring opposed preserving the building during the discussion, as did Henriot St. Gerard, chairman of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee.
The rec center had been on the brink of demolition as part of plans to build a new joint library and rec center on the facility’s adjacent lots on Arcola Avenue. But when the rec center hit its 50th birthday last summer, it came onto the radar of the Historic Preservation Commission, which subsequently recommended it for historic designation. Last fall, the Planning Board adopted the recommendation, passing it on to the County Council, which is now tasked with the final call.
The debate continued Tuesday between those who see architectural and historic merit in the small modernist building and those who believe it and its poor condition stand in the way of new facilities the community needs.
Historic designation would require the county to preserve the building. Planning department staff argued that it can be used in tandem with a new building on the site and still serve the community’s needs.
Those in favor of keeping the building see giving up some green space as a small price for keeping a piece of the community’s history.
Even Scott Paden said, “no one is denying that it can no longer serve the purpose for which it was constructed,” but argued for “preserv[ing] the collective memory,” of Wheaton.
But to others — mostly families from the surrounding neighborhoods — it represents a further delay in getting needed facilities.
The building has been criticized for mold, a lump in the floor of the basketball court, a leaky roof, rotted wood and cracks in the wall.
“I went inside once and it does not smell good. ... I don’t want to go all the way to Olney to practice sports,” Fatima Amores, 10, told the council.
Art Brodsky, representing the county library board, suggested “memorializing the youth center” by using similar styles in the new building. “The Asian-inspired curves could be incorporated into the design,” he said.