Green paper flags that read “we need green space” waved in the hands of many of those who attended the first hearing before the county council to determine what to do with the Wheaton recreation center Tuesday.
The flags alerted the council to one of the central arguments of Wheaton residents who are asking the County Council to reject historic designation of the 50-year-old Wheaton rec center in favor of moving forward with the original plans to tear down the building and build a new one.
In all, about 22 people testified in opposition to the historic designation and 14 supported it, including written testimony submitted to the council. Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring voiced her opposition to preserving the building during the discussion, as did Henriot St. Gerard, chairman of The Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee.
The rec center, built in 1963, 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, will stand in the way of new facilities the community needs. Historic designation would require the county to preserve the building. Planning department staff argue that it can be used in tandem with a new building on the site and still serve the community’s needs.
But keeping the old rec center would require renovations and reduce the green space for outdoor activities. The plans would likely stay the same if the rec center is deemed historic, except that the building would take up some of the field. The green space in one plan, which allows for the most open space by consolidating the new building vertically into three stories instead of two, would be reduced from 118,750 to 64,000 square feet were the old building to remain.
No cost analysis has been done comparing the price of demolishing versus renovating the building. Without enough evidence to say whether keeping the building would raise or reduce costs, the debate comes down to green space, fear of further delays, and that the rec center is, as resident MJ Jardaneh put it, “considered an eyesore in a community that is trying to uplift itself.”
Navarro said, “this issue of green space is really critical... these families and these children deserve this green space.”
Those in favor of keeping the building see giving up some green space as a small price to pay for keeping a piece of the community’s history. But to others - mostly families from the surrounding neighborhoods - it represents a further delay in bringing much-needed facilities to Wheaton.
Victor Henriquez, father of 6- and 10-year-old children, said that in the winter there are few places where kids can be active indoors.
The building has been criticized for mold, a lump in the floor of the basketball court, a leaky roof and other disrepair, from rotted wood to 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.
Many say the effort to preserve the building has come from outside of the community. Resident Monica Brandon expressed concern that those “who do not pay taxes in Wheaton will decide for us.”
“How does an outdated facility meet the community’s needs?” asked Wheaton resident Dan Somma.
Even Scott Paden, in favor of the designation, 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.
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.
The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to discuss the issue on Thursday.