A nonprofit arts center offering free arts classes may get edged out of space it was promised in the new Silver Spring Library.
The library, at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue, is scheduled to open in the fall. The plan was to let Pyramid Atlantic lease 15,500 square feet on the ground floor, and in exchange the nonprofit would offer free art classes to county residents. The nonprofit also would be responsible for building out the library space, including interior walls and utilities at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, according to Jose Dominguez, the nonprofit’s executive director.
That deal, however, hinged on the transfer of a right of way Pyramid Atlantic owned on its Georgia Avenue site that is needed for the new Silver Spring Transit Center.
But, when the group entered into a contract to sell the property at 8230 Georgia Ave. to Harvey Maisel for $2.5 million, the agreement failed to include the right of way transfer to the county.
A Montgomery County staff report is now recommending the County Council block or delay approval of Pyramid Atlantic’s lease until the right of way issue is resolved. At a hearing Thursday, the County Council decided to delay the decision to terminate its agreement with Pyramid Atlantic.
“I am disappointed that it has become an issue of process. It is not an issue about Pyramid Atlantic,” Dominguez said.
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said he supports the nonprofit as an arts center in the new library, but thinks Pyramid Atlantic should pay for the right of way.
The value of the right of way is $325,000. The county needs 19½ feet of frontage on Georgia Avenue and part of the property that extends along Ripley Street for road development to serve the transit center.
The report shows that in 2009 an art space inside the new Silver Spring Library was awarded to Pyramid Atlantic in response to a 2008 solicitation. The report, however, explained that the agreement could be problematic due to the county’s need to acquire the right of way on Pyramid Atlantic’s existing site.
“It is been clear to me from this discussion today with the council and individual discussions with Pyramid Atlantic that the right of way is still very much a factor,” said Ramona Bell-Pearson, Montgomery County’s assistant chief administrative officer.
According to the county report, Maisel has agreed to respond to the county’s request to either dedicate or negotiate part of the property.
Dominguez said he spoke with county staff and offered to sell the Pyramid Atlantic property in 2009.
“It was in the midst of a recession. They didn’t want to buy,” Dominguez said. County officials said the property could be sold, but asked to make sure the potential purchaser knew about the need to acquire the right of way on Georgia Avenue and Ripley Street.
“We’ve tried to resolve with the county very early on, and the challenge was that we could not get a written commitment from the county,” Dominguez said.
As negotiations went along to sell the Pyramid Atlantic property, Dominguez said, he kept asking for something in writing from the county in exchange to add the necessary language addressing the right of way issue.
“I needed something in writing ... the county kept delaying,” Dominguez said. Eventually, the group had to put the building under contract.
The annual lease at the library costs $421,000, according to the county report. The report also added that an Oct. 7, 2013, memo explained that “it is difficult to quantify the dollar value of the services and programs” offered by Pyramid Atlantic.
But a document provided by Dominguez to The Gazette showed 14 classes that could be offered free to Montgomery County residents throughout the year with a total value of $452,292. Nonresidents would have to pay for services. Among the classes offered are workshops for students ages 11 to 18; adults programs; and internships.
“We would love to be able to obviously partake and subsidize the facility. ... For me to arrive at the place where we have determined a particular fair market value ... we [need] an evaluation to try to match those. I think that’s where our role comes in,” said Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.
At the hearing, council officials said this has been a challenging issue, but it is about the public money and there should be a way to provide a very “robust” partnership.
The initial term of the proposed lease is a five-year contract, with three five-year renewals. But the county can choose not to renew the contract if the nonprofit isn’t in full compliance with the lease terms.
Dominguez said the nonprofit has a plan B. It has until the end of April to finalize the library lease. Otherwise, it will have to buy 721 Sligo Ave., listed for $1.4 million. Dominguez said the group would then have to raise funds to build on the property. The group already has invested $70,000 to conduct a study on the property; the money is refundable only through the end of the month.
County officials said they need at least 45 days to come back to the County Council with a solution, and the council has until July to decide.