Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Preserving the past, building for the future

Battles over buildings’ historical significance raise questions over vision for community identity

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Owners of the 90-year-old Watson House at 9206 Watson Road in Silver Spring have plans to subdivide the property into as many as five lots. A vote last week by the Historic Preservation Commission not to include the site on the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation is the first step in allowing the owners to do so.
Back-to-back discussions last week to determine which Silver Spring landmarks are worthy of placement on the county’s list of historic sites resulted in a roadblock for a 90-year-old Dutch colonial and a delayed vote on a 1950s-era bank building.

The deliberations pitted preservationists looking to save what they feel is not only Silver Spring’s past but a future that retains the community’s identity, against property owners interested in a different future, a potential for profit and what they feel should be a vision of growth in an area compatible with new development.

Albert Foer, the owner of the ‘‘Perpetual Building” at 8700 Georgia Ave., has said his proposal to raze the bank and replace it with a high-rise condo would include amenities and interior design intended to honor the structure’s history as a modern addition to Silver Spring’s financial district.

Efforts to renovate the building as is would not only be difficult but exorbitantly expensive, said Patricia Harris, the attorney representing Foer, at a Planning Board hearing on Thursday.

Those fighting to save the building say the Perpetual, built in 1958, should be recognized instead as an architectural leader in bank design that could lead to historic designations for more post-World War II buildings.

A day earlier, during a hearing before the county’s Historic Preservation Commission, attorney Robert G. Brewer, who represents the three heirs to the property of the ‘‘Watson House,” 9206 Watson Road, said the owners would like to divide it into as many as five lots.

Preservationists argue it is part of a ‘‘historic enclave” that includes several sites nearby – namely the nearby Civil War-era Condict House and the late 1880s Second Empire Wilbur House.

Although the Historic Preservation Commission voted last week against designating the Watson House as historic, those in favor said the process was ‘‘not over by a long shot.”

‘‘We looked at the Dutch Colonials as examples of houses that have already been named historic, and they’re not as good as the Watson House,” said Jim Cassell, president of the Committee to Save the Watson House. ‘‘We feel that our case is still very strong.”

The fight continues

The next step for both the Watson House and Perpetual Building is a vote before the county’s Planning Board next month. As in all historic designation cases, all opinions issued by the Historic Preservation Commission go before the county’s Planning Board for a vote, and then to the County Council for the final say on sites to be listed to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

The Planning Board delayed a vote Thursday on whether to recommend the Perpetual Building to the county’s list because two board members were absent from the hearing reviewing the site’s historic value.

Harris, the property owner’s attorney, said Thursday the building’s history lacked a compelling story, and did not justify the ‘‘significant strain on the property owner’s rights.” While the building was ‘‘reasonably attractive,” she said it was not much more than that.

The Historic Preservation Commission disagrees, voting last August to recommend the site as historic based on more than one criterion for designation. Only one is required. Commissioner Caroline Alderson said the building was iconic and unique of the period.

The commission voted on Jan. 9 not to recommend the Watson House as historically significant. While placement to the county’s list does not absolutely prevent demolition of a building, it does make efforts to do so more difficult, as major changes must be reviewed by the commission.

Commissioner David Rotenstein said on Friday while the community overwhelmingly wants the site designated as historic, the property was comparable to other homes in Silver Spring and Takoma Park and not considered historic.

‘‘The county’s criteria are fairly straightforward,” he said. ‘‘We can’t designate a property based on community interest.”

Win some, lose most

Jerry McCoy, president of the Silver Spring Historical Society, said it was the failures — the Silver Spring Armory, which was replaced by the Wayne Avenue parking garage, or the Little Tavern No. 1 Hamburger Shop, replaced by Pyramid Atlantic — that stick with him.

‘‘Sometimes we win; most of the time we lose,” McCoy said. ‘‘We know you can’t save everything, nor should you save everything. But certainly there are things representative of a community that make it unique.”

Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation Inc., said the designation process is worthwhile in learning new things about the buildings up for debate. He said he looked forward to diving back into the history of the Watson family to come up with a stronger argument in favor of designation for the Planning Board.

‘‘Often, we find that a building’s more important than we thought,” he said.

McCoy said it was nearly as rewarding saving a building from demolition as it was finding developers willing to preserve its historic nature.

‘‘It makes for a better project for them, and a more unique project when it’s completely renovated,” he said.

Development vs. preservation

Natalie Bock, development project manager at the Madison, Wisc.-based Alexander Company, the firm hired to renovate the National Park Seminary in Forest Glen into a residential development, said while there is a market for historic buildings, not everyone appreciates an old structure and might prefer new construction that makes the most efficient use of space.

Builders also can be limited in what they can do with the property by the existing footprint, local building and zoning requirements, and restrictions intended to preserve the historic nature of the buildings.

While builders renovating historic structures can benefit from local, state or federal grant programs and tax relief, they may also require another layer of oversight, compared with new construction, Bock said.

‘‘Most communities are interested in protecting their historic heritage,” and permits are required to do the work, Bock said. Once historic preservationists approve a plan, oversight usually comes from a building inspector who will review construction to make sure it matches what was approved.

While this kind of construction can pose challenges, Bock said there are benefits.

‘‘Historic buildings create a sense of community unique to that community,” she said.

Harris, the attorney representing the Perpetual Building’s owners, said at the Planning Board hearing Thursday that the option of adaptive reuse, or renovating the site to maintain the façade and historical integrity, was limited by the costs and design difficulties.

Any movement forward on development at either the Watson House or Perpetual Building is stalled until both the Planning Board and County Council make decisions on the sites’ historic value. The Planning Board will vote next month on both.

Staff Writer Fred Lewis contributed to this report.

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