2022 UPDATE: In the intervening 3 years since I first wrote this, a lot has happened. The building was demolished, to the joy of some and trepidation of others. The lot with debris sat unimproved for a long time. There are now some completed houses on the upper parcel, but the construction of many more are ongoing.
The lower parcel adjacent to the lot has been tied up in litigation and while the asphalt has gone, this summer especially, the rain has come. And oh my, how has it come.
Undoubtedly, there are many factors at work here, but this remains true- the storm water management of the site has been mismanaged, dumping water and sediment into Gallatin Street and forcing its closure during many evening thunderstorms. Surely, the delays of the project completion have not helped. While Werrlein says it wants to fix the issue, the problem currently remains. Werrlein says there are issues with getting the permits for the necessary work and every storm demonstrates the need to mitigate the amount of water entering the lower parcel and the street by Driskell Park. There are really only two options – Werrlein fixes the issue and develops the parcel, or litigation stops the development and the city is most likely the entity responsible for dealing with the flooding. It’s not clear to me that there is a plan for either outcome and the fact remains that with our current system the city has little say over the situation.
The central issue for the city is that it has little power to correct Werrlein’s inaction, incompetence, or non-compliance. Because the city has no direct control over zoning or the planning of the project, we wait for the county- and county officials have much different goals when it comes to developers; namely that developers can contribute to their campaigns, while city councilmembers can receive no money from businesses and can only accept up to $500 from individuals. Nevertheless, despite the challenges, I think the path forward is to wholeheartedly explore the possibility for Hyattsville to gain some zoning or planning authority.
This proposition is not simple. Getting state approval in order to have any kind of municipal authority must come from the state, stands in opposition to the profit of the county councilmembers, and will take gaining many allies in order to pursue. It is the most direct path forward, however, to making sure that Hyattsville benefits from future development. If this happens, Hyattsville would be only the second such municipality in the county to gain such authority, as Laurel is the only current city to maintain a planning commission.
My goal is to put Hyattsville on the path to making this a reality, so that we can hold developers accountable and get the development we want to see in the city.
I am going to strive to make my position clear, with the caveat that that this is a complicated issue with a long history of divisiveness in Hyattsville. I think any progressive discourse on the topic has to come with nuance and a willingness to compromise. There have been few realistic proposals for that property, none of which have ever come to fruition, a lot of frustration about action/inaction from the city, and sense of apprehension about the future of the area from the residents closest to the property.
Those residents had to go through an ordeal this weekend that made them question if the city truly cares about their safety and well-being. Sometime this weekend, probably Saturday during the business of the carnival, someone broke into the building, weeks after a door had been reported broken and open, and hung a firefighting dummy from the ceiling, positioned so that it could be seen from the windows. They also tagged the walls with Instagram hashtags and issued a challenge for others to break in and take pictures with the dummy. Three teenagers on bikes and two women in a car saw the grotesque scene and fearing the worst, called police. Police are investigating and the fire department took down the dummy, but the real trauma of the event lingers. We have neighborhood children wondering if this building isn’t just going to be the target of vandals, but a real murder or suicide. I do not want the children who live across from this building to have to live with that kind of fear.
I share a concern for sustainability in our community. It’s not a term we should use narrowly. There have been many suggestions that the preservation and restoration of the existing vacant WSSC building would be more sustainable than the proposed homes for the site. While it’s generally true that adaptive reuse of existing buildings is less wasteful than new construction, there are several reasons why the WSSC building on the upper lot is not a viable candidate for adaptive reuse:
- The argument that an existing building is more sustainable than new construction rests on the assumption that the existing building is well-designed to respond to its climate and surroundings.
- The building is flat-roofed, lacking a cornice and a sufficient roof drainage system. It is inherently prone to leaks, and its limestone cladding has been permanently marred by mold because of these design flaws. It has inadequate accommodations for life safety, egress, and accessibility. After decades of vacancy and vandalism, it has been thoroughly gutted of all its finishes, fixtures, and building systems. The amount of materials needed to restore a 140,000 square foot building for occupancy and to bring it up to modern codes and standards of safety far exceeds what would be needed to build the new homes proposed for the upper lot.
- Even if the building were restored, a feasible reuse for a building the size of the former WSSC headquarters would be incompatible with the upper lot’s existing R-55 zoning. The building is already a nonconforming use. If it were to become an institutional, mixed use, or multi-family residential development, the upper lot would have to undergo either a rezoning or a special exception process just like the very controversial and divisive proposal for the property’s lower lot. Previous proposals to reuse the building have been abandoned because of the opposition of neighbors, regulatory difficulties, and ultimately lack of economic feasibility. The success of other recent adaptive reuses in Hyattsville has depended on sites that are adjacent to Route 1 corridor, an advantage that the WSSC site lacks.
- A high density reuse of the building would require the use of the lower parking lot, precluding any incorporation to Magruder Park.
While there have been many interesting ideas and concepts for reusing the building, none have been able to adequately address these substantial challenges. This is part of why the building has remained vacant and deteriorating for two decades. The single family homes proposed for the site while not pleasing aesthetically to everyone, are conforming for its original use and are comparable with the density in the area.
Most importantly, however, in my mind is the fact that many residents who live near the property deal with the issues of vandalism, trespassing, and general nuisance of the building. We are using our police resources to respond to calls for all of the above and there is a real feeling of lack of safety and security around this building. Knowing that any outfitting of the building would cost millions of dollars and has no guarantee of going through, and the fact that there is no alternate proposal that I am aware of, I believe that the Werrlein proposal is a good bet on getting a net positive in the upper lot.
As for the lower lot, I understand the desire to make it part of the park and also the trepidation of building 40 town homes to add relative density to the area, block views from the park, and the real possibility that flooding will damage the buildings. I don’t think that that part of the development is ideal for the city or those living in the area. Personally, I do think that there will be drawbacks to that particular part of the plan in regards to traffic.
I could go on about easements and storm water management and other issues surrounding the lower lot, but it comes down to this: much of the negotiation between the city and Werrlein was in closed session and I can’t speak to how any arrangements have come to be, but as I understand it the city does not have the money to buy the whole lot from Werrlein and I think that speaks to the financial health of the city as much as to Werrlein’s expectations on the price of the lot.
If the city has a deal to buy part of the lot from Werrlein I think it behooves the city to keep communication open with Werrlein. I find it counter-intuitive that the city would negotiate a deal and then advocate against the development happening at all. I don’t think that it is good business and does not help us in asks to future developers. The checkered past of this property in Hyattsville also does not attract other developers, and past missteps by the city have resulted in a property owner that is not willing to work with the city effectively. Having a middle-man in this property negotiation goes a long way to making the lower lot being part of the park a reality.
If procuring the parking lot is of the utmost importance to the city, I think that efforts need to be made to negotiate that possibility and money needs to be set aside in order to do that. I have not seen any evidence of that on behalf of the city, save perhaps for a fraction of the proposed community sustainability fund. This begs the question of what the city’s plan is. I do not think that sitting and waiting around for the perfect opportunity is practical, especially when our neighbors are dealing directly from the impact of the city’s actions and inaction in this matter.
My opponents in the ward 2 council race do not seem to be taking any of this into consideration and have no realistic plans going forward from this point. Danny Schaible wants to save the building at all costs, while maintaining the open space zoning of the parking lot. The issue is, there are no adaptive reuse proposals currently and any adaptive reuse like a YMCA, private school, or low-cost apartment units as he has suggested would be necessarily high-traffic and high-density. The lower parking lot would be required to stay a parking lot and the upper lot would require rezoning to high density. He says he’s okay with this, even though neighbors have said that is exactly what they do not want. He knows that we have neighbors who want to see that blighted building dealt with, but still insists he has his “finger to the wind of the political pulse of the city.” While waiting for the perfect proposal, the building sits, using up city resources while paying very little in property tax, while new homes would add substantially more financially to our city, as well as adding new neighbors to join our community. Danny would say that his answer is to add a tax surcharge to vacant buildings, but that doesn’t garner us substantially more income, new neighbors, or provide motivation for the current owner to sell to developers that would work with the city.
Robert Poisson has suggested that we use eminent domain to acquire the parking lot to add it to Magruder Park. If it were even legally plausible, the litigation would be long and costly, and the city would have to buy the parking lot for much more than it is worth. In the long run, it would cost the city even more money to buy a parcel of land that opponents of the redevelopment say shouldn’t be built on.
In the case of this building, I think inaction is inexcusable. I don’t think we can bide our time. It’s been 25 years. Letting the building continue to deteriorate and become a center of crime is negligent. It is not worth the cost of our neighbor’s safety for the fear of career ramifications of a political misstep. I know Magruder Pointe is not a wholly ideal plan. Now that the rezoning of the lower lot is set to be heard at the district council on May 13th, I can only hope that whatever the outcome may be, that there are future avenues to correct a blight to the Hamilton Street neighborhood and possibly add to Magruder Park. In the end, no matter what happens, we are all neighbors. Let’s make sure we can set our differences aside and work to create a stronger Hyattsville.
If you’d like to talk to me more about this issue, please call me at 240-706-7607 or email me at emilystrabforhyattsville.com.