A Community divided: Against the Werrlein Properties’ development proposal
By TIM DAVIS — Werrlein Properties’ proposal for the redevelopment of the former WSSC headquarters has engendered lively public debate. As a professional historian, preservationist and longtime Hyattsville resident, I believe the proposal’s purported benefits are significantly outweighed by the damage it would do the city’s historic character, community identity, and social and environmental sustainability. Neighbors are understandably concerned about the long-empty buildings, but the urge to do something — anything — with the WSSC site does not justify this ill-conceived attempt to replace historically significant buildings and community-oriented open space with a speculative housing development that affords no public benefit and exerts additional pressure on already overburdened roads and schools.
From Franklins to Vigilante, Pyramid Atlantic and hundreds of historic homes, residents and commercial interests have collaborated to combine social and economic vitality with the preservation and celebration of Hyattsville’s unique natural, cultural and architectural heritage. The WSSC site affords an ideal opportunity to continue the community-oriented, context-sensitive development that has earned Hyattsville a reputation as one of the most desirable areas in the Washington region.
The current proposal seeks to capitalize on this success without embracing the underlying principles. The developer’s assertions that local historic values will be preserved by slapping porches onto supersized homes and gussying up town houses with allusions to Charleston, S.C., are as untenable as contentions that WSSC buildings are historically insignificant and unsuitable for adaptive reuse. As documented in a Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties report, the WSSC headquarters is an impressive illustration of Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern architecture with long-standing ties to the community.
Ensuring the preservation of this important aspect of Hyattsville’s heritage is by no means incompatible with economic constraints. The buildings are in remarkable condition given their long period of disuse. Retrofitting existing buildings uses fewer resources than new construction, exemplifying the city’s commitment to environmentally sustainable growth. One worthy incarnation would be a combination municipal office building/community center offering convenient access to an enlarged Magruder Park.
The proposal’s impact on Hyattsville’s park and recreation resources would be an even greater travesty. While the current parking area is privately owned, it has long functioned as a public amenity, hosting events of local and national significance, from the city carnival to the 1913 Suffragette motorcade described in the April issue of the Hyattsville Life & Times. In 2004, the city council unanimously agreed the parking area should be designated as protected open space, a decision that retains widespread support. Werrlein Properties wants to get around this restriction by manipulating other aspects of the complex county-planning process. Allowing private development to usurp an area that affords the last best opportunity to expand and improve Hyattsville’s park and recreation resources would be a terrible mistake.
We have been waiting a long time for market conditions to support a high-quality development on this site — one that embodies the social, environmental and community heritage goals expressed in multiple planning documents and vision statements generated over the past 20 years. The proposed development contradicts numerous aspects of the city’s recently approved Community Sustainability Plan, flouting directives to grow in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner, protect and preserve historic assets, incentivize the reuse of vacant buildings, promote and retain affordable housing, improve community facilities and encourage high-density development in existing commercial areas.
The primary argument for accepting Werrlein’s proposal is that it’s a firm offer and the only one that is currently on the table. Some say that as a minor municipality in an economically challenged county, Hyattsville should welcome any and all forms of development. That logic has prevailed in the past, but Hyattsville has become one of the hottest communities in the greater Washington region. Why would we lower our standards now and accept a proposal that falls short on so many fronts, from historic preservation and open space retention to sustainability, affordability and practical concerns such as traffic flow, school crowding and other strains on civic services?
We have built an incredibly vibrant community by embracing Hyattsville’s historical character, socioeconomic diversity and unique sense of place. Our leadership should demonstrate its pride in Hyattsville’s achievements and commitment to the city’s future by insisting on creative solutions that value community character and environmental sustainability over quick profits and political expediency.
We can do better.
Tim Davis is a National Park Service historian specializing in historic structures and cultural landscapes.
During their June 4 meeting, the city council is slated to vote on whether they will submit a letter to the M-NCPPC Planning Board regarding the zoning change to be considered for the proposed Magruder Pointe development. Residents are welcome to provide comments at the June 4 meeting, and/or to submit them for the record in writing by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting www.speakuphvl.com/meetings.