A Community divided: For the Werrlein Properties’ development proposal
By WILL SEATH — Werrlein Properties’ proposal for the long-neglected former WSSC property would restore the Historic District’s pattern of traditional residential development to a site where it previously existed, stitching the surrounding neighborhood back together with a sensible, attractive streetscape while removing a dangerous eyesore. Though I take its opponents in good faith, their arguments risk missing an opportunity to beautify and reconnect the neighborhood, leaving us indefinitely with an unproductive monstrosity and a barely used parking lot.
Advocates for renovating the WSSC building for use as a school know that the county has shown no interest in acquiring the site. Planning standards typically rule out new schools on parcels the size of the property’s two lots. No other proposed reuse for the building has made achievable progress. After nearly two costly decades of vacancy and structural decay, prospects dim further. It is unwise to allow further deterioration — and lost property tax revenue — waiting for unlikely rehabilitation while land values rise and a decent alternative waits on the table.
Preservationists want to save the WSSC headquarters for its supposedly irreplaceable architecture, even without a reuse proposal. The building’s principal Mid-Century Modern style, ever-present in suburban civic and commercial development, is not endangered, nor is the WSSC building an especially good example of the style. The Hyattsville Preservation Association — which opposes the building’s demolition — tacitly acknowledges its insignificance by omitting it from their Historic Hyattsville Walking Tour (which does, however, showcase several Victorian great-grandmothers of the homes designed by Werrlein’s architect, Michael Romero). The WSSC building is in discord with its surroundings. Its ugliness alone may not be sufficient cause for the wrecking ball, but neither should its morgue-like ruins stifle improvements to neighborhood character and connectivity.
Opponents who are rightly protective of Magruder Park unfairly dismiss private development’s ability to enhance nearby public space. Walkways through the site would form pleasant new entrances into the park from Gallatin Street. Handsome double-galleried town houses at the park’s eastern edge would be consistent with the scale of other nearby buildings. They would define a space that currently bleeds over a chain-link fence into an asphalt sea and the unsightly backside of the WSSC building. Werrlein’s proposal does not encroach on the park, as some have incorrectly suggested; satellite imagery of the site is slightly misaligned with property lines in the conceptual plans.
For some, the proposal raises fears of urban density, parking scarcity and traffic. However, its overall density is comparable to the block of bungalows across Hamilton Street (10 units/acre vs. 8 units/acre). Typical D.C. row house blocks are more than twice as dense; the adjacent Top of the Park Apartments are three times denser. Werrlein is providing more off-street parking than required, plus potential additional on-street parking. Traffic studies show the new homes’ minimal impact on existing neighborhood traffic patterns — far less than what a school would generate.
Arguments that the site’s partial Open Space zoning and flood plain designation automatically preclude the amendments needed for development lack perspective. The site has previously been zoned for residential (until 2004, circa Douglas Development’s purchase) and remains within an overlay zone that encourages various types of residential development. Werrlein must follow an approval process incorporating stormwater management and FEMA requirements for building in a floodplain. The Riverfront at West Hyattsville Metro, also on a flood plain, is proceeding with similar site design approaches.
The least compelling arguments against the proposal concern Douglas and Werrlein profiting from the site’s sale and development. In Douglas’ case, this is cutting off our neighborhood’s nose to spite its face over an old feud. Neighbors who seriously question whether Werrlein ought to earn money from improving their property are welcome to contact me with fair asking prices for their own homes, especially if they bought several decades ago.
My family lives directly across the street from the WSSC site. We will face the noise, dust and general inconveniences of a lengthy phased construction, plus likely higher assessments of our home; yet we still support Werrlein’s proposed development. The long-term benefit is a pleasant and walkable development of the site which will bring us new neighbors. It is hard to imagine that any of them will be as unfriendly as the one we have now.
Will Seath is a Hyattsville resident and a project architect with McCrery Architects in Washington, D.C.
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.