BY REBECCA BENNETT — A District Council hearing on October 20 may determine the fate of the much-anticipated Art Works Now and Pizzeria Paradiso project almost a year after the saga began.

An artistʼs rendering of the exterior of the proposed Art Works renovation project at 4800 Rhode Island Avenue.  Photo courtesy Art Works.
ALSO: Timeline of Art Works and Marché Florist building

In 2013, Mount Rainier-based Art Works announced the purchase of the Marché Florist building at 4800 Rhode Island Avenue in Hyattsville, along with its plans to move into the space with local restaurant chain Pizzeria Paradiso.  Before work could begin, the Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) reviewed the Marché Florist building’s historic site status.

A “historic site” is a property that has been classified by the HPC as being “significant and contributes to historical, architectural, archaeological, or cultural values,” according to the Prince George’s County Code.  Owners of these properties must apply for historic area work permits and renovations are subject to review by the HPC.

The appeal of the Marche Florist building’s classification as a historic site will be held on October 20 at 10 a.m. at 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive, Upper Marlboro in the Council hearing room.

Despite the local community rallying behind Art Works at a December 17 hearing, the HPC voted to classify the Marché Florist building as a historic site. Art Works director Barbara Johnson said the historic site designation will prevent her from making needed renovations in order to create enough space for Pizzeria Paradiso.

Art Works appealed the historic site designation with the District Council. At the same time they worked on the appeal, Johnson took steps to continue through the HPC’s review process.

HPC Commissioner Lisa Davidson expressed concern over this “dual track” that Art Works pursued.  William Shipp, a lawyer for White Angelica, responded that the dual track is due to the time it takes to get through the two different processes.

When asked about the time the project is taking to move forward, Johnson’s partner and Pizzeria Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser said, “We have other things going on, we’re not a fast growth company. We’ve just been waiting and that’s fine.”

The road to pizza and art at the florist

Plans for the space, as described by Johnson to the HPC, include two classrooms on the first floor, as well as a rentable gallery.  Offices will be located on the second floor, which Art Works hopes to expand.  Pizzeria Paradiso will be separated from the art school by a wall.  A playground is also planned for the project.

According to Johnson, Art Works didn’t have the credit needed to purchase the building, so a partnership called White Angelica LLC was formed.  Johnson herself is the primary partner.  HL&T is referring to “White Angelica” and “Art Works” interchangeably.

White Angelica did “due diligence research to locate any liens or restrictions on the property,” and had the property surveyed, said Johnson.  Even though the building was added to historic lists in Hyattsville in 2004 and the County in 2010, she said it wasn’t until the partnership filed for a work permit and was referred to the HPC that there was any indication the building was considered historic.

Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, confirmed that neither the Hyattsville CDC or Johnson knew the property was considered a historic resource. He said he would have advised her if it was.  When the property was being considered for historic resource status, Eisenberg said, only the property owner would have been notified, because they don’t take the same steps as they do when declaring a historical site.  But, according to the Hyattsville CDC director, the property was in foreclosure at the time.

A “historic resource” marks that a property may be significant in local history, architecture, archaeology, or culture, and that various actions can trigger a review of of that property’s potential historic site classification.   “If something is a historic resource,” Eisenberg said, “it’s a state of becoming, not a state of being.  It doesn’t have the same limitations.”

When talks of development at the Marché Florist building reached historic preservation staff, Eisenberg says they wanted to talk to White Angelica about the new owners’ plans for the space. A July 2013 meeting, Eisenberg says, between Johnson, Gresser, the City of Hyattsville, the Hyattsville CDC, permit review staff, and historic preservation staff brought together different expectations.  “Everyone was … discovering the implications of historic resource status,” said Eisenberg.

Historic preservation staff member Howard Berger said they had expected additional meetings with Art Works. This is customary, Eisenberg told us, because developers want to work out the details before going through the expensive process.  But, Berger said Johnson only followed up twice by phone with historic preservation staff in August 2013.

Subsequent correspondence from staff after that July informal meeting, according to Eisenberg, contradicted Barbara’s plans. “It didn’t seem they were supporting what they initially said they would support,” he said, but reiterated these were informal meetings and “everything is open to interpretation.”

Eisenberg said these initial conversations about a building that now potentially had many unexpected limitations put Johnson and Gresser on the defensive, and their relationship between with historic preservation staff started out tense.

Berger said that Art Works just went ahead and filed for a work permit in October 2013, which triggered HPC review of the property’s designation.

Shipp indicated his client feels historic site designation criteria are not met in this instance. “Designation will represent a big commitment and regulatory problems, since the owner will have to come back to the HPC with every change, which is daunting,” Ship said, according to notes from the December 17 HPC meeting.

“Approval for exterior changes to a historic site is difficult to get through the HPC review,” he said.

Someone who owns a historic site, according to Eisenberg, is limited in what they can do to the property.

“The issue,” according to HPC Commissioner Mike Callahan in notes from the December 17 hearing, “seems to be fear of the process, not that the building doesn’t meet the designation criteria of the ordinance.”

For all intents and purposes, a February 2014 concept review by HPC seemed to support Art Works’ plans for the building, including a second story. Meeting notes indicate Callahan confirmed he liked the new design. Several commissioners expressed they did not like how the proposed staircase seem to protrude from the building.  Architect Mark McInturff responded that it was important for the stairwell to have a horizontal roof so the office staff could see the front door.

The concept review ended with HPC Chairman John Peter Thompson’s conclusion, where he expressed his support for Johnson starting classes in September 2014, and that “the HPC is likely to be the easiest step in reaching her goal.”

“There was a pressure release,” Eisenberg said, referring to the outcome of the February concept review.

However, the tune changed in April, when according to HPC meeting notes, “Chairman Thompson commented that something must have gone terribly wrong at the July [2013] meeting since there appears to be a belief on the applicant’s part that historic preservation and adaptive reuse are mutually exclusive.”

The project has been at a standstill, according to Johnson, because of the project’s needs versus the vision of the HPC for the Marché Florist building.

“The vision of the [historic preservation] staff, she said, ”is that it is a one-story building and should remain a one story building. But, its not, it’s got a second story in the rear.  If we can’t put our offices on the second story, we have to put them on the first.  If we put them on the first, there’s no room for [Pizzeria] Paradiso.”

“We asked for a wayback addition to allow room for the staircase, and we were told that wasn’t going to happen. [That] the building is a horizontal building and it wouldn’t be approved. I need to be able to use the second story. I need it for offices,” said Johnson.

After Art Works appealed the HPC decision to classify the Marché Florist building as a historic site, the Zoning Hearing Examiner  took a look at the matter and recommended the HPC decision be upheld. However, the Zoning Hearing Examiner recommended several conditions, including that a second story addition be allowed.

As to the vagueness of the recommendations, Johnson said — “I understand the Zoning Hearing Examiner’s conditions, but it looks to me that those conditions … could be considered subjective. There’s no reason those conditions would stop the disagreement with the historic preservation staff.”

A building in waiting

The reason it took so long to find a buyer to rehabilitate the building, according to Eisenberg, is that “there was so much to do in that building to make it functional and in compliance with code for today. … because of neglect.”

“We want to see buildings with interesting forms preserved when they can be.  By preserved, they need to be of use. Not become a monument,” Eisenberg said.

Having taken on the challenge, Johnson said the idea was White Angelica would sign a long-term lease with Art Works and that Art Works would eventually buy the building. But, for the two years the project has been in development, White Angelica partners have been paying the mortgage without being able to do any programming.

The wait comes with additional cost. Johnson said the building is two years older than when the partnership purchased it. She said there continues to be damage on the roof, there are half a dozen broken windows, and there are items dumped on the property that need to be hauled away.

According to 2012 IRS filings for Art Works, the non-profit pays approximately $2,300 per month in its spacial operating costs. The Marche Florist building, which property records show White Angelica LLC purchased for $375,000.  Adding renovation costs would require more financial commitment from the small, community-based non-profit if space is not made for a partner company.

The October 20 District Council meeting “is the last possible chance to make this project happen,” according to a Facebook event created to rally project supporters. Art Works is asking residents to attend the District Council hearing to show their support.

What will happen after the District Council meeting?

Johnson said she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself, and is waiting for the October 20 District Council hearing to make future plans. But she also said, “My first hope is that results are favorable and we are able to put Art works and [Pizzeria] Paradiso in the building. My second hope is to do this so Art Works could be in the building without Paradiso in the building.”

“I really love Hyattsville, “Johnson said.  “It’s the right place for an Art Works and Pizzeria Paradiso.”

“It’s a great town, it’s a great community, and we would love to be there. We’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing. Hoping and waiting,” Pizzeria Paradiso’s owner said.

Johnson said, “We are continuing the process as it is outlined by the county procedures. … We continue to hope the building would not be historic in the end.”

“Even if the building has historic merit,” said Eisenberg, “it has to be in perspective to other things. The HPC is doing their job zealously. The District Council has to look at the big picture; that’s their job.”