A red-hot urban development controversy will move one step closer to resolution at a hearing tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the 3rd Floor Council Hearing Room in the Montgomery County office building in Rockville, Maryland. At stake is nothing less than the purpose of historic preservation, and how preservation should be balanced with affordable housing and smart growth goals.
The case is regarding whether the Falkland Chase apartment complex in Silver Spring, Maryland should be protected under the county’s historic preservation laws.
The Falkland Chase Apartments is a garden-style apartment complex constructed in 1936 and 1937 to accommodate Washington’s urban growth. Financed by the then-new Federal Housing Administration, the 22-acre complex contained 479 units on 24 acres. Designed by a regionally-significant architect Louis Justement, the complex is an early example of garden style apartments, intended to provide a healthy alternative to city living for people of modest means. The architect took pride in his ability to protect existing trees, and arranged the buildings to take into account a small stream on the property Eleanor Roosevelt herself attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. Here is the complex plan, with the three sections under discussion labeled,
In the 1960s, planners targeted Silver Spring for the development of an urban node on the metropolitan region’s planned rapid transit system. County and regional planners hoped to focus growth at urban nodes served by transit to minimize urban sprawl. According to one article, in 1966 a developer proposed redeveloping all three parcels and replacing it with a 12-building complex with heights from 12 to 22 stories. according to the story the plan was shelved due to “militant community opposition.” The rendering, obtained by Jerry McCoy for a column in the Silver Spring Voice, depicts a modern train zipping along the planned right-of-way at the northern boundary of the site. As planned, the Silver Spring Metrorail station opened in 1978 just steps from the site. (As an aside, the proposed architecture is strangely reminiscent of many other buildings built in the region in this era, including the Washington Hilton, Watergate complex, and federal office buildings at Federal Center.)
However the apartments were unaffected by local development except for one portion. In 1992 to the chagrin of preservationists one portion of the complex containing roughly 34 units was demolished and replaced with a 400-unit 17-story apartment high rise. The remaining complex includes 450 units on 22 acres, arranged in apartments, duplexes, and townhouses arranged around open green space.
When the national apartment company Home Properties purchased the property in 2003, local activists began working to get the property protected from redevelopment, successfully getting it added to a list guaranteeing it would be evaluated for preservation before any redevelopment could take place.
The property owner then unveiled a redevelopment plan for the property. The north parcel, containing 182 units on 7.5 acres, would be completely demolished and replaced with roughly 1,000 apartments, 200 parking spaces, and 60,000 square feet of retail space, including a Harris Teeter Grocery store. The redevelopment would create roughly 125 affordable units on the north parcel, and over a hundred more in the rest of the complex and elsewhere. The south and west parcels, arguably more historic and contain the already-protected cupola building, would be protected and receive much-needed improvements.
Here are site plans for the existing north parcel:
… and proposed:
A perspective of the plan:
The Historic Preservation Commission issued a recommendation in February 2008 protect all three parcels, effectively forbidding the proposal. They concluded all three parcels were needed to tell the story of the historic complex. The matter then went to the Planning Board. After a lengthly work session last July (a wealth of documents are online), they decided to recommend preservation of only the south and west portions, which would allow the redevelopment plan to move forward.
The preservationists were irate. Dozens of letters, presentations, and testimony had been overruled. The YouTube videos of two of Washington’s best-known architectural historians, George Washington University’s Richard Longstreth and University of Maryland’s Isabelle Gournay, urging preservation of the entire complex, had gone unheeded. One major issue in the debate was captured by north parcel resident and a friend of mine from the University of Maryland urban planning program, Megan Moriarty, who described her position this way in a July 10th, 2008 letter submitted to the County Council:
Preserving the buildings of the North Parcel will not create any new subsidized units or even ensure rental rates do not continue rising. Home Properties’ plan for the north Parcel will provide desperately needed new affordable housing in downtown Silver Spring.
The other reason was smart growth. The Washington Smart Growth Alliance recognized the project in 2007, noting its open space, “much-needed” grocery store, and affordable housing. The redevelopment would replace 182 units with 1,000, boosting the density from just over 24 to over 132 units per acre. In the words of Montgomery county development blogger Dan Reed (and University of Maryland architecture undergraduate), “Anything short of fifteen-story buildings next to the Silver Spring Metro seems like a waste if we could be getting people out of their cars.”
Although all-for density, Dan’s not supporting the specific North Parcel proposal, and for good reason. He notes the project fails to create an urban streetscape, describing the site plan as “suburban,” concluding:
Falkland Chase sets a very high standard for anything that should go in its place. Call them ordinary, but they’re of better quality than most garden apartments in East County. If anything is built at Falkland North, it should be something that doesn’t just deliver density, but can create the kind of lively, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that Downtown Silver Spring needs more of.
The sentiment is echoed by Greater Greater Washington.
Although the project will contain “affordable” units under the county’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit law. While people throw around the word affordable in these debates, when you examine the prices set by the MPDU law they can be surprisingly high. Set at 60% of area median income, the developer’s estimate puts the rent for a two-bedroom apartment for a family of three at around $1,000. However, under the developer’s plan the 282 affordable units would be located in the new building, the existing Falkland Apartments, and other properties in the county they own where affordability restrictions are expiring. (The duration of affordability restrictions was originally 30 years, meaning many are now expiring)
To Preserve or Not?
As is typical with preservation controversies, the issue of whether to preserve the specific building is tangled up with a specific proposal for the land. Although this may make sense in some cases where brutal anti-development realpolitik is called for to save a threatened gem, in this case I’m not sure it’s appropriate. I don’t think the entire complex warrants protection, but I also think the development proposal can and should be improved.
First, I’m not convinced the historical uniqueness of the property warrants protection of the entire complex. Although a good example of a garden apartment, the Washington region has no shortage of them and the specific building and architect are not exceptional. Unlike the case of the totally unique Comsat building which I thought ought to be protected. Additionally, many garden apartments exist throughout the region, and the nearby Greenbelt, Maryland, is a more unique and comprehensive example of the history of urban development in the 1930s.
Second, I think the need for Smart Growth and new deed-restricted affordable housing outweighs the preservation interest for the north parcel. The site, located across the street from a Metro station and near jobs and major roads should be developed more densely than it is currently. This image illustrates the greater context of the complex:
The relationship between affordable housing and historic preservation is nuanced. At times, preservation can serve affordability by protecting the existing housing stock and preventing large scale lot consolidation (particularly at the neighborhood level). However, as Megan points out, there’s nothing inherent with preservation that will prevent increasing rents and gentrification. In fact, I’ve seen some argue that historic preservation can serve as an agent of gentrification, boosting housing values. Although the MPDUs aren’t exactly cheap, they are legally protected affordable units.
Lastly, I think the existing proposal can and should be improved. Dan Reed hits the nail on the head in his assessment of the proposal: “”Falkland North puts density right where it’s needed, by the Metro. But what it lacks is human and neighborhood scale. Falkland North is a super-building, fifteen stories high and roughly a thousand feet wide.” He points out it would be larger than many existing buildings in Silver Spring’s downtown. As a model for a more urban proposal, he points to a conceptual drawing created by county planners in the 1990s.
Tonight’s hearing marks the end of the formal process for deciding what to protect, however I have a sense the issue is far from settled. Not only could legal appeals draw out the final decision, but the current economic situation means the existing proposal will likely be delayed. None of these reasons are likely to dilute the rhetorical pyrotechnics at tonight’s meeting, however, for which we have a July column from Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher as a preview, where Richard Longstreth is quoted as likening the proposal as ripping the corners off a Michelangelo and Silver Spring preservationist Mary Reardon complains Smart Growth isn’t supposed to “mow down everything near a transit hub.” Fisher lets the developer have the last word in his column: “We all know we need the housing. If not here, where?” Where indeed.
> Montgomery Planning Board Falkland Documents from July 2008, Planning Board Amendment November 2008
> Just up the Pike Blog: “Another vision for Falkland’s North Parcel,” “Ordinary or not, falkland chase sets high standard for redevelopment”
> W. Post: “Redevelopment Plan Angers Residents of Silver Spring Apartment Complex” (2/26/09), “Yesterday’s Charm, Today’s Convenience” (11/29/08), “Nostalgia May Trump New Housing in Montgomery” (6/5/08)
> Wash. Business Journal: “Falkland Apartments in Silver Spring face historic review” (5/16/08)