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Nostalgia Vs. New Housing In Silver Spring

In an era of $4, $5 or even $8 gas, the imperative to live closer to work, use transit and walk to shops will grow with each spike in the price at the pump.

So when the owner of a 1930s garden-apartment complex that is next door to the Metro tracks and one block from downtown Silver Spring proposes to replace some cramped, outdated housing with a denser development, including nearly 300 moderately priced units, you might expect to hear hurrahs.

You'd be wrong. Rather than embrace the addition of much-needed housing to the new downtown that Montgomery County taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, the county planning board has taken the first step toward declaring the Falkland Apartments a historic property that could not be demolished. The board's final vote on the historic designation is set for next week.

What's historic about the 479-unit complex at 16th Street and East-West Highway? Well, Eleanor Roosevelt cut the ribbon when the buildings opened in 1937. And the Falkland was one of the first apartment projects backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

Underwhelmed? Try this: When it was built, the Falkland provided moderately priced housing for civil servants and others of modest means.

Which just happens to be exactly what Home Properties, which owns the apartments, intends to create if they can persuade the county to let them build on just one of the three parcels that make up the Falkland complex.

For a couple of years already, preservationists and residents have managed to stall the proposal to build 1,059 units in mid-rise buildings on the part of Falkland that sits north of East-West Highway.

"People recoil in horror at the idea that Falkland might be demolished," says Mary Reardon, preservation chairman of the Silver Spring Historical Society. Adding a hundred or so new units of affordable housing is "a pittance compared to losing nine acres of this wonderful community. We all support smart growth, but it was never intended to mow down everything near a transit hub," she says.

Reardon says many people still want to live in low-rise apartments, surrounded by green space, near a Metro station. No doubt she's right about that. But Donald Hague, a Silver Spring resident who is leading Home Properties' effort to redevelop the Falkland parcel, says the apartments there are so small and so lacking in modern amenities that "it's mainly graduate students who move in these days. Families don't want to be there."

Remarkably, preservationists have rejected offers by the developer to have two-thirds of the complex declared historic while the northern piece, already almost surrounded by tall office and apartment buildings, is taken down to add density.

From the way preservation advocates talk about the Falkland buildings, you'd think they were architectural masterpieces rather than garden-variety garden apartments. "Can you take a Michelangelo, rip off some of its corners, and still retain its value?" Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University, asked the planning board at its last hearing on the issue.

There are some lovely old trees on the property and the southern parcel is arranged in a gently inviting manner, but the portion of the complex that the owners want to bulldoze consists of basic brick apartments surrounded mainly by parking lots.

Residents tend to like the place. "It's lush, it's green -- it would be a crime to tear it down," says Jane Bergwin-Rand, who briefly lived in the Falkland in the 1970s, and moved back in two years ago. "I have a little screened-in porch on the third floor and it's like having my own garden."

As sweet a spot as the Falkland may seem to some, change is inevitable. Maryland's proposed Purple transit line, envisioned to run from New Carrollton to Bethesda, would slice off a piece of Falkland, forcing at least two of its buildings to be torn down.

And the success of downtown Silver Spring's retail and office development means ever more people will want to live nearby. That's why a coalition of religious groups called Action in Montgomery negotiated a promise from the developer to set aside 282 units -- two-thirds of them in the proposed buildings and the rest at the company's other properties in the county -- for moderate-income families.

"The preservationists want to save Falkland as a monument to an old kind of affordable housing, but what we need is new affordable units," says Alisa Glassman, lead organizer of the group, which represents 32 congregations.

The developer, desperate to win the politicians' approval, has agreed not to oppose historic designation for the majority of the complex. But at some point, those garden apartments no longer make any economic sense. The county made its choice when it started redeveloping downtown Silver Spring. To cling to ordinary, 70-year-old brick apartments is an act of mere nostalgia.

"We all know we need the housing," Hague says. "If not here, where?"

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  June 5, 2008; 7:25 AM ET
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I love it when reptilian rich developers put on their "green" suits and try to act like they care about the people, instead of the buck. Home Properties operates 38000 apartments in 114 properties in 10 states. They want to tear down Falkland because in its current configuration it doesn't conform to the "New" Silver Spring model: the new concrete canyons of the haute bourgeoisie, with appropriately gigantic rents (and environmental footprints). You call it nostalgia when we preserve the sensible housing of the working class who built Silver Spring. I call it reality. Our past isn't only monuments and mansions. Nor will our future be, I think. Garden-variety garden apartments, and not architectural masterpieces? You say tomatoe, and I say tomato.

Posted by: J. Hume | June 5, 2008 8:55 AM

The compromise that has been proposed to designate the south part of the Falklands as historic and tear down the north part is more than fair. None of that complex is historic.

People who support smart growth and affordable housing in theory always recoil when such policies are put into practice near them. And no group of people pay lip service more piously to those policies, and resist their actual implementation more violently, than Montgomery County dwellers.

Posted by: Lindemann | June 5, 2008 8:55 AM

Having lived in an apartment on that parcel for over three years (up until last year), I have to agree that the owner's redevelopment plan makes a lot of sense and is more than fair from a historic and community perspective. The apartments are quaint, but they're also small, uninsulated, and naturally damp. Also, the apartments on that parcel are not some peaceful, pastoral setting. The building sit right next to the freight/MARC rail line, and the vibrations and noise are constant.

The entire complex needs extensive renovation, and it's better to restore the best parts, while losing the least distinctive area, than allow the entire place to gradually fall apart. Preservation takes money, and the owner has bent over backwards to try to appease everyone.

Posted by: C. Myers | June 5, 2008 10:12 AM

BS Lindemann.

"none of that complex is historic."

Hell, I've seen it my whole life and sometimes you have to put your foot down and say that our community has lost enough of what made it special.

I heard the same complaints about the Tastee.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 5, 2008 10:13 AM

Tastee actually has some architectural interest, as well as being the gathering spot for the community. Falklands are just a bunch of crappy garden apartments.

Posted by: Lindemann | June 5, 2008 1:17 PM

There's always a trade off between modern taste and the conveniences to which we've become accustomed, and the quality and character of historic buildings. With each newer, greener* development, the whole place just gets more and more bland.

As a result, Silver Spring today is a much different place than S.S. 80 years ago, and quaint/cozy places like this one seem out of place. Without any real historic context remaining, it's a tough sell to try to save a 3-story Colonial Revival apartment complex. Unfortunately the replacement will be styrofoam and stucco.

*of course, it's greener to reuse an existing structure than to put this one in a landfill, produce and truck in 100s of tons of materials to build new high-rises

Posted by: SA | June 5, 2008 1:20 PM

The plan as I last heard it is to reuse some of the material to renovate the other two parcels. E.g., the wood floors would be put in the existing townhomes that don't currently have wood floors, and woodwork and brick could be used to repair damaged pieces in the other buildings. Given the choice between leveling previously unused land for a sprawling suburban community and demolishing a small, non-unique, and architecturally insignificant group of structures near a metro station, I'd choose the latter, especially if it means the rehabilitation of the rest of the parcel.

Also, SA, I don't know to what you're referring when you say "styrofoam and stucco." Hyperbole, perhaps? The plans I saw were for a brick high-rise.

Posted by: C. Myers | June 5, 2008 1:56 PM

The reason I attended the dedication of these apartments in 1937 was because I supported affordable housing. I would rather see more affordable housing constructed now than to turn these old buildings into some kind of shrine. Ask yourself: what would Eleanor do?

Posted by: Eleanor Roosevelt | June 5, 2008 4:15 PM

There's a difference between "historic" and just "old". Learn it, live it.

Posted by: Ryan | June 5, 2008 5:28 PM

We need a place to work and live. Keep it affordable to improve our quality of life. The same vision of Eleanor for today.

Posted by: Abel | June 5, 2008 9:36 PM

Hey, I'm all for well-planned redevelopment. Sounds like the whole area has lost its pre-Metro, pre-Beltway appearance anyway.

I'm just saying... newer and bigger is not necessarily better or greener, even when some materials are reused (although they get props for trying). It takes communication/pressure to get to come up with a good product. Builders have to make a profit and don't have to live with the results, so it's up to neighbors to hold them to higher standards. As they say, you get the community you deserve, so get involved and check out the plans. Step back and look at the big picture, then step in and really look at the details.

They don't really do many brick high-rises. Too heavy. More likely it would be steel/concrete with a brick-veneer or EIFS (stuccoed foam).

Posted by: sa | June 5, 2008 11:47 PM

That was a great post! Well done.

Posted by: cups | June 6, 2008 8:12 AM

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