Nostalgia May Trump New Housing in Montgomery

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 5, 2008; Page B01

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that is next door to the Metro tracks and one block from downtown Silver Spring proposes to replace some cramped, outdated housing with a denser development, including nearly 300 moderately priced units, you might expect to hear hurrahs.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 Chase 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 Falkland Chase was one of the first apartment projects backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

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

Which happens to be exactly what Home Properties, which owns the apartments, intends to create if it can persuade the county to let it 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 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, 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.

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