To Montgomery County officials, it is part of Capital Improvements Project No. 78-3019; Parking Lot No. 49; Site No. 6.
Numbers. But behind the numbers are names: Tasos (Gus) Scilaris, Thomas (Coach) Hite, Harold (Red) Miller, Jim Jacobin and Mike Sklar, John and Sylvia Stallsmith, Sandy Shorter and her brother Gregory.
All of them own businesses that are part of what the county government calls Site No. 6, and plans to turn into Parking Lot No. 49.
All of them faced Christmas this year with grim faces and an uncertain future. "It's a sickening feeling," said Hite, who has run McDonald's Raw Bar for 30 years. "When they tear the place down I don't want to be in town. I can't even think about it."
Hite's restaurant, a Bethesda landmark, sits on a small peninsula of land on Old Georgetown Road with four other small family businesses. Next to the Raw Bar is the Treat Well Inn, J.O.X. Sporting Goods, Postal Instant Press and Brookville Valet. Just across the street is Miller's Texaco.
All are footnotes in CIP No. 78-3019, small businesses scheduled for extinction so the county can build a 1,600-car parking garage needed because of the coming of the Metro subway and three major building projects scheduled for the area.
Standing on the street in front of The Raw Bar, one can see the future swooping in on the tiny buildings: Construction cranes, developers' signs and, rising to the east, a Metro station scheduled for opening in a little more than a year. The Christmas tinsel seems almost out of place in the windows of the older buildings that soon will be surrounded by glittering high rises.
"We are building a garage to accommodate everyone in Bethesda," said Joseph Tracy, director of the county Department of Transportation. "This is not a case of us favoring big business over small business. We're trying to help everybody."
The owners of the small businesses do not see it that way. The county talks about helping them relocate and they laugh sarcastically.
"How do I relocate?" asked Scilaris, 47, who emigrated from Greece with his wife, Golfo, in 1966. Scilaris worked as a waiter in a downtown restaurant until he saved enough money to buy the Treat Well, a tiny, six-booth restaurant, in 1970. "If I move my rent will double or triple. I can barely afford this. It will be impossible. It will be for me the end, finished."
What has made the situation particularly difficult for the merchants is that all of them, with the exception of Hite, had no idea that they were in any danger until last summer. Under the county's eminent domain law, if the county decides it is going to take over a piece of property, it must provide "adequate notice" to the owner. It must also try to help with relocation, usually providing some form of cash settlement for an owner or his tenants. Hite, who purchased the land his restaurant sits on in 1976, received notice that his business was in danger in 1980 when the county planning board decided on Site No. 6.
Hite assumed the other merchants on the block had received similar notices. But the others are tenants and therefore the county did not have to provide them with any notice. Their landlords had not told them what was happening, they said. In one case, because the landlord assumed his tenant would at least be able to finish his lease, in another because the notices were never opened.
Only a fluke accident last June provided the tenants with a clue to their fate. Scilaris opened what he assumed was a piece of junk mail sent to his landlord at the restaurant and almost went into shock.
"Gus came running in with this letter," remembered Sandy Shorter, who took over operation of the Brookville Valet when her father died 18 months ago. "We knew about Metro, we knew about the construction in the area, but no one told us we were going to get creamed like this. My family was just getting to the point of realizing life could go on without Dad, and then this."
The county held a hearing on takeover of the property last month and the hearing examiner, Lewis Roberts, sent a recommendation to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist Thursday.
Luiz Simmons, the lawyer hired by the merchants, had asked Roberts to consider another site--No. 3--on the grounds that the planning board initially chose that site for the garage and then changed its mind two weeks later. If denied, Simmons suggested that the county consider building around the 9,000 square-foot area taken up by the businesses.
Roberts agreed with the second recommendation and told Gilchrist that if that was not feasible, that the displaced merchants should be given the right of first refusal for rental space in the new facility.
"It's a glimmer of hope, nothing more," Simmons said. "Roberts is trying to do the decent thing but they haven't changed the site; they haven't granted a delay; they can still say building around them isn't feasible, and how high would the new rent be? My clients are still probably going to be uprooted in a matter of months."
Simmons, a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly for the last four years, has also approached members of the County Council about changing the eminent domain law so that tenants, too, must receive notice in property takeovers.
"In the entire file on this case, there is never any mention that there are human beings involved here," Simmons said. "These are traditional, family businesses. What they get for relocation isn't going to help them. How do you move a restaurant from the place it's been for 35 years? How do you move a valet when there's no zoning in the area where she can go? If these people had some time, they might have a fighting chance. But they don't even have that."
Last week, as Thomas Hite and his son Tim, 27, sat at a table quietly talking about what they will do when the county takes the property, a man came in to sell food-order checks.
"How many, Tim?" he asked.
"I wish I knew," Tim Hite answered. "I just don't know how long we're going to be in business."
Down the street, at J.O.X. Sporting Goods, Mike Sklar, 70, and Jim Jacobin, 53, were dealing with a similar headache. Sklar has dealt in sporting goods for 45 years and recently bought in to Jacobin's business after another store he ran was taken by the county.
"We couldn't even stock properly for the Christmas holidays," Sklar said, "because no one can even give us a date. It could be next week, it could be next year."
Jacobin first occupied the property in 1960, opening a beauty shop. In 1977, after a heart attack, he converted the shop to a sporting goods store. When Sklar offered to buy him out, he jumped at the chance, hoping he could slow his work pace.
"But now, how can he buy me out?" said Jacobin, a short, soft-spoken man. "If I were Mike, I would not do it."
Each of the business owners has a similar tale to tell. Sandy Shorter's father drove a truck for a dry cleaning firm for 28 years until he bought the Brookville Valet in 1967. "Six days a week he worked 15 hours a day," Shorter said. "This place is all my family has. If they make us move, I don't know if we can even find a place with the proper zoning, much less something affordable."
Red Miller has run his Texaco station for 22 years, since he was 20. Now, at 42, he may have to start over again. "If I had $150,000 it wouldn't be a problem," he said. "But who has that kind of money?"
John and Sylvia Stallsmith moved here three years ago from Philadelphia, leaving their jobs to take a chance on owning their own business. They have sextupled the annual income of their printing business. "This isn't like a grocery store," John Stallsmith said. "We can't just pick up, leave and pick up where we left off."
If the wrecking ball does swing, many of the tears will be shed for the Raw Bar. The musty old restaurant breathes tradition. Early in its lifetime it was the place for area Catholics to eat their Friday fish and over the years it became a neighborhood hangout, a place for buddies to gather to watch the Redskins. David Brinkley was a one-time regular, as was the late Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie, who wrote often about the restaurant and its cast of characters.
Most notable of the characters is "Coach" Hite. He was a Navy aviator in World War II, a shy, baldish man of 62 who is more comfortable in the quiet of his kitchen than out front at the bar, a job usually handled by his more gregarious sons. Each year on Christmas Day, Coach Hite, his wife Evelyn and their family close the restaurant to the public and invite in people who have no place to go for the holiday, and give them a hot meal and the warmth of people who care.
Wednesday, as Tim Hite was explaining this family tradition, the restaurant was suddenly rocked. A loose girder on a construction site next door had banged into the wall, shaking the Christmas ornaments on the walls.
"I don't think it's going to be very much longer now," Coach Hite said, his blue eyes reflecting the sadness of the thought. "We'll go down swinging, but we'll go down."
Twenty-four hours later, County Executive Gilchrist signed Roberts' recommendation. There was no new site suggested. No construction delay. Just a bare glimmer of hope for six families.