County historical preservationists in Prince George's County are scrambling to find a developer to revitalize an 80-year-old railroad roundhouse that Seat Pleasant officials want torn down to make way for a mall.
Unless a developer steps forward in the next few weeks with an offer to refurbish the building, city planners say, they will activate a year-old demolition permit.
Ground breaking for the 72,000-square-foot mall, which the city sees as an important economic development in a high-unemployment area, is scheduled for September.
City officials say that the roundhouse, a relic of a railway company that once refused to take black passengers, is not a significant historical landmark in a city whose population is more than 80 percent black.
The C-shaped roundhouse, overlooking the Addison Road Metrorail stop near Central Avenue, was used to repair engines on the Chesapeake Beach Railway and was abandoned in 1975. Since then, windows have been broken, walls have been overgrown with vines and the yard has become littered with tires and oil cans.
The roundhouse was built between 1901 and 1902 to service trains running between the end of trolly lines in Seat Pleasant, known as Chesapeake Junction until the town was incorporated in 1931, and the bathing and gambling resort of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County.
When the railway failed in the Depression, the roundhouse was taken over by the coal-carrying East Washington Railway, which closed in 1975. The terminal building in Chesapeake Beach is the only other remaining structure of the Chesapeake Beach Railway.
Gail C. Rothrock, a planner with the county's Historic Preservation Commission, said her office has contacted about 30 area developers to drum up interest in restoring the county's only roundhouse.
She said its solid-brick structure and large, open interior would be ideal for a restaurant or theater and, because it is close to a Metro stop, it would be fine for offices. But only two developers have expressed interest, and time is running out.
The building, believed to be one of only eight roundhouses in the eastern United States, has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places and declared eligible, but it can only be placed on the register if the city agrees.
"I think it will be a very important enhancement," Rothrock said. "It's a landmark--one of a kind in the county--and I see no reason to knock it down." Rothrock noted that if the 7,500-square-foot building is listed on the historic register, a developer would be eligible for major tax credits.
Beverly Habada, city planner for Seat Pleasant, said city officials see the building as an eyesore, adding: "The roundhouse has really become a development problem for us."
"The easiest thing, development-wise, is to tear it down," she added. "But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't look at developing it."
She said the city is inclined to take "the path of least resistance." If no developer steps forward to rehabilitate the building within the next few weeks, she said, the city is prepared to demolish it.
"It's not a black history site for us," Habada said. "It's a building for a railroad that, at one time, blacks could not even ride on."
Ernest DiGennaro, a lifelong city resident and retired Washington Terminal Co. railroad employe who is Seat Pleasant's only white council member, said that "to black people the image of the roundhouse would be very unattractive. . . . Back in those days, segregation was very strong and I don't think you ever had any black people using the rail line to Chesapeake Beach, unless they were maids looking after the children or domestic servants."
Mayor Frank Blackwell, noting there is high unemployment in the area, said his first priority is to get the shopping center built.
"We'd prefer to have the roundhouse taken down," he said. "We're trying to enhance economic development and we don't have much vacant land in Seat Pleasant. . . . My first preference would be to take it down. It's in our way."