Owners of the Falkland apartments in Silver Spring, still hoping to sell the 24-acre complex despite years of tenant protests, have launched a campaign to defeat the residents' request to have the apartment complex declared a historic site.
In testimony prepared for a Montgomery County planning board hearing this week, principal Falkland owner William D. Blair Jr., backed by an array of lawyers, landmark preservation experts, architects and historians, argued that the 479 apartments along East-West Highway near the District line do not meet county standards for historic designation. Such a designation, they added, could postpone for years development of the site, which is less than half a mile from Silver Spring's depressed commercial core.
"Most of the buildings are eyesores," declared Henry H. Glassie, the attorney for the partnership that owns the Falkland apartments. "If the property is not developed, all you'll end up with is a big slum."
Glassie's comments came during another bitter chapter in the 15-year struggle between the Falkland owners--who include more than 30 members of Montgomery's prominent Blair family--and about 1,200 tenants, who want to preserve their brick town houses and apartments from destruction or sale.
Tenants say they sought the historic designation to preserve the Falkland's community spirit, a neighborhood feeling fostered by backyard gardens and the stately poplars, maples and sycamores dominating the knoll where the homes are located.
"Who wants to live in a damn high-rise?" said Saleta Longley, who moved into a one-bedroom apartment a few years after the complex was completed in 1938. "I wouldn't live anywhere else if they gave it to me rent-free." Longley's rent has climbed over the years from $52.50 to $325 a month, but she and other longtime residents prize their apartments, which are among a dwindling number of moderately priced units in Montgomery.
The decision to place the Falkland on Montgomery's historic master plan rests ultimately with the County Council, but the recommendation of the five-member planning board, expected by mid-October, will be pivotal, officials said. The county historical commission, citing the Falkland's distinction as one of the first projects financed by the Federal Housing Administration, urged planners in 1981 to recommend historic designation.
Blair and others, however, say the Falkland's architecture and history are not distinguished enough to warrant the designation.
"The buildings themselves are nondescript and unimpressive," said Blair, a Chevy Chase resident. "They could be replaced by new buildings, which would preserve the beauty of the site, increase the housing stock and provide an attractive gateway to Silver Spring."
Nicholas A. Pappas, a District architect who submitted testimony on behalf of the owners, called the Falkland architecture "typical of many developer buildings of the '30s and '40s: timid and dull."
Pappas added that while the Falkland was a "familiar visual feature" at the intersection of 16th Street and East-West Highway, the same could be said for "the worst architectural monstrosities of Silver Spring and Bethesda."
Falkland residents, meanwhile, said the contrast between high-rise Silver Spring and their 1930s-vintage neighborhood is worth preserving.
"People don't leave Falkland unless they're transferred or need a bigger place," said Marie Stewart, a woman in her 60s who has lived there since 1941. "It's like Georgetown here, still a really charming place."
Historic designation for the Falkland apartments is no guarantee that they will not be altered or even demolished, according to Marty Reinhart, a planning board staff member.
County officials could allow demolition if the owners proved that maintaining the apartments was an economic hardship or that the "public interest" would be better served through an alternate use, Reinhart said.