Lillian Springirth, 81, stood on the porch of her trim Wheaton home last week and stared wistfully at the weather-beaten Pleasant View Elementary School, which has been vacant and vandalized in the two years since Montgomery County officials closed it because of plummeting student enrollment.
"It's dumb for the school to be settin' there doing nothing," said Springirth, who has lived on Upton Drive, a stone's throw from the school, for 49 years. "People have tried to set it on fire several times. Can't they find a better use than that?"
Montgomery housing officials believe they can, and last week they proposed converting the 58,000-square-foot school building into apartments for 50 single-parent families. If approved by the county planning board, County Council and County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, the renovation would mark the first time a former Montgomery school would be used for housing.
A successful conversion could also mark the end to an extremely bitter debate over the use of the old Belt Junior High School building, also in Wheaton, which a nonprofit group called Crossway Community wants to convert into apartments for households headed by single parents.
After months of stiff opposition from Belt's neighbors to the conversion proposal, Crossway now is considering Pleasant View as an alternate site for its apartments, a spokeswoman said.
If the Pleasant View renovation "can be worked through faster than Belt, we're willing to be the instrument for that plan," said Crossway president Mable Granke, a planning board member who has vowed not to participate in board decisions affecting Crossway proposals.
Granke stressed that Crossway has not yet abandoned its proposal for Belt, but added, "We're very interested in Pleasant View."
In recent weeks, county officials have urged Crossway to scale down its original proposal for 130 apartments to 50 in the 92,000-square-foot Belt building. By design, 50 is also the number of units recommended for Pleasant View.
Richard J. Ferrara, director of the county's housing and community development department, said his proposal for Pleasant View coincides with the goals of Crossway. Ferrara added that he expects Crossway to apply for a contract to sublease the apartments at the smaller elementary school.
"We'd be accomplishing two things at the same time," he said, creating housing for single parents and their families and saving the school building. Montgomery officials say the number of single-parent households in the county has more than doubled in 10 years to 14,192 in 1980; about 125 people could live at Pleasant View, which the county would remodel with $1.5 million in federal funds.
Saving the school is a top priority for Springirth and other neighbors who have watched the building rapidly deterioriate as vandals broke all its windows and passers-by dumped refuse and broke glass bottles in the school parking lot. Today, the school building is boarded up and its doors barred; a visitor last week found a huge pile of rubbish, including a mattress, box spring and sofa-bed, discarded in the parking lot.
Someone also had spray-painted the words "death squad" in huge letters near the front door of the school, which was built in 1952 and added onto over the next 14 years.
"It's such a shame to see what's happened," said Springirth, who moved to the neighborhood long before the school or nearby Wheaton Plaza were built.
Springirth, who had one of her five children attend Pleasant View, said she favored the county's plan to open apartments there. "It's a good idea. People need a place to live," she said.
Other neighbors were more circumspect. "As long as they Pleasant View tenants mind their own business and let us mind ours, I wouldn't have much problem," said Mary Clays, who has lived next door to the school for 15 years. "But I'd have to wait and see," she added. John H. McAleer, president of the College View Estates Citizens Association, which represents 200 families in the neighborhood, said many residents are "not thrilled" by the county's plan. Last year, the citizens' group endorsed a longstanding government proposal to covert Pleasant View to garden apartments for the elderly; the latest plan "came out of the clear blue sky" without adequate notice, McAleer said.
Government officials "want to get rid of the issue at Belt and shift it over here," added McAleer, who has lived on nearby Norris Street for 26 years. "We're not against the re-use of the school, but this is coming in through the back door."
Ferrara, anticipating such opposition to his plan, already has offered a key concession to homeowners in the neighborhood. Unlike the case with Belt Junior High, the county government would retain ownership of Pleasant View and then sublease it to a group such as Crossway.
County control over the apartments, the relatively small scale of the conversion and Pleasant View's location at the end of Upton Drive may make apartments more palatable to neighbors, officials said. Prospective tenants would be attracted to the apartments because of their low rents and proximity to a central business district, bus stops and job opportunities, Ferrara said.
Montgomery officials already have started a series of meetings with residents near Pleasant View and hope to accelerate the government's months-long process of deciding how to re-use its defunct schools.
An apartment complex at Pleasant View "is kind of an experimental idea and we anticipate heat from neighbors, although not as much as at Belt," Ferrara said. "We think this could work. As it is now, Pleasant View is going to waste."