The Seventh-day Adventist Church announced yesterday that it had sold the Takoma Park center that has served as its world headquarters for more than 80 years, a valuable 10.5-acre package only a block from the Takoma Park Metro station.
Officials of the Development Group of Laurel, Maryland developers who agreed to pay $14 million for the five buildings and a large parking lot on three sites, said they have no immediate plans to develop the property.
But the transaction could bring major changes to Takoma Park, one of the District's oldest suburbs, and to its struggle for a controlled revitalization of the turn-of-the-century community.
The church, which has 4.3 million members worldwide, will continue to occupy the three buildings on the District side of Eastern Avenue NW and the two on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park on a lease-back arrangement while a new headquarters is constructed on an undeveloped site in Silver Spring at Randolph Road and Rte. 29.
Takoma Park, a highly vocal, generally activist community of 17,000 straddling the Montgomery and Prince George's County line and reflected in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of the same name, has been heavily influenced by the Adventist church since 1903, when the evangelical denomination's headquarters was moved there from Battle Creek, Mich.
"The church has been a stabilizing influence for many years," Rino Albrighetti, a Takoma Park City Council member, said yesterday. "We'll miss them, but time goes on."
The church's hospital and college, also in Takoma Park, are not affected by the move.
Tom Munz, a partner in the development group, said that arrangement was one of the attractions of the deal. "We have a tenant for three years," he said, while the area has time "to grow up a bit. We're waiting for the area to elevate slightly."
Munz said the properties, which are zoned for commercial use, "are in an up-and-coming area and that's what we like about them . . . . But truthfully, we don't have any plan."
Takoma Park Mayor Sammie A. Abbott, vacationing in Florida, said in a telephone interview that he had met with the purchasers "a couple of times, discussing the possibilities."
He said the community is "interested in anything coming in that is compatible with the area."
Takoma Park has struggled to maintain its comfortable, small-town character since before the Metrorail station at Eastern and Carroll avenues opened in 1978. But it is also trying to revitalize the largely residential community where some of the houses date from the 1890s and are protected by historic preservation designations. For example, citizens forced Metro to reduce a planned 400-car parking lot at the station to about 100 spaces.
The town's resistance to extensive commercial development is partly enforced by geography. The elevated B&O Railroad line that borders the town "is a Chinese Wall," said Abbott, adding that Eastern Avenue, the main thoroughfare, "can't be widened, so there's a limit on traffic."
Development of the Adventist properties on the District side of Eastern Avenue will be restricted to light commercial buildings, no more than 50 feet high, or about five stories, which could range from a veterinary hospital to a bowling alley -- provided the walls are sound-proofed. An apartment building would be permitted, but no light manufacturing.
However, Abbott said he has discussed the possibility of "light computer industry" with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who "gave the assurance we could go before the board and argue" for a variance.
New construction on the Maryland side is limited to 3 1/2 stories and is zoned for "mixed commercial, offices, retail and residential," said Travis Price III, an architect-planner who is building "a shopping center, but village shops" in Takoma Park's Old Town area.
Price said the $14 million the development group will pay the church for its five buildings over the next three years "is low -- they got a good deal."
He characterized the developers, who operate in Prince George's, Montgomery and Frederick Counties, as "real pragmatic guys. This is their first big urban venture."
"We really haven't enough space" in the Takoma Park facilities, said Robert Nixon, the church's communications officer.
Straddling the D.C.-Maryland line has also caused administrative problems, he said. "It's always a question of under what tax law" a particular unit of the church falls.
"Then there's the convenience of it all, of having the headquarters in one complex where you don't have to put on a coat and cross two intersections" to visit a colleague's office.