Montgomery County officials will ask the Historic Preservation Commission next week to grant permission for the demolition of Silver Spring's historic armory, which they say must be razed to make way for the $321 million "town center" redevelopment project for the deteriorated downtown.
The Silver Spring Armory, a 71-year-old castle-like structure that once housed the Maryland National Guard, occupies a plot at the intersections of Pershing Drive, Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. That land, county officials said, is key to their plans to build a seven-story parking garage in the heart of Silver Spring's retail and business district.
The county would like the preservation commission to grant a work permit to tear down the building, which a county ordinance allows if it is determined that the demolition is for the public good.
"I think the historic characteristics are not in dispute," commission Chairman George Kousoulas said. "This is a historic building and it has to be given the protection it deserves. But our ordinance -- and I think it's a very good ordinance -- has never been used before. I think you want to use it sparingly."
A group of residents say the ordinance should not be used at all. The armory is a Silver Spring landmark, a community gathering place and an architectural attraction that should not be destroyed, they say. They want the planners to consider other downtown locations for additional parking spaces, and will ask the nine-member historic commission at a hearing on Tuesday to deny the permit.
"Demolishing a historic building is not something to be done lightly, but I know a majority of the community wants to see this development project happen," said Gary Stith, the county's redevelopment manager.
The two-story brick Gothic revival structure, with limestone accents and towers, was built in 1927 for the National Guard to practice its drills. Today, the building hosts civic, business and governmental meetings and church groups, and individuals rent the space for wedding receptions and dances. Hundreds of members of the Washington Bridge League play cards there every Thursday. On Saturday, part of the Ethnic Heritage Festival was relocated to the armory during a rainstorm.
The building is used more than 300 days of the year, according to county officials. Low rental fees -- which range from $800 to $1,200 for the large hall and $65 to $500 for the smaller rooms, depending on the day of the week -- make it a popular gathering place.
"I thought this was a given," said Marcie Stickle, a Takoma Park resident who is leading an effort to preserve the armory. "We like the revitalization project. We like a lot about it. But we want to keep our armory. It's so nice to have this openness, to have a block that breathes in a city."
But parking studies commissioned by the county point out a need for more parking spaces close to the City Place Mall and other stores in downtown Silver Spring.
"There just didn't seem to be any other way to develop in any other location," Stith said. "If we make it difficult to come to Silver Spring to shop or go to the movies or to a restaurant, then people will pick other choices. And retailers know that. Without the retailers, there is no project."
The county considered constructing the parking garage around the armory, but concluded that would not be efficient. Moving the armory to another location was considered too difficult and expensive, Stith said.
The redevelopment plan calls for the construction of a new civic building near the town square that would replace the armory as a meeting place, Stith said. Rooms of comparable size with modern amenities would be available for public use at rental rates similar to those at the armory. Also included in the redevelopment plan is a "town center" of shops, movie theaters, restaurants, a hotel, civic and office space, housing, and new parking garages on land that is now largely vacant. In addition to the armory, the site also includes the art deco Silver Theatre and its adjacent shopping center, both historic sites. Those buildings are slated for preservation as part of redevelopment project.
The fact that a declared historic site is being considered for demolition is rare, said Mary Gardner, acting coordinator of the Historic Preservation Section of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
"An effort is always made to not permit the voluntary or involuntary demolition of a designated site," Gardner said. "In that sense, it is uncommon, but it certainly happens from time to time. The whole basis on which you designate something a historic site is because it should not be demolished, voluntarily or accidentally."
A group of armory supporters, including Stickle, are working with a pro bono architect to reconfigure the county's plans, and they will present the new designs to the commission next week. They have circulated petitions and have written letters to historic preservation commissioners and other county officials. And some will speak on the armory's behalf at Tuesday's meeting, which is at 7:30 p.m. at the park and planning commission building, 8787 Georgia Ave.
"I believe if they were to market it properly, it could be a profitable enterprise," said Wayne Goldstein, a Kensington landscaper who staffed a "Save the Armory" booth at Saturday's Ethnic Heritage Festival. "It should be exciting for Silver Spring because it wants to differentiate itself."
For the demolition to occur, the Historic Preservation Commission must prove that removing the armory and constructing the 1,800-space parking garage serves the public better than keeping the building. The commission will hear public testimony and likely will vote on the permit at its next meeting in two weeks, Kousoulas said. If the armory is demolished, the county wants to ensure that Silver Spring's military contributions continue to be recognized. The redevelopment plan calls for a $300,000 veterans monument to be built in the town square.
But Stickle said that's not enough.
"In Europe, a plaza with a church is treasured," she said. "It's the same idea. We ought to treasure this armory." CAPTION: Norman Hoffman, a candidate for Montgomery County executive, is against demolishing the Silver Spring Armory.