Montgomery County has designated a 60-year-old country store in Bethesda as historic only weeks after its owners, Suburban Hospital, announced plans to put a parking lot on the site.
"Frankly, that store is no more historic than a 7-Eleven or a High's," hospital spokeswoman Lynn L. Frank said this week. She said some neighbors asked the hospital to hold off implementing its plans and then began working to get the building declared historic without informing Suburban of their intentions.
However, Frank said Suburban directors already had decided that the Bethesda Community Store could stay even before they discovered it was being considered for a historic designation. The designation, approved by the Planning Board last week, prevents the store from being altered or removed without special permission from the county.
"We thought it was an eyesore," said Frank of the one-story, frame building that Suburban purchased in January along with three neighboring houses across Old Georgetown Road from the hospital. "But when a survey showed that the neighbors were in favor of keeping it, then we decided it should stay. We want to be good neighbors. They did not have to go to the trouble of getting it historical status, especially when it does not warrant it."
Neighbors, planning staff and preservation commission members say, however, that the old store, with its sagging front porch and Coca-Cola sign, is a historic reminder of the days when Bethesda was a rural community.
Joe Gannon, president of the neighboring Huntington Terrace Citizens Association, said most residents want the store to remain because it serves the elderly and the children who do not have easy access to downtown Bethesda.
"Some people do object to the store because of the trucks parked there," Gannon said. "Yet a survey definitely came down on the side of keeping the store. It adds a certain tone to the neighborhood. Some people even have sketches of the store in their homes."
Gannon said the store is just one factor in negotiations between the neighbors and Suburban regarding the hospital's plan to build an ambulatory care unit and a parking garage on its nine-acre site and a parking lot across the street, next to the Bethesda Community Store. He said that the negotiations, which have carried through to this week, are going well, although details have not yet been worked out.
The County Historic Preservation Commission, which started researching the store's historical significance shortly after being alerted by neighbors in February, reported that the store is the sole remaining structure in the area reminiscent of rural Bethesda. The report stated at length that the use of the building as a community store added to its historical significance. The building itself represents a simple, utilitarian architectural style, according to the report.
"They seemed to be saying that the historical significance is that it is still used as a store," Frank said. "Our architects tell us the building is in no way historic."
The store is leased by operator Bill Henderson, who supported its historic designation, Frank said. She added that the hospital will continue with the lease and eventually may sell the building to Henderson or any other interested buyer.
Frank said the hospital will go before the county Planning Board in a few weeks to request the special exceptions needed to build a 48,000-square-foot ambulatory-care building, a 570-space underground parking lot and an above-ground parking lot across Old Georgetown Road where the three houses neighboring the store now stand.
"They are absolutely falling apart and have to come down," she said of the clapboard houses.
Suburban, a nonprofit hospital with 375 beds, is negotiating with the neighbors regarding the new building and the traffic it may create. She said the hospital is also offering to screen the above-ground parking lot, originally slated for 113 parking spaces but now planned for 63 spaces because the store will remain on its one acre lot undisturbed.
"We need support from the community so we are more than willing to work with them," she said.
Suburban needs the above-ground parking lot because it will save on the cost of constructing a larger, underground garage, she said.
"Every above-ground parking space saves us $12,000 in construction costs," she said. "So we've already forfeited a lot by keeping the store."
Gannon said neighborhood negotiators are not willing to discuss their reactions to Suburban's plans, but called the negotiations positive.
"Our main concern is with traffic," he said. "That's something we haven't gotten into very thoroughly yet.