A group of developers wants to turn the vacant Mount Rainier Junior High School into an office and retail complex that would include a day-care center, neighborhood restaurant and a wing for the city's police department and municipal workers.
If Prince George's County zoning officials approve the plan, as expected, the 90,000-square-foot building would become the first closed school in the county to be converted into a multi-use facility.
"We've had other commercial conversions among our surplussed schools, but this is the first mixed-use project to be proposed," said Dale Hutchinson, chief of zoning for the Prince George's County planning board.
None of the 63 schools closed in Montgomery County since the early 1970s for lack of students has been rezoned for commercial use. In fact, volatile and often-prolonged legal battles over proposed uses for surplus schools have often stymied Montgomery County officials who have sought to get elderly or single-parent housing, private schools, government or non-profit users to occupy empty school space.
But county officials in Prince George's County have created a special exception category for the adaptive reuse of public schools. It is designed to allow a wider mix of compatible uses than would be normal in residential neighborhoods where most schools are built and to quickly move the vacant properties back onto the tax rolls.
"We have sold and made use of all but three schools" out of 65 closed schools, said Donald Ellis of the county's property management and services department. "We have not run into many community problems at all."
Mount Rainier officials, who govern the 1 1/2-square-mile incorporated community, said they welcome the reuse proposal by the Dulles-area development group called InterGate, saying that the school -- closed in June 1982 -- is an eyesore that detracts from the vitality of the town of 8,000.
"What you have here is a very large building that has stood vacant for too long," said City Council member Donald Hibbard. "It created a nuisance and takes away from the area's economic prosperity with the usual perceptions of abandonment and decline."
Mount Rainier Mayor Stanley Prusch said, "We have some concerns with the project which we are trying to work out, like noise and traffic and safety of the children in day care. I don't want the residents up there shafted . . . but generally we are very pleased. We want it rebuilt and used to bring in money for the city. Right now that empty shell is not generating any tax revenues."
Prusch said he wants the developers to erect visual barriers between the junior high and the nearby Queens Town, Queens Manor and Arundel Arms apartments and petition the State Highway Administration to put a traffic signal at the intersection of 30th Street and Queens Chapel Road.
City manager Thomas E. Hauenstein said the former school grounds often are littered with trash and that an alarm system goes off even if the intruder only is a bird that flies in through a shattered window, causing havoc for local security forces.
Prusch and Council member Doyle Niemann asked state legislators in Annapolis this week to award the city $250,000 in matching funds so that it can buy a 10,000-square-foot wing in the refurbished building to house city hall chambers, public hearing rooms, a library and offices for the 15-man police force.
Hibbard said: "The present municipal building is totally inadequate. It is the original city hall built in 1919. So if we can strike a reasonable deal with the developer, it makes sense to move."
Stephen Hubert, one of the partners at InterGate, estimated the renovation will cost about $1.8 million. The partnership paid the county $80,000 for the former junior high.
Present plans call for the old cafeteria and multi-purpose room to be torn down to make room for parking. The gymnasium will become a large storage warehouse for one tenant, possibly a furniture store, Hubert said.
He said the day-care center proposed for 60 children will only be economical if "we can get some sort of corporate or public backing. The economics of day-care are not an easy thing to overcome, but we want to try and make it work."
Part of Mount Rainier is in the Rte. 1 corridor north of the D.C. line that Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening has targeted for revitalization, although to date, most of the refurbishing effort has focused on College Park and Hyattsville, said Niemann, a member of the county's Economic Development Advisory Committee.