Art Works loses decision, but not hope

January 19, 2014

An artistʼs rendering of the exterior of the proposed Art Works renovation project at 4800 Rhode Island Avenue. Photo courtesy Art Works.

BY DANIELLE PROBST — While a December decision by the Historic Preservation Commission seemed likely to derail the planned Art Works/Pizza Paradiso project at the former Marche building, it now appears that the project will go forward, though details are yet to be determined.

On January 8, Art Works issued a statement announcing that they will be appearing a second time in front of the Commissioners on January 21 “as part of a public Historic Area Work Permit meeting where we will be discussing our design plans for the property.”

While public, this meeting is not expected to draw the level of participation and testimony as the earlier one on December 17.  At that well-attended meeting, the Commission voted unanimously to classify the former Marche Florist building as a historic site. That status comes with conditions that might prove unworkable for the combination art school-gourmet pizzeria that many residents want to see open there.

The March Florist building as it currently stands.  Photo courtesy Rebecca Bennett.

The March Florist building as it currently stands. Photo courtesy Rebecca Bennett.

Art Works founder and Executive Director Barbara Johnson initially described herself as “devastated.” However, the new statement concludes on a much more positive note: “We are confident that Art Works and Pizzeria Paradiso will make their homes in Hyattsville in 2014 with great thanks to our community of support.”

Supporters of removing 4800 Rhode Island Avenue from the historic inventory turned out in force for the December hearing, held in Upper Marlboro.

Many shared their hopes for positive economic and community impact as a result of the partnership Art Works has planned with Pizzeria Paradiso to revitalize the property.

Ann and Jonathan Barrett, owners of the Marche House next door, were among the more than 20 residents who spoke in favor of that plan for the site.

Ann, a local realtor and Hyattsville Preservation Association board member, succinctly pointed out that “context was key” in considering the status and future of the building, which has been vacant for seven years.

Time and again during the evening’s testimony, supporters prefaced their remarks by saying they generally favored historic preservation. However, most felt that this particular building was too prosaic for such a designation, and not in keeping with the widespread community support to bring life and business to that end of Baltimore Avenue.

But the issue before the Board centered simply on whether the building met the criteria of an historic resource. And, more vitally for Art Works, whether or not the former Marche Florist building could be removed from the inventory of historic buildings, where it was named as a county resource in 2010.

Had the Commission agreed with the Art Works argument that the property didn’t meet the historic criteria, a building permit would have been granted.

Despite the impassioned comments, the Board adopted the staff recommendation, put forth in a lengthy analysis on December 10, to formally move the building from simply being in in the historical inventory to being a documented Prince George’s County historical site.

In this instance, said Hyattsville Community Development Corporation Executive Director Stuart Eisenberg, “ ‘Historic preservation’ is a technical term … that means something very different to the people on the Historic Preservation Commission than what the neighbors understand it to mean in the vernacular.”

The decision was initially seen as a crushing blow for many of the meeting attendees. Johnson, who is also a principal of the LLC that purchased the building last year, told the Hyattsville Life & Times that “[although] we feel compelled to file an appeal … we hope to have an opportunity to sit down with the Commission in the future to reach a resolution.”

In addition to the meetings later this month, Art Works stated, “We have, because the window for doing so is very short, also filed an appeal of the December 17th ruling that the property is an historic site with the District Council” (the name for the County Council when it decides zoning questions).

Prior to the hearing, supporters sent dozens of letters to commissioners and a MoveOn petition garnered over 500 signatures.

Many people who spoke noted the successful reuse and adaptation of other older properties in town, including the Lustine Center and Franklins. But neither had been designated a Prince George’s County historical site, noted Eisenberg. Franklins was not even part of the Hyattsville Historic District until 2005, he said, and the Lustine property had no designation at all.

As a nonprofit, Artworks is eager to avoid additional costs that the historic designation could bring to the project. During the hearing, Johnson expressed fears that any alterations, such as the planned enlargement of a stairwell to the second floor, would at a minimum confront difficult hurdles under regulations facing historic buildings. Her additional concern was that the momentum and partnership with Pizzeria Paradiso, a crucial partner driving the success of the venture, would be jeopardized if the dual use were not allowed under its new status.

“We’re incredibly buoyed by our community’s passion for this project,” says Johnson. “We are committed to [its] realization.”