Concept plan presented for Lutheran Concordia site

October 12, 2015

Photo courtesy the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation.

BY CAROLINE SELLE — Editors Note: This piece was originally published on Oct. 12 missing a section.  The former Lutheran Concordia School site at 3705 Longfellow Street has been on the market for three years, and a new concept development plan from the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (CDC) hopes to change that. In partnership with Hailey Development, the Hyattsville CDC is considering a plan which would rehabilitate the school building and develop it into artist residential studios with townhomes on the surrounding property.

The church, which still owns the building, came to the Hyattsville CDC more than a year ago, said Executive Director Stuart Eisenberg. He said it’s a challenging property to develop, because its use is restricted by zoning.

The potential design for the space includes 20 townhouse units plus 10 artists residential studios in the existing school building, as well as two-car garages for each of the townhomes and a parking lot for the studios. A paved fire lane would need to run along the side of properties adjacent to Concordia’s field..

Currently, the site is designated as a traditional residential neighborhood (TNR) under zoning regulations. To construct townhomes, any developer would need to seek an amendment that enables adaptive reuse.

The school building is contaminated with asbestos and is quite literally falling apart. During a Sept. 29 open house held by the Hyattsville CDC, broken ceiling tiles, peeling paint, and a variety of other structural issues were clearly visible.

“We’re being very forthcoming and trying to address something that’s on the verge of blight and bring something new that builds the tax base and from where I sit [is] a minimal impact on the community,” Eisenberg said. “… But always there’s a balance.”

At the open house, Eisenberg presented poster boards with the concept development plan as well as photographs of similar rehabilitated schools around the country.

“… We are not yet ready to proceed with any proposal until we have completed our analysis and have had sufficient positive feedback,” the Hyattsville CDC’s flyer for the open house read.

The property is located in the Castle Manor neighborhood and the Councilmember Shani Warner’s ward.

“I love that Hyattsville CDC is trying to figure out a win-win situation for the city and the owners of the property,” Warner (Ward 2) said. “Whatever we decide now is probably going to affect the next 20 to 30 years of the life of the building.”

She said she has heard some calls for the site to be developed into the community center, but that it’s a difficult financial situation. “Very recently we had these two properties,” she said, in reference to the Arcade and BB&T buildings, “… And we didn’t have the money or the political will [for certain kinds of development].”

“For a developer it has to be profitable, and that’s the reason for the townhouses,” Warner said. “The more units you can sell, the more interested a developer will be in taking on the project.”

While some residents vocalized outright opposition, others said they considered the ideas showcased by the Hyattsville CDC to be the lesser of two evils.

Mary Graham, whose property bumps up against the school said, “I don’t feel like what’s happening here is an opportunity to stop it cold … If we don’t want the [Hyattsville] CDC plan, the property will be put on the market and we’ll be dealing with another developer.”

“I’d like to see it stay a school,” Mark Graham said. “… That may be optimistic, but that’s what it’s been zoned for for all these years.”

Others were more stridently opposed.

“It looks like we have to suffer because they want to get rich,” said Hilda Castaldo, who lives on Kennedy Street.

“I’ve seen development come in and destroy neighborhoods,” said Michael Vanison Sr., who lives on 38th Avenue.

“We just don’t want them in our neighborhood. That’s all there is to it,” said V. Faye Drain, a resident on Kennedy Street. “… The worst nightmare you can think of to happen is to have townhomes in your backyard.”

“As the neighbors, I don’t think we have to take it as a given,” said Sam Gamble. He also lives on Kennedy Street close to the site. “I think most of us like things the way they are.”

He and other residents cited concerns about parking, traffic, and other issues — like rodents — that could come along with more people in one place.

Right now, the neighborhood is a quiet one, with several one-way streets and large trees. It’s full of homes built in the early 1940s. Many of those living along Kennedy Street, 38th Avenue, and Longfellow Street said the grassy space next to the abandoned school building is currently used as a dog park by local residents and for sledding by area children in the winter. Children also use the parking lot to learn to ride bikes, residents said. The area is about a mile’s walk from the West Hyattsville Metro Station.

If the site were to be developed, several residents said they would like to see fewer units. Others said stormwater runoff was a big issue.

“It’s coming through like a waterfall,” Althea Gamble said.

“There is definitely a stormwater problem,” said Jonathan Morris, who owns a property on Kennedy Street. “I’m optimistic that that will have to be fixed.”

Residents said they are also frustrated by the lack of maintenance on the property, where shrubs are so overgrown that from some areas it is difficult to see the school yard.

One of the positives of development, Morris said, would be a less blighted lot.

And, he said, “Having an arts use there seems like a great idea.”

“I think it fits very well with the city’s vision, with the county’s vision, and fits into the neighborhood very well,” Eisenberg said. “We would certainly be open to structuring arts programming there if that’s what the community wants.”

Due to the property owners’ timeline, the Hyattsville CDC will likely need to make a decision by the end of October at the latest, Eisenberg said.

“I genuinely want to hear what [residents’] reactions are,” Warner said. “I would definitely encourage people to speak up sooner rather than later.”

If the property is sold, Warner said, “Basically the one thing we would be doing is if it gets sold to a developer, we could get to write a letter saying whether we approve.”

If residents have concerns, “I hope that what they’ll do is come to us,” Eisenberg said. “At this point we don’t have anything on the table and there won’t be anything on the table if we don’t feel a consensus.”

“… We’re doing something unusual, which is asking neighbors if they’d welcome it,” Eisenberg said. “We’re only interested in doing a project that’s welcome.”

However, Eisenberg said he doesn’t see any other viable projects due to economic realities.