Developer offers to build church along with homes

But residents fear proposal would drive more traffic into area

Article Published on - Janurary 27, 2010 [view]

by Jason Tomassini

For the second time in five years, developers are proposing a mixed-use redevelopment that would add retail and townhomes to the site of First Baptist Church in Silver Spring, and again many nearby residents are opposing the project and its potential impact on the neighborhood.

The existing First Baptist Church building at Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring dates back to 1928 and has deteriorated to the point that, at $8 to $10 million, renovating the church would be more costly than building a new one, said the church's pastor Rev. Duncan McIntosh. In 2008, without the funds to build a new church facility, the First Baptist entered a land-use agreement that would sell part of the property to Washington, D.C.-based developer LaKritz-Adler. The developer will build a 210,000-square-foot building with 180 apartments in exchange for building a new church. The deal is contingent on the plans being approved by the church and the Montgomery County Planning Board, McIntosh said.

"It's a creative way to leverage the value of the land to get a new church that will serve them for 50 years," said Mark Bombaugh, an associate principal of the residential project's Silver Spring-based architect Torti Gallas and Partners. Bombaugh spoke Monday night at a meeting with the East Silver Spring Citizens Association.

In 2005, residents opposed redevelopment plans at First Baptist because it would have required a zoning-text amendment allowing 90-foot-tall buildings in the Fenton Village neighborhood of Silver Spring. The plans were scrapped after developers realized the amendment didn't have support from the public or the county's Park and Planning commission.

The maximum building height allowed in Fenton Village is 60 feet, which would not be exceeded in the latest plans.

"This time, we are pretty sure that it's going to work out, because we are doing it by code," McIntosh said Tuesday in a phone interview. If not, the church may be forced to move, merge with another church or dissolve, because it can't afford the roughly $1 million in repairs needed for the existing building, McIntosh said. "It's unlikely we will survive another church project," he said.  

But Monday night, residents opposed adding 140 underground parking spaces and 180 residential units to an already-busy intersection that is only expected to get busier in coming years.

Developers would build on the church's existing 60-space surface parking lot, and First Baptist's roughly 600 congregants, divided among three congregations, would park in the nearby Wayne Avenue parking garage, as many do now, Bombaugh said. The only entrance to the underground garage would be located on Bonifant Street, a street already used by drivers looking to avoid the treacherous Wayne-Fenton intersection, residents said.

With the new Silver Spring Library, which will include a residential component and future Purple Line stop, also proposed for that intersection, residents feared what traffic could be like at Wayne-Fenton in five years.

"For 140 cars to enter only on Bonifant will destroy the neighborhood," said Rhoda Schulzinger, an east Silver Spring resident. "I can't fathom how you can think we are going to want to live in a neighborhood like this."

Some residents were supportive of the project, arguing that because of the future Purple Line stop and the site's proximity to the Metro, many of the project's future residents would utilize public transportation.

"People will have to make a decision of, ‘I can drive in hell or have a nice, walkable, neighborhood,'" said Silver Spring resident Daniel Morales.

Because the church's congregation has not yet been presented with plans for the project, McIntosh said he would not comment on the proposed development. Plans for the church building, which is being designed by a separate architect than the residential building, will be presented to the congregation in February. McIntosh has reviewed the layout of the site with LaKritz-Adler.

The 45,000-square-foot church would be placed on the interior of the site with the residential building located along Wayne, Fenton and Bonifant to improve access to the building's street-level retail. The building would be six stories near Wayne and increase to seven floors as the site slopes downward toward Bonifant, Bombaugh said. A roughly 7,500-square-foot park planned between the church and the residential building would be open to the public, except when used by the church's day care program, Bombaugh said.

Plans will be submitted to the planning board at the end of February and if the plans receive the necessary board and church approvals, construction could begin in two years, Bombaugh said. Completion of the project is tentatively scheduled for 2014.

By that point, several other projects planned for Fenton Village – projects that will also match the maximum building height – could be completed or under construction, leaving residents with what they fear is a drastically different neighborhood than the one they currently enjoy.

"This sets the precedent to build five- and six-story buildings all along Fenton Village," said Silver Spring resident Karen Burditt. "That's a precedent I'm not sure the community can support."

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