Developer in downtown seeks zoning changes for multi-use complex

Silver Spring Historical Society applies to preserve façade or steeple of First Baptist Church of Silver Spring

Article Published on - February 9, 2011 [view]

This story was corrected on Feb. 9, 2011. An explanation follows the story.

by Alison Bryant

A developer hopes to gain the support of the Silver Spring community in changing zoning regulations to allow for a 68-foot mixed-use apartment and retail building across from the new library.

Lakritz Adler Real Estate Investments plans to build mixed-use retail and apartments and rebuild a church on the site now occupied by the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring on Wayne Avenue. But to accommodate the wish of neighboring communities — to reduce density on the Bonifant Street side of the property — the developers will need to request zoning changes to allow for taller buildings on the Wayne Avenue side of the site.

"Right now, that entire block of Fenton is just dead," said Josh Adler, managing partner of LaKritz Adler. "There's no bridge there. This site and the library across the street are the bridge that will connect Fenton Village to the main part of downtown Silver Spring."

Zoning regulations now allow buildings up to 60 feet tall on the entire site. The developer would like to change this text to allow buildings up to 68 feet on the Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street portion of the property. The developer is giving project presentations to groups whose neighborhoods abut the site.

After holding a series of community meetings, which began in late 2009, the developers decided to minimize the project's density on the Bonifant Street side of the side, said Josh Adler, managing partner of LaKritz Adler. A slightly smaller building at this end of the site would uphold a neighborhood feel for residents adjacent to the site.

"By last fall, we felt like we had a revised plan that we thought would be appealing to the neighborhood groups in terms of scaling down Bonifant, making sure that the Bonifant [Street] side of the building has a somewhat different neighborhood look and vibe compared to the Wayne [Avenue] and Fenton [Street] side that would be a little more modern," Adler said.

In the proposed site design, building heights on the Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street corner will stand 72 feet tall and gradually step down to 45 feet tall on the Bonifant Street side, Adler said. Apartments at the highest point will rise six stories and at the lowest point, four stories.

If a zoning text amendment does not pass, then the developers would need to return to a plan that does not necessarily reduce density on the Bonifant Street side of the site, Adler said.

Assuming the developers earn the support of community groups — a sentiment they will gauge in March — they will submit a zoning text amendment and project plan simultaneously to Montgomery County Park and Planning by May 1, Adler said.

The project will include between 200 and 220 apartments and approximately 30,000 square feet of retail space, Adler said. Torti Gallas and Partners, an architecture firm with offices in Silver Spring, will handle the design of the buildings.

The site includes a public pedestrian walkway and plaza. Buildings on the Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue corner will feature a more modern look while those on Bonifant Street will look more traditional.

First-floor retail should activate foot traffic along Fenton Street and into Fenton Village, Adler said.

But the developer may encounter a few obstacles down the line: The Silver Spring Historical Society nominated the First Baptist Church, which now sits on the site, for historic designation on Nov. 24. The church, built in 1956 and designed by local architect Ronald S. Senseman, should be preserved in full or part, said Mary Reardon, preservation chair of the society.

"We're saying we'd love to sit down [with the church's pastor and the developer] and talk about saving part of it," Reardon said. "We certainly would like to save the façade, which faces Wayne [Avenue], and the steeple."

Anyone can nominate a building or property for historic preservation. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission first considers and hears an application for historic designation. Then park and planning hears the application and makes a decision about whether to take action to preserve the building or property.

The church's façade, Reardon said, is a dramatic presence on the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street.

"We don't want to hold things up," Reardon said. "I know that they don't want to lose much time. But this is something that I think is important to the entire community."

But Adler said the church is in extreme disrepair and would be costly to restore.

"The existing building is in such poor condition, and the only way the church can afford to stay in Silver Spring is to have this mixed-use development," Adler said. "This is an essential item for them if they're going to have a future in downtown Silver Spring."

Duncan McIntosh, pastor of the church, cited multiple structural issues with the building that would be costly to repair. The only part of the church up to fire code is the preschool, he said. An 8,000-gallon underground tank of chilled water sprung a leak in 2007, creating a sinkhole on the property. The entire second floor of the 1931 building is sealed off.

The congregation also took in two other churches and now lacks space. First Baptist Church decided to become a federated church with Eglise de la Foi, a Haitian church, and Iglesia Bautista Emanuel, a Spanish church. A federation has multiple self-governing, self-supporting groups that do some things in common, McIntosh said.

"We are three churches in one, divided by language, but not by mission," McIntosh said. "Consequently, the building we currently have no longer serves that function, because we do not have space in that building to hold simultaneous services because the building was built for other things. What we wanted to do was design a building that would give us multiple worship spaces and larger numbers of classrooms because we would be giving education for three churches at the same time."

Correction: The proposed change is to allow buildings up to 68 feet tall.

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