What Will Happen to the WSSC Building?

photo-31The key to the future of a major commercial property in the Historic District lies in its zoning.

Now listed for sale, the former home of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission could be renovated for apartments and condos or even used for office space. But almost any use would require a zoning change — and possibly a political fight.

The latest issue of the Hyattsville Life & Times has the details:

A new owner would be under no obligation to preserve the historic shell and may petition for demolition permits and a zoning change from R-55, detached single-family housing — which is what was on the site before 1939. Because WSSC is considered a government entity, it is not bound by zoning requirements. But unless the next owner is in the same category, the development will have to either abide by R-55 conditions or seek rezoning.

Here’s what that means in layman’s terms: The WSSC tore down a bunch of historic bungalows way back when to build its headquarters but never changed the zoning, so the building it left behind is basically not correct for its location.

That means there are a few possible endings here: 1) The city turns the building into a community center, as Mayor Marc Tartaro proposes. 2) A private developer tears down the building and puts up a bunch of smaller homes under the current zoning. 3) A  developer rezones the land and converts the building into apartments or condos, plus maybe some other use. 4) A developer rezones the land, tears down the building and puts up new apartments or condos.  5) A fight over rezoning prevents redevelopment and the building stays empty.

Each of these options has drawbacks. A taxpayer-funded community center would be a heavy lift politically. There may not be a private developer willing to take on this big of a project just to put up single-family homes. Preserving the building’s exterior is expensive and limits the number of developers who might be interested, while starting from scratch means losing some of the architectural integrity of the Historic District.

But really the worst option of all would be to leave the building empty for several more years. That runs the risk of further decay that would permanently rule out hope for preserving the exterior.

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3 Responses to What Will Happen to the WSSC Building?

  1. Justin says:

    Great article. It’s interesting that a very similar battle is taking place with the Artworks/Pizza Paradisio effort. Sad to see so many buildings left abandoned when there are so many opportunities available. Fortunately, Hyattsville has a lot of progressive and strong willed folks that I think we will eventually find a way around all these barriers.

  2. Chris Currie says:

    Excellent analysis! One additional possibility is that another government entity (besides Hyattsville) could purchase the building and use it for office space, school or any other use under its zoning exemption.

    What is odd is that Douglas Development, after sitting on the property for years, suddenly wants a quick sale — one that would preclude the use of tax credits (historic, low-income, etc.) that would make many projects much more viable there (since tax-credit projects require long feasibility contingencies before settlement).

    It could be that the owner feels that a rezoning window may be closing with the end of the term next year of lame-duck District Councilman Will Campos (who would be the key figure in any rezoning case). Campos showed himself willing to vote against the City of Hyattsville in a recent land-use case, and the developer may be marketing a favorable political climate for rezoning that could end a year from now.

  3. There’s also just the simple fact that the market is hot right now for this kind of bigger project. Look at NoMa, Cathedral Commons in Tenleytown, Fort Totten Square, etc.

    The Arts District, Cafritz, 3350 at Alterra and even the new Safeway at University Town Center have brought some new attention to Hyattsville and Douglas may just think it’s a good time to cash out of a property he no longer wants.

    — RTB

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