After a two-year fight to stop a housing development at the former Maryland College of Art and Design on Georgia Avenue, residents of the surrounding Carroll Knolls neighborhood are one step closer to having a much-desired park built on the land. Now all they have to do is win over the County Council - and find the money to get it done.
"I think we're on a good trajectory to turn this property into a park," says Councilmember Valerie Ervin, who attended a meeting with Carroll Knolls residents last Tuesday at the Capital View-Homewood recreation center in Kensington. Ervin, along with fellow councilmember Marc Elrich, discussed using county funding to purchase and build the park, at the intersection of Georgia and Evans Drive in Wheaton. Brenda Sandberg from the Department of Parks was also on hand to talk about the Legacy Open Space program, which would require support from the County Council and final approval from the Planning Board.
It's not that there's a shortage of parks near Carroll Knolls. Directly across the street from the former school is the Evans Parkway Park, which is funded for an expansion. But reaching the park would involve crossing Georgia Avenue, a main commuter route with heavy traffic throughout the day.
Activist Beverly Sobel, who's lived in a townhouse directly behind the former school for several years, says she's gone to Evans Parkway Park "like three times." She sits on the sustainability sub-committee in the Wheaton CBD redevelopment task force - and, as the daughter and granddaughter of home builders, understands the development potential of a site halfway between two Metro stations. But Sobel notes that while parks on the east side of Georgia are plentiful, the MCAD site is the "only green space" on the west side of the avenue between Glenmont and Downtown Silver Spring, a distance of four miles.
"It's not realistic for parents to ask their kids to cross Georgia Avenue to go to a park," says Elrich, who used to play in nearby McKenney Hills-Homewood Park as a kid. "It might as well be a wall." Nonetheless, he urged residents to "be open-minded" about what should happen to the land, noting that it would cost several million dollars for the county to acquire the land, demolish the school, and build a park there. One of the suggestions he offered was building a few houses to offset the cost of keeping the rest of the site open.
For thirty years, the Maryland College of Art and Design was a source of pride for the community. Not only was it a place for residents to take affordable, enriching art classes, but its tiny campus was filled with student-produced public art. But in 2005, Montgomery College absorbed the school; two years later, when they moved it to a brand-new facility in Downtown Silver Spring, the building was vacated. Almost instantly, the site became a neighborhood blight, a haven for vandals and squatters.
But what made residents of the adjacent Carroll Knolls neighborhood even more upset was the college's quiet transfer of the property to the Montgomery College Foundation, which raises money for the school. In 2006, the college made a sales agreement to Kaz Development, who proposed building twenty-seven townhomes on the site. A lawyer living in Carroll Knolls upheld the neighborhood's 1948 covenants, restricting use of the property to the twelve single-family homes it was originally zoned for. (Institutional uses like MCAD, and the Hebrew school which preceded it, are exceptions.) In response, the developer sued the civic association for preventing them to use the land as they wished.
"I take real issue with the idea that my money is going to Montgomery College - which I agree with - so that they can make income, says Carol Chace, who lives in Carroll Knolls. "For a taxpayer, that's really criminal."
Neighbors claim that the building has been repeatedly vandalized and occupied by squatters, and that Montgomery College has done little to maintain the site or assuage their concerns. (Representatives from the college promised to attend the meeting but did not show up.) The Montgomery County police department made an agreement with the college to use the vacant building for K-9 training, but stopped after one visit because of its dangerous condition.
Councilmember Elrich reminded the residents that the college, despite their negative actions, was still a public institution. "We have to separate the behavior from what the needs are," said Elrich. "This is not the case of some greedy corporation trying to fill their pockets."
Meanwhile, Councilmember Ervin pointed out that the school, which catered mainly to adult and youth classes, was a "losing proposition" for the college as attendance dropped. "We have to make sure people use these assets so we can keep them," she said.