HYATTSVILLE — It was standing room only in the Hyattsville City Council chambers on April 16, as more than 40 residents trekked to the city hall to speak on the proposed development near Magruder Park.
Residents in the city of Hyattsville hold split opinions, as Werrlein Properties took its first step toward redeveloping the land where a vacant Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC) building sits and its parking lot across the street. The conceptual site plan for Magruder Pointe, the name of the proposed residential community, was before the city's council on April 16. The plan is part of the process the developer must undergo to obtain permission to build townhouses where they are not allowed by right, according to county zoning laws.
“Going through the conceptual site plan is not a process that we frequently see here,” said Katie Gerbes, Hyattsville's city planner. “So I think all of us needed to take some time to be refreshed and educated on kind of what happens in this process.”
Gerbes said the applicant hopes to use a specific section of the county zoning ordinance to modify the uses of a specific zone.
The plans for the proposed future development include a mix of single-family, detached homes and townhouses. While the parcel of land where the WSSC building stands would have both types of residential buildings, the parking lot across the street is designed with only townhouses. Both parcels are part of the “Traditional Residential Neighborhood” (TRN) of the Gateway Arts District Sector Plan, which states that development of single-family homes, both attached and detached are permitted “if allowed in the underlying zone,” said Assistant City Administrator Jim Chandler.
While the zoning of the upper portion of the property would allow housing, the bottom portion (the current parking lot) is zoned as open space. This means residential units of any kind are not permitted by right.
“The applicant is utilizing Section 27-548.26 of the Zoning Ordinance, which allows for the filing of a conceptual site plan in order to amend the table of uses listed within the Gateway Arts District Sector Plan, in order to permit townhouse development within the TRN in the O-S and R-55 zones. If an amendment is granted, the amendment would be site-specific, applying only to the subject property and would not impact the table of uses for other properties within the city or the larger Gateway Arts District,” a staff memo from Chandler to the council reads.
Hyattsville city staff proposed the council approve the conceptual site plan with conditions, but a substantial portion of city residents are still not sold on the proposed development.
More than half of the speakers at the April 16 meeting spoke in opposition to the proposed development citing a desire to save and repurpose the WSSC building, voicing a fear of the property being the last open space available for future school development or pointing to the open space zoning of the lower parcel.
Marissa Johnson, a Hyattsville resident and a member of Save Our Sustainable Hyattsville, said she thought city staff had to go through some “mental gymnastics” to conclude that townhouses would be permissible nearly Magruder Park.
“The bottom line is that townhouses are not permitted in the O-S,” she said. “The editorializing that the townhouses are okay as an appropriate transition from the apartments into the park is completely inappropriate and should not form the basis of your decision.”
Councilman Thomas Wright agreed with several of the public commenters, saying he thinks “it's a stretch” to allow townhouses in the open space zone.
For Christine Blackerby the proposal before the council is about more than meeting criteria or the development fitting within the guidelines of zoning and laws. Instead, she said, the development is about shaping the “long-term vision of this community.”
“This proposal is not the right vision,” she said. “Voting it down leaves the door open for a more creative developer to make a plan for reuse that is a better fit for this community.”
Concerning reuse, some residents suggested a new school or the expansion of Hyattsville Elementary.
But while numerous residents spoke against the proposed development, approximately a dozen came out to support both Werrlein and the development.
One of those residents was Joe Bryan. He said the developers rebuilt his home, which had seen better days. He attested to their quality of work and his experience with them.
“I invite you to come by, have a cup of coffee, and see their work," he said. “They made it a beautiful house, again.”
Beyond arguments of benefits to the city and whether the uses of the open space should be altered, Sherry Cain pointed out that neither parcels of the property are owned by the city. While residents can daydream about the possibilities for the site, the city cannot dictate uses.
“We as Hyattsville do not own that property. Somebody else does, and I have a problem making assumptions of what we can do with a property that's not ours,” she said. “They are well within their rights to not let us use that property at all. So I think if Hyattsville would like the property and develop it how the community wants, then that's fine, but it's still privately owned.”
The conceptual plan will be back before the council in May where they will make a recommendation. The plan will have to go before both the county planning board and the District Council before it is approved or denied.