More Than Housing

Choosing the Future of the Hospital Site

Washington Adventist University Commons

Bickering . . .

It’s already begun. The vacated Washington Adventist Hospital campus confronts us with an exciting and perhaps daunting once-in-a-century revitalization opportunity. Barely into the public hearing phase, bickering and confusion among residents have already broken out.

I have the strong feeling that all of this so-called “planning” that’s been done so far is being done backwards. Zoning, which neighbors are fretting about, is NOT how we should start. Zoning is a government regulatory tool that has a role to play at some point down the road. But zoning does not accomplish anything. It doesn’t give direction. It does not provide inspiration. Zoning does not and cannot make anything happen. 

Dealing with zoning at this nascent stage is putting the cart in front of the horse. It’s like the husband asking the wife what wallpaper they want in the master bedroom when they haven’t even bought the house. Too prescriptive zoning forecloses possibilities. Too broad zoning designations risk making residents exceedingly nervous. 

Montgomery County’s professional planners are doing no one a favor by making such a big deal out of zoning. The Takoma Park City Council should not be forced to effectively make zoning decisions even though this is formally done by the Planning Board. That is cruel and unusual punishment to put councilmembers through. I speak from experience.

The old main WAH hospital building

Instead, let’s cool the debate and start at the beginning.

What once had been a revered institution, a kind of “grande dame” of hospital care in the Washington region, saw its doors close in 2019. Abandonment came amid broken pledges for continuity of medical services; and so ended Takoma Park’s dominant employer.

What we are left with is this large acreage containing a huge, virtually empty hospital. Next to it, there’s an empty 3-level parking garage. Interspersed among empty parking lots, I count three boarded up ancillary buildings. There’s a former “women’s health center”/conference center; another very old building labeled “Eisner;” and a doctors’ office building. Plus a heating plant which is operating.

When I look at the main structures, my first thought is Environmental Hazard.

A Lovers Leap

Of grave importance, to the rear of most of these buildings runs a crumbling, caving (not kidding) service road that hangs on the precipice of a near vertical slope into Sligo Creek. (Kind of a lovers’ leap since there are no guard rails.) This is ominous because construction and mechanical engineers will have to play a featured role in the dismantling of the hospital buildings and the design of any new structures proximate to the ravine.

On the subject of demolition, it may cost a couple million dollars to demolish these structures and remove hazardous materials, doing so in a way not to harm the creek. This means any future development proposals by private parties will have to account for the financing of these costs. This unique cost burden (as opposed to developing a clear site) complicates the site’s future.

Former Adventist doctors’ offices

East of the access road lies the large, lovely greensward with big trees – WAU Commons — whose sole purpose apparently is to grace the WAU campus. It seems to be rarely used for outdoor functions.

Most people, including me, have no idea what this collected mishmash of structures, the greensward, empty parking lots and access road, possibly purports to serve.

Who actually holds title to it or its various pieces, and who maintains it all? Is the nameless road that traverses all these spaces, public or private? 

Who Gets to Decide?

Given present circumstances, we can reasonably surmise that until someone or some entity takes charge, it may sit there and just rot. What or who will that be?

I am concerned that given Takoma Park’s penchant for opting for the do-nothing alternative, that is not an unlikely outcome. Do-nothing is obviously not an option here.

Old, boarded Lisner building

On the bright side there appears to be consensus that this large piece of Takoma Park situated at the city’s epicenter presents an unprecedented opportunity, especially in a town of just 2.2 square miles. The possibilities for its reuse challenge our imaginations. 

There’s a lot of talk about the need for “affordable housing,” the definition of which seems to depend on who you are listening to. As recently as three years ago, purposes such as a health campus under Adventist Health Services’ aegis, or a new elementary school, or an aquatic center, or an expansion of the University were batted around. But those schemes seem to have receded from the conversation. 

Nowadays, it’s more about “mixed uses” which, to me, translates to some combination of multi-family housing and neighborhood retail services plus public spaces, the latter having a dozen interpretations. 

Depending on how the site’s boundaries are defined, the site may be large enough not just for multi-family housing, but many other functions including shops (like a small grocery, sub shop, café), childcare services, professional offices, indoor and outdoor functions including pop-up opportunities, and decorative gardens. Maybe spaces for WAU classrooms and faculty offices.

A Ready-Made Community

I’d like to take a step back and propose a bigger picture, and consider something exciting.

Rather than wrangle over these individual components, let’s imagine more of a self-contained community that is more than just housing. Why is it when big apartment towers are built, they almost always stand alone, bereft of necessary, convenient stores? Look around Takoma Park, for example. Isn’t that the case? (It may not be hard to guess the answer.)

If we are going to build a lot of multi-family housing — regardless of the income targets — it’s better to provide for those essential stores and services that occupants of any income level will always need, and to do it simultaneously.

Call it a ready-made community. So, when residents buy or rent a unit, they can immediately access space for remote work, or shareable work spaces and studio spaces. But also child care services, places to buy essential groceries, get a haircut and or your nails done, community spaces for meetings, a place to play games, relax and make friends.

In this manner the old codgers, young families, singles, college students and disabled folks can experience each other. A mélange of ages and stages. It also means fewer car trips for routine necessities. 

As elderly persons living in Takoma Park, my wife and I know there’s no such living arrangement around these parts. Not everyone wants to live in a Riderwood-type of “senior” housing where everybody is old or really old. 

There’s an inevitable need for parking of course. One answer might be underground. The slope down to Maple Avenue could enable the construction of underground parking. As an aside, I note that the Eastern Market Metro Station has below-ground parking and a Trader Joe’s. It was packed when I was there in August. (Just a thought.) Or perhaps the existing 3-level parking garage can be salvaged.

Together doesn’t all this sound like a mini town center?

Who’s in Charge?

We as a community can set the direction for the future of this site. The catch word here is “community.” Of course, the process requires local residents’ role to assure our values are protected. This is a complicated challenge with great potential and a lot of issues that need to be researched and answered. The city does not own or in any way control this site. The city’s role should be to help coordinate this process in conjunction with Montgomery County planning staff, the University and/or the SDA.

It’s going to require consultation with outside Specialists, some who may participate as community members; others may need to be hired. One of the first decisions is determining who will take charge of this process. Normally, this would be the property owner who, I assume, but don’t know, is some component of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Does the City or the County know the owner’s intent or capacity to manage a complex multi-year process? Or even whether they want to retain ownership?

Specialists include those who understand the financial and engineering challenges this site faces. That means architects, builders, landscape designers, and engineers: creative geniuses who can help expand our imaginations for the best uses for the site, while keeping the ambitions with the realm of feasibility. 

I for one don’t want to sit in a room of well-intentioned residents arguing with each over the future of the site; only to come up with some sort of plan that no developer in his right mind will be able to undertake and be successful.

In fact, the whole thing may require a combination of development entities including for-profit and non-profit entities, ones which specialize in housing, in commercial spaces, or in what is known as “place-making.” Our best chance is to devise a whole-cloth development scheme, and to avoid a piecemeal approach that will never reach completion.

In planning parlance, this approach is sometimes called a “planned unit development.” When we get this big picture figured out, then THAT will be the time to make zoning decisions: ones that will not foreclose innovation and will fit the situation.

This approach will take time and be a lot of hard work for our city staff and residents who want to get involved. 

The wide scope of possibilities for the hospital site points the way to proceed. Let’s pull out and dust off the proverbial drawing board and get started.