This coming Monday, Prince George’s County District Council will decide the fate of a rezoning proposal to allow residential development on the site of the abandoned WSSC headquarters in central Hyattsville. It has become one of the most-divisive development proposals in Hyattsville’s recent memory, becoming a dominant theme in the recent city elections. Opponents of the redevelopment plan claimed a victory in that election when Danny Schaible, an outspoken opponent of the proposal won 52.6 percent of his ward’s electorate, defeating opponent Emily Strab, who was in favor of the development plans for the building.
In advance of that decision, Route 1 Reporter spoke with several Hyattsville residents who live next-door to the WSSC headquarters and support the Werrlein proposal. Full disclosure: one of them, Will Seath, was also the campaign treasurer for Strab. He was drawn to her campaign in part because of her position on the Werrlein proposal. He’s also a licensed architect in Maryland. As a group, they said they understand concerns about development foreclosing on potential future public uses of the site, but noting the property has been in some stage of abandonment since the mid-1990s, they feared what may – or may not – happen at the site if the District Council rejects the rezoning.
As of right now, the site has become a magnet for vandals. Earlier in May, neighbors were shocked to find a emergency response training dummy had been hung from the neck inside the building by trespassers. Broken windows are boarded up, and the facility – which seemed to decay slowly for years – is now visibly broken.
Route 1 Reporter: How long have you lived next to the WSSC headquarters?
Kathy Black: I moved in in 1993 and the building still belonged to the WSSC. It was well lit, well-maintained. It had a guard 24-7 who walked the property once an hour.Then, the WSSC moved their headquarters to Laurel and they abandoned this building. They pulled the guard when they sold it to Douglas Jemal. That’s when it became obvious it was becoming an eyesore. Graffiti started slowly creeping up.
Flawn Williams: My wife and I moved here in September of 1996, at a time when WSSC had made a commitment to leave the building. But they still had a motor pool and some employees here. When we first moved in, there were about 100 people still working in the building. It gradually wound down to zero of the next couple of years.
Rose Byrne: I moved here in 2002, and at that point, it was still pretty well-kept. But there was sort of a breaking point where you’d see the graffiti on the Gallatin Street side, and it eventually crept around to Hamilton Street.
Will Seath: My family and I moved here in October 2016. We were a little apprehensive from the very beginning about how long are we going to live with this eyesore. I worry that a kid will break in there one day thinking it’s harmless fun to explore, and they’ll have a serious accident. All while our leaders wait for an alternate proposal that won’t happen. As Shani Warner said, this site will become radioactive to any future development proposals.
R1R: What has the WSSC building been like as a neighbor since you moved in?
Williams: As long as WSSC maintained it, it was actually a fairly benign presence. They had, um, ongoing security. They had people walking the perimeter of the property. It was obvious to anybody who was monitoring the building that it was not derelict, that it was actively under surveillance and stuff like that.
Now it is an attractive nuisance. It has deteriorated to the point where people are breaking in and doing what vandals do with old derelict buildings.
Seath: It hasn’t been a neighbor at all. It’s a vacant building. And I’ve been skeptical from the beginning about any, any prospect that it ever could become a good neighbor. Not only because of the decades of neglect, but I think there’s a lot of people out there who see a large building with walls and a roof and they just assume that it’s got potential and that anything at all could go in there. I’ve been through the building to advise a potential client who was interested in purchasing it. And I think what people don’t understand is there’s structure in there. There’s concrete piers every 12 feet, through most of the building.
Black: People are getting in the building. I would call code enforcement to have the boarding company come and board it up. And now police have to wait for the boarding company to come. So, you know, our tax dollars are protecting private property because it was vandalized again.
I don’t live down the block. I don’t live a mile away. I live directly across the street. I live and breathe this building every single day and I have watched it deteriorate and rot.
Byrne: It used to be, if you saw graffiti, they’d come and take care of it that day. And now, there is some point where graffiti is okay and it’s just there permanently. Then there’s the broken windows and the break-ins. And I think the break-ins are the most disturbing. There was a time when I was on my front porch and I thought I heard gunshots. It was somebody pulling the pipes out of the building. I called the cops. But it takes a while, and of course the people are long-gone by that point.
Last week we found food supplies in a little hut on the side of the building. I’ve seen people have sex on the steps [near the building].
R1R: Do you think the people who want the building to be preserved are unaware of the issues you face as a neighbor to this building?
Byrne: I don’t think the other neighbors, farther away, understand that day-in, day-out toll from living next to that abandoned building.
Williams: I am troubled by a lot of the rhetoric that’s been thrown by the people who are opposing the Werrlein proposal. They’ve played fast and loose with the facts. They are conflating issues related to stormwater retention with flood plain issues. Even the people in that group who claim to be experts in such things seem completely empowered to only come up with things that are critical of the proposal and not look at some of the positive attributes.
Yes. Building new homes — some detached, some connected housing here — will increase the density of the neighborhood, but not nearly as much as a full reuse of the building. There are a lot of ways in which managing the destruction of the building and the tearing up of the parking lot can be done in ways that will ecologically improve this area.
Seath: I don’t think they understand the real challenges of any proposal for adaptive reuse. There’s a reason why that building has sat for a number of decades. Buildings with that sort of potential in this market don’t sit for that long.
R1R: What do you fear will happen if the District Council rejects the Werrlein rezoning proposal?
Black: I think Douglas Jemal is within his right, and what he will do is fence the entire property. Including the part of the playground he owns. And that is going to set this neighborhood on fire.
Byrne: We’ve been here long enough to see the proposals that come past. There’s not a lot of great options…it’s fundamentally, structurally decaying. I feel like my neighbors asking me to just sit on this and keep waiting, for what, 27 more years? It’s escalating. All the stuff has rusted out. We’ve watched people strip the pipes on the side, the air conditioning. Jemal has a lot of power. He can put up a big barb-wire fence and other things, too.
Seath: I worry about the next thing that may come along. I don’t think it will be as sensitive to the neighborhood as this proposal has been. But more than that, I worry nothing else will come along and we’ll all be living with this decrepit eyesore for decades to come.
Danny Schaible wanted to make this election a referendum on the future of the WSSC because it’s the only drum he beats. That Emily Strab came within a few dozen votes of winning in a high turnout election tells me that S.O.S. Hyattsville’s narrative of overwhelming neighborhood opposition to redevelopment just isn’t true. There are lots of neighbors who understand that the Werrlein proposal would deal with an unusable eyesore and replace it with a well-scaled and pleasant streetscape.
Williams: I’ve seen a number of ideas floated up and dropped down. After all of that time, the Werrlein proposals that are now being considered seem to be a better follow-on-use for both the parcels than any of the other ideas that have come up. We’re tired of this just becoming a roller coaster for the community where every three or four years it becomes an issue. And as soon as some idea gets killed, then everybody dies down. And meanwhile we have to sit here and deal with the further ongoing deterioration of the building.
I see no reason for the WSSC property to be tied into the parking lot beside MacGruder park. Take the WSSC property for redevelopment and leave the parking lot across the street for future public development use.