Friday, December 19, 2014


The Rockville Historic District Commission wants more information before rendering its decision on whether or not the office building at 5 Choke Cherry Road merits historic designation. At the outset of last night's meeting, Commission Chair Robert Achtmeyer asked if this matter was essentially a rubber stamp action for the body (the property is part of The JBG Companies' Upper Rock development, which received initial approval from the Mayor and Council, and a housing component has already been constructed). It quickly became apparent that that would not be the case.

Ironically, the commercial structure in question had previously been slated for a retrofitting by JBG, to transform it into a mixed-use, live-work housing development. That would have preserved the arguably-historic exterior. More recently, JBG determined that there was no market for additional housing in that immediate area, and has now asked for permission to demolish 5 Choke Cherry Road to make way for a retail development.

The building was designed by highly-regarded local architect John "Jack" Sullivan, who was responsible for many notable buildings in Rockville, including the County Council building. Now many of them are threatened with demolition, which concerned Commissioners Craig Maloney and Jessica Reynolds. Reynolds said she was still lamenting the demolition of the Suburban Trust Building (a.k.a. The Pink Bank), and the commission's decision last month to allow demolition of the Gillette Building.

Nancy Pickard, speaking on behalf of Peerless Rockville, testified that the building deserves consideration for historic designation on several of the criteria required to meet current preservation standards. 

While the staff report found 5 Choke Cherry Road did not meet any of the criteria for historic designation, Reynolds and Maloney disagreed. Maloney noted that the Brutalist architecture element of the 1973 structure predated the height of that style's popularity, making it an early example ahead of its time. There was also a sense during the discussion that the importance and prominence of Sullivan's work in Rockville met the criteria for having been designed by a master architect.

Ultimately, the commission voted to postpone the question. Reynolds asked city staff to provide more information on Sullivan's buildings, how many remain in unaltered form and which ones have been demolished already. She said that information would help the commission begin to reckon with which Sullivan buildings it should prioritize preservation of. The commission also felt that it would help to discuss the matter with JBG at a future meeting, to determine if there is any viable way for the developer to utilize the existing building, such as removing floors to allow higher ceilings for contemporary retail.

Given that the ground floor currently houses individual retail such as a credit union, it seems that retrofitting this building for retail would be possible. It also has prime placement along Shady Grove Road, giving it - and future tenants - high visibility.

The two single-family homes, whose owners were seeking a finding to allow demolition last night, were both found to not meet historic designation criteria by the commission.

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