Showing posts with label Chestnut Lodge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chestnut Lodge. Show all posts

Friday, April 9, 2021

Benches proposed for Chestnut Lodge Park in Rockville

Two benches would be installed in Chestnut Lodge Park at 500 W. Montgomery Avenue in Rockville under a proposal to be reviewed by the Historic District Commission. The park is one of the few physical remnants of the world-famous Chestnut Lodge sanitarium, which burnt down under very suspicious circumstances in 2009.

Aerial view of Chestnut Lodge Park;
orange arrows indicate proposed
bench locations

The "Madison" bench model proposed for use is made out of recycled plastic bottles. Planning staff has concluded the proposal meets the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation #9, and is recommending approval of the bench plan. The HDC will take up the matter at its April 15 virtual meeting.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Public meeting scheduled on Chestnut Lodge park proposal

A required pre-application area meeting on the proposed conversion of three Chestnut Lodge parcels into parkland will be held on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 7:00 PM in the Mayor and Council chambers at Rockville City Hall. The proposal would remove three land parcels from the Chestnut Lodge Planned Development at 500 West Montgomery Avenue for future use as a public park.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mayor and Council vote to acquire two other Chestnut Lodge properties

Chestnut Lodge in 2003; the
building burnt down in 2009
Rockville's City Manager is now authorized to acquire two parcels at the former Chestnut Lodge site, after a unanimous vote by the Mayor and Council last night. The City moved to acquire the main Chestnut Lodge property from owner JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC earlier this year. These two additional parcels are owned by the Chestnut Lodge Homeowners Association.

All three pieces of land are expected to be converted into a passive public park, on the site where the famed Chestnut Lodge psychiatric hospital once stood. A 40-year covenant will be placed on all three for that purpose.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mayor & Council final decision on Chestnut Lodge moved up to February 13

The final decision to approve or deny a townhome project on the site where the historic Chestnut Lodge psychiatric institution once stood has been moved up. Rockville's Mayor & Council will now vote on the matter at its February 13 meeting, instead of on February 27, according to an email announcement from the Department of Community Planning and Development Services.

Anyone can comment in support or opposition to the proposed development during the Community Forum portion of the meeting that evening. The meeting is currently scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Rockville HDC finds revised Chestnut Lodge plan meets Secretary of the Interior standards

The Rockville Historic District Commission made a preliminary finding last night that the revised plan for the site of Chestnut Lodge meets Secretary of the Interior standards for Rehabilitation. A formal vote on a final draft is expected to be taken at the body's next meeting on November 17.

Applicant JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC has proposed constructing 6 townhomes on the spot where the historic Chestnut Lodge psychiatric hospital stood until it was destroyed by fire in 2009. Nancy Pickard, Executive Director of historic preservation organization Peerless Rockville, testified that townhomes were not part of the heritage of Rockville at the time Chestnut Lodge was built.

Pickard told commissioners that, while wealthy estate dwellers did buy townhomes in urban areas in those days, they did not do so in Rockville. She said the first townhome developments in the City weren't constructed until the 1960s, nearly a century after the era of Chestnut Lodge's birth as a hotel. She also criticized the idea that the proposal should be considered only in the context of the SOI Rehabilitation standards. The other 3 sets of SOI standards - Restoration, Reconstruction, and Preservation - should be applied as well, she said. Rehabilitation standards ceased to be relevant after the main lodge burnt down, she added.

HDC chair Rob Achtmeyer asked Pickard if the individual access doors of townhomes vs. the shared entry of a condo building was her central concern. "It is a large factor," Pickard replied. "That housing form (townhouse) was not introduced in this city until the 1960s. That is not the heritage of Rockville," she said.
"Massing, the stronger verticality of the original hotel. There was the relationship of the dominant hotel to the outbuildings. The whole site was larger."

Kate Kuranda of Goodwin and Associates, speaking for the applicant, said what is left of the Chestnut Lodge site would not qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Once a building has burned, she said, it is removed from the Register. Kuranda said she concurs with City staff that the plan does meet the Secretary's rehabilitation standards, and that it retains the park-like setting of Chestnut Lodge.

Kuranda said the developer, Jim Proakis, has offered to establish a website to archive all of the photographs, oral and written history, and other records available on the historic hotel and hospital. Proakis has already discussed the idea with a firm that has experience in creating this type of website, she said. Achtmeyer said he found the website offer "very intriguing." He also exhorted attendees and the televison audience to bring forward to staff any materials they may have on the lost building. Achtmeyer called sitting on such materials as this plan rapidly moves forward "counterproductive. Please, do us all a favor - share."

In a presentation earlier, staff liaison Sheila Bashiri said that the suggestion by many in the community to rebuild Chestnut Lodge as it was would only make sense if it was then opened as a hotel or psychiatric hospital. The primary goal of a reconstruction, Bashiri said, is education. A building would usually be reconstructed, and then opened to the public, who could learn from visiting or touring it about its history.

Bashiri recommended the commission find the plan does meet the SOI Rehabilitation standards.

During a period of public testimony, Paul Newman, the president of the 30 Oaks Civic Association, asked why the input of the West End Citizens Association was not included in the staff report. "Where is it," he asked.

Newman said it was inaccurate to claim that the new building resembles the footprint of the lost building. He said he walked the grounds of the site, and noticed that some of the markers indicating the footprint of the proposed building are actually on pavement, not the grass, indicating it is larger. Newman called Chestnut Lodge "one of the anchors of the historic district. It's a little disingenuous to say [we can't reconstruct it]."

"Changing an access road to the outbuildings into a back alley with garages and trash cans," Newman said, "that is a major change in character." The applicant previously has promised to hide trash receptacles through both the design of the homes, and via condo association rules about when they can be placed outdoors.

There was very little mention of the Planned Residential Unit agreement that high-profile opponents like current Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, and past mayor Larry Giammo, have argued remains in effect. That PRU demanded that the main building be restored as a prerequisite for its adapted re-use as a condominium development. The PRU agreement was reached between the City and a previous developer who sought to redevelop the site.

After a short break, commissioners returned at 10:45 PM to discuss the matter.

"I find the massing and the roofline very problematic," Commissioner Stefanie Tincher said. "It changes its relationship to the surrounding buildings. I'm having a real problem with it."

No other commissioner commented on the plan. Achtmeyer suggested going forward then with the body's recommendation to the Mayor and Council.

First, a majority of the commission agreed that they should employ the Rehabilitation standards. Then they took straw votes on each of the applicable standards.

For Standard #1 (A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal
change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships), commissioners voted "Yes" by 3-2. Tincher and Commissioner Emily Correll were the dissenters. Tincher argued that #1 didn't apply, because the new structure will change the spatial relationships.

For Standard #2 (The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property
will be avoided), commissioners unanimously voted that the project does meet the standard.

For Standard #3 (Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements
from other historic properties, will not be undertaken), commissioners voted 4-1, with Tincher dissenting. "I'd like to revise the staff report" on scale, mass and design, Tincher said. Achtmeyer suggested it might be faster to just cast her lone dissenting vote, and move on.

Achtmeyer joined Tincher in dissenting on Standard #9 (New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment).

The Planning Commission will be the next body to review the plan. Achtmeyer said he would like to hold off the vote until next month, so that the Planning Commission can reach their own conclusions apart from the HDC's influence.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Rockville HDC to review Chestnut Lodge proposal Oct. 20

The modified project plan for a townhome development on the former site of the Chestnut Lodge mental institution will be reviewed by the Rockville Historic District Commission at its October 20 meeting. This will again be a courtesy review; the project will also have to receive a Certificate of Approval from the HDC later, if its design receives final approval from the Planning Commission and Mayor and Council.

This proposal reduces the number of townhomes from seven to six, in response to community and historic preservation experts' concerns that the structure's footprint was wider than the original building, which burnt down in a suspicious fire in 2009.

Planning staff is recommending a favorable recommendation by the HDC.

The public will have the opportunity to speak at next Thursday's meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 7:30 PM at City Hall.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Chestnut Lodge developer outlines changes in revised plan

A small crowd of residents turned out at Rockville's City Hall last night for a presentation by applicant JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC on its revised project plan for 500 W. Montgomery Avenue. Developer-owner Jim Proakis outlined a series of adjustments to the plan designed to address complaints and concerns that derailed the townhome project's initial application earlier this year.

These include a reduction in the number of townhomes from seven to six, a slightly smaller footprint, exterior material changes, and a reconfiguration of parking. More holly trees will be saved under the revised plan, although some attendees said they would prefer to see chestnut trees restored to the site. Those trees gave mental health institution Chestnut Lodge its name, recounted resident Patricia Woodward, who once served as head nurse there. Chestnut Lodge ceased operation in 2001, and the building burnt down in a suspicious fire in 2009, before a previous plan to convert it to condos could be realized.

Proakis said his company had considered planting chestnut trees, but were told by two arborists that the current species available are not sufficiently acclimated to survive at the site. He and attorney Soo Lee-Cho said they would be glad to plant chestnut trees if it's determined they are viable.

In terms of improving the viewshed of the structure from the western side, the wood treatment on the rear facade is being replaced by brick. The building will now have a brick exterior all around, although the frame will be made of wood.

Nancy Pickard of Peerless Rockville, a historic preservation organization, asked what the roof would be made of. Proakis said it would be a composite material designed to reflect the appearance of slate. Pickard also asked about the very dark appearance of the windows in the renderings shown. While they look that way in the renderings, that's not how dark they will be in reality, Proakis replied. He noted that further guidance on colors and textures for the exterior will be given during the review process.

Strict condominium association rules will keep trash cans and recycling bins out of sight, and there will be a special utility room inside the garages to store them. "You won't see them," Proakis promised. A private contractor will collect the community's trash, he said.

Rockville City Councilmember Beryl Feinberg asked about the availability of overflow guest parking. Proakis said a separate guest parking area has been eliminated, allowing preservation of more trees. In its place, are four parking spaces per unit and six for the end units. Those spaces are split between those within the garages, and those immediately outside the garages.

There will also be street parking available along the internal road for the intermittent times when more parking is needed, such as during parties. A driveway 18-20' in width would allow for cars to be parked on one side.

Fire and rescue officials asked the applicant to include a new, grassy turnaround area that would allow emergency vehicles to make three-point turns, Proakis said.

Townhome units will be 4200-4800 SF in size, essentially making them attached single family homes, Proakis added.

Feedback from the audience was primarily in the form of questions. Previous criticism from project opponents has centered on a Planned Residential Unit agreement the City reached with the previous developer. That agreement specified condos could be built only if the historic Chestnut Lodge building were restored. Some current and past elected officials, historic preservation advocates and residents have argued the PRU remains legally binding, thereby disqualifying a townhome project on the site.

The next step in the review process will be a staff development area review meeting on September 8.

One resident asked if the developer could create a 3-D CAD model of the project. "Well, now I only have 6 units, so I can't afford a 3-D," Proakis replied jokingly.

Rendering courtesy City of Rockville

Friday, July 15, 2016

Public meeting for Chestnut Lodge plan revision set for July 26 in Rockville

Applicant JNP Chestnut Lodge will host a public meeting regarding its revised project plan amendment for 500 W. Montgomery Avenue on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 at 6:30 PM in the Mayor and Council Chambers at City Hall (111 Maryland Avenue).

This is in regard to the controversial townhome project planned for the former site of the Chestnut Lodge psychiatric facility's main lodge building. The revision sought is to reduce the number of units from 7 to 6, and slightly reduce the overall footprint of the structure.

If you can't make this particular meeting (and that's a real possibility given it is being held in the last prime vacation time of the summer), you can see the full tentative schedule for the review of this revised plan amendment in my previous post.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rockville zoning chief announces how review of Chestnut Lodge project will proceed

Rockville zoning chief Jim Wasilak has announced his plan for proceeding on the review of a revised plan amendment for the Chestnut Lodge project. Applicant JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC filed the revised amendment with the City early this month.

In an email sent yesterday to parties of record in the controversial matter, Wasilak said he considered the feedback given last week by the Mayor and Council before deciding on the following process and tentative schedule:

  • Written and electronic notification of all parties of record, property owners, nearby residents and civic associations

  • Area meeting to be held by JNP Chestnut Lodge LLC on July 26

  • Staff/Development Review Committee review prior to staff report and recommendation on September 8
  • Planning Commission briefing by staff on September 14
  • Mayor and Council briefing on September 19
  • Historic District Commission courtesy review and recommendation on October 20
  • Planning Commission review and recommendation on November 9
  • Mayor and Council public hearing on December 5
  • Mayor and Council discussion and instructions to staff on January 9, 2017
  • Mayor and Council final decision on January 30, 2017
Wasilak notes that the HDC is being asked to give a recommendation, beyond just the courtesy review it gave the earlier plan amendment. I've highlighted in bold the meetings above where the public will likely or certainly have the chance to speak.

While the new plan amendment reduces the horizontal width and footprint of the project, it still does not meet the requirements of the Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement previously negotiated by the City for the Chestnut Lodge site. Opponents of the project have argued that PRU remains legally binding, and would not permit a townhome development on this site, which is within a historic district.

Rendering courtesy City of Rockville

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mayor and Council on Chestnut Lodge: "We are starting the process over"

A discussion of how to proceed on a revised project plan submitted early this month for the Chestnut Lodge site ended with a new beginning last night. The Mayor and Council advised Rockville's zoning chief, Jim Wasilak, to essentially consider the revision as a new project being submitted. That was not the preference of developer JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC, whose representative told the Mayor and Council that this was merely a minor revision that actually reduces the size of the project.

But the controversy over the plan is so great, and so many questions remain unanswered, that officials are seeking the maximum public input and discussion. The original Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement required a multi-family condo development, and a restoration of the historic Chestnut Lodge psychiatric facility main building. Despite the Lodge burning down in a suspicious fire in 2009, opponents of the new townhome proposal argue the PRU remains in effect, and requires the development to build a structure similar to the one lost. It also was predicated on the requirement for condos, as opposed to the more horizontal townhome design with only a handful of units.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said she would like staff to explain how the existing PRU can be modified when the circumstances have changed. "I would like to see an is this respective of the PRU that is on the property?" she asked. Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said he also has not received satisfactory answers to his questions regarding whether or not the proposed project meets the Secretary of the Interior requirements.

Councilmember Beryl Feinberg said she would like to have a public hearing. Pierzchala said his proposed process included one before the Mayor and Council, but that he didn't want to tell the Planning Commission how to conduct its process.

"We need to be very clear that we are starting the process over," Newton told staff. Wasilak said he would consider taking all of the steps proposed by the Mayor and Council - area meeting, mail notification to parties of interest, Historic District Commission review, Planning Commission review, and Mayor and Council public hearing and review - and add a staff review of the revised plan.

Pierzchala said it is important that the HDC know it has the authority to go beyond a courtesy review in this case, and give its opinions on the merits of the project, and its impact on the surrounding historic site and district. "I second it, and think it needs to come in the form of a memo from the HDC to the Mayor and Council," Newton said.

Wasilak promised to formally outline his plan for how to proceed by the end of the week.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Chestnut Lodge staff report outlines options for handling revised plan submitted by developer

JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC is legally allowed to submit a revised project plan amendment under City of Rockville code Sec., Final Project Plan Application, a staff report posted ahead of Monday's Mayor and Council discussion says. The only question is how the revised plan should be handled. That plan was submitted on June 1, and some residents and historic preservation advocates have complained that they were not notified of the new plans by the developer.

Rockville's zoning chief Jim Wasilak has the authority to determine whether a revised plan requires additional steps and notification, or even has to be submitted as an entirely new application. Wasilak is asking the Mayor and Council to advise him on the process, given that the Mayor and Council will be the determining authority for the plan amendment.

The report says that the review process for the revised plan could consist of some or all of the following options: "written and electronic notification by the applicant as required for application submission and public meetings, an Area Meeting with the community conducted by the applicant, staff Development Review Committee (DRC) review and recommendation, Planning Commission review and recommendation, another Mayor and Council public hearing or another Discussion and Instructions session."

According to the report, the Mayor and Council could even determine that no additional steps are necessary, and then give staff instructions on how to proceed.

The applicant is proposing to reduce the proposed townhome building's footprint to be 10% larger than the historic Chestnut Lodge that stood on the site before it burnt down in a suspicious 2009 fire. And it is asking to reduce the number of townhome units from 7 to 6.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Move by Chestnut Lodge developer stirs controversy in Rockville

Revised project plan
rendering of
JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC's
townhome proposal
Developer JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC has submitted a revised project plan amendment to the City of Rockville for its proposed townhome development at 500 W. Montgomery Avenue. The move has stirred controversy among residents and elected officials alike.

Last week, a City email stated that a revised plan had been submitted, and that the Mayor and Council would potentially vote on it next Monday, June 20. Subsequently, additional City emails were sent out to clarify that the Mayor and Council would instead be discussing "the review process" for the unusual filing. The original amendment failed to achieve majority support from either the Planning Commission or the Mayor and Council.

 It is now up to the City zoning chief to determine what the appropriate process is to follow in this case.

The email confusion, and the apparent fact that the new revised plan was not shared with any of the parties of record by the developer, brought former mayor and current West End Citizens Association President Larry Giammo and Peerless Rockville Executive Director Nancy Pickard out to address the issue during the Community Forum of last night's Mayor and Council meeting.

During Old/New Business later in the meeting, the Mayor and Council discussed the issue further, but no action was taken in terms of voting. One question debated was whether or not the Mayor and Council should seek advice from outside counsel on the matter, or rely on the City Attorney.
Revised site plan, which
drops the number of units
to 6 townhomes
Of what little information is available as of press time, the revised plan reduces the number of townhomes from seven to six. The controversial rear design, including garages, remains intact. Most of the filing simply makes the case for why this plan complies with both the City master plan and historical preservation standards. By removing one unit, the length of the project is slightly reduced horizontally, but still does not resemble the original lodge. Opponents of the townhome plan have argued that the original agreement between the City and the original developer remains in effect, and requires a multifamily condo building. With Chestnut Lodge having burnt down in 2009, their position is that the developer must replace the former mental institution with a building of similar proportions, and with the type of housing units that the agreement was based upon.
Developer's new building
footprint comparison between
townhome proposal (blue dotted
line) and the original
Chestnut Lodge (grey filled area)
The new footprint in the revised plan now increases 10% over the original lodge's. What the next step is, will be determined by the Mayor and Council next Monday evening.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mayor and Council vote to deny Chestnut Lodge amendment

Chestnut Lodge in 2003
Rockville's Mayor and Council voted 3-2 to deny an amendment to the Chestnut Lodge Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement that would have permitted townhomes to replace a multifamily condominium renovation of the historic sanitarium. The building burnt down in a suspicious fire in 2009.

Councilmember Virginia Onley said she would not oppose the developer's plan, citing her concern that the City could face legal action in the case if it denied the amendment. Other elected officials, past and present, have asserted that the City's legal position is strong, in that the PRU remains binding and in effect, and required the original building to remain in order to execute the agreement.

Onley referred to comments by Twinbrook Citizens Association President Richard Gottfried during a public hearing earlier in the evening, in which Gottfried warned of the danger of "spot zoning" on the different topic of the Rockville Pike Neighborhood Plan. Gottfried mentioned the legal action now pending against the City for its decision in the EZ Storage case.

While she said she opposes building townhomes on the site, Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr said the City is "held to certain legal standards" it may not be able to get out of in a case like this. She asked City staff to clarify its assessment of the criteria that is to be applied to the PRU and the proposed amendment. Zoning chief Jim Wasilak replied that, "We didn't see anything necessarily that was in conflict with the [Master] Plan." The site is in the W. Montgomery Avenue Historic District.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who has long made clear her opposition to the townhome plan, said approval of it would "undermine" the entire W. Montgomery Avenue Historic District. She also objected to the applicant's proposal to greatly increase the footprint of the building beyond that of the original Chestnut Lodge. An out-of-character development would result in the loss of a historic site of not just local, but national, importance, she argued. In particular, rear decks and garages would negatively impact the site itself, as well as surrounding homes in the historic district.

Following the Mayor's remarks, Councilmember Beryl Feinberg moved to deny the amendment, but was questioned as to her reasoning by Councilmember Mark Pierzchala.

Then, Pierzchala made his own motion to deny the amendment. His motion instructed staff to bring back a resolution to the Mayor and Council that states the townhome project is in conflict with the Master Plan. It stated that the historic district the site is in would be "profoundly affected" by the out-of-character development.

Pierzchala's motion also zeroed in on specific issues related to the PRU agreement. He said the agreement was "expressly conditioned" on the retention of the main lodge building. He added that any proposal needs to be "more consistent" with the existing PRU. The townhome concept "does not meet the spirit or the intent of the original understanding," Pierzchala said.

The motion passed 3-2, with Onley and Palakovich Carr opposed.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Residents unanimous in opposing Chestnut Lodge amendment in public hearing

Chestnut Lodge, as it appeared in
No Rockville resident came out last night in support of a developer's request to amend an approval governing redevelopment of the site of the historic Chestnut Lodge. A public hearing before the Mayor and Council on the fate of the spot where the famed mental health institution once stood found developers standing alone in support of their proposal for seven townhomes. Residents and historic preservation experts who spoke strongly supported the option of reconstructing the building.

Nancy Pickard, Executive Director of historical preservation organization Peerless Rockville, said the group supports the Planning Commission recommendation to reject the proposed amendment. There is a "substantial difference" between the original proposal to modify the now-destroyed Chestnut Lodge as a multifamily residential building, and the more horizontally-oriented townhome proposal. Townhomes are "inconsistent with the historic district," she said.

Pickard said the vote gives the Mayor and Council the opportunity to step back and consider the best future for the site. "Reconstruction should be given consideration," she concluded.

Dr. Alan Shiffenbauer spoke about the history of Chestnut Lodge, and urged that its significance "should be valued, it should be preserved, and it should at least be honored."

There is "widespread community opposition" to the townhome proposal in the West End neighborhood, West End Citizens Association President Noreen Bryan told the Mayor and Council. 180 residents have signed a petition opposing the amendment to allow townhouses on the site, she said. Bryan noted that residents made many concessions to the previous applicant for the sole purpose of keeping the original building in place. Now that it fell victim to a suspected arson, the agreement remains in effect, she argued.

That Planned Residential Unit agreement remains the crux of the debate. Larry Giammo, who was mayor when the PRU was agreed to, asked the Mayor and Council to imagine a reconstructed Chestnut Lodge being a conversation starter about the site's history. The "most significant mental health facility, arguably, on the planet...My God, that building was stunning," he recalled. What the developer has proposed, by contrast, is a "Disneyesque facade treatment," Giammo suggested. He recommended the amendment be denied. "Give reconstruction a chance," he said.

"Perhaps we're asking the wrong question," Paul Newman, President of the 30 Oaks homeowners association, said. "We're in a PRU, and in a historic district." Why a development should not have to honor the PRU, he said, "it seems to me that is the question we should be asking."

"Think about what is the right use of the property," said Peerless Rockville Board of Directors President Patricia Wolff, "and figure out a way for us to get there. The result of (your decision) is going to be there for a long time." She said she would like future passersby on W. Montgomery Avenue to look at whatever is ultimately built, and say, "'Wow!' Not, 'can you believe what they've done to that site?'"

The applicant professed to believe their project would generate the former, rather than the latter, response. "You have before you the best possible outcome," attorney Stephen J. Orens of McMillan Metro, PC said. He suggested denying the application would be "a taking" by the City, and a case of inverse condemnation, although he did not explicitly threaten legal action. Orens and an architectural historian hired by the applicant cast doubt on the viability of reconstructing Chestnut Lodge.

Such a structure would give "a false sense of history that, frankly, would not be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior standards," Orens argued.

Preservation advocates strongly disagreed.

"My experience leads to a different conclusion," said Rockville historian Eileen McGuckian, who has been familiar with the site for fifty years. "There are hundreds, hundreds of documents" readily available for reconstruction purposes, she said. These include specific architectural studies of the site done in the 1970s, articles, papers, documentaries, photos, bricks retrieved from the fire that destroyed it, postcards, two County Cable Montgomery segments filmed prior to the fire, and raw footage from an unfinished documentary that also captured the structure on film.

West End resident Andrew Sellman, who also served on the WECA Chestnut Lodge committee, said he had traveled the region ahead of the public hearing to investigate other reconstructed buildings. He found several, including the Appomattox Courthouse; the Staunton, Virginia Shakespeare Theatre; and the All Hallows Parish Courthouse, which were reconstructed from far less documentation than exists for Chestnut Lodge, he reported.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said her involvement in the issue goes back many years. As WECA president, she helped to reach the agreement with developer Morty Levine to preserve Chestnut Lodge. "It blows my mind" that the City Attorney and staff did not take a proactive approach to enforcing the existing PRU after the destruction of Chestnut Lodge, she said.

Newton also questioned a precise and short timeline for approval of the applicant's proposed amendment shown by staff at the outset of the public hearing. She asked why dates were given by staff, when agendas are supposed to be set by the Mayor and Council. "When did that start," she asked.

"You're obviously under no obligation to abide by those," responded Zoning Chief Jim Wasilak. "I personally don't have a problem with staff making a recommendation," Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said. He questioned why the Historic District Commission was limited to conducting a courtesy review of the application, rather than taking a larger role in determining the best course to proceed on for the Chestnut Lodge site.

Pierzchala also said that the opposing opinions on what meets the Secretary of the Interior guidelines need to be clarified. City staff should weigh in definitively on the issue, he suggested. "That's a very important thing," he said.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Friday, March 18, 2016

Giammo asks Rockville HDC to reconsider Chestnut Lodge review

Former Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo appeared before the Historic District Commission last night on the current hot topic in historic preservation: Chestnut Lodge. Following the Planning Commission's unanimous bodyslam of a proposed townhome development on the former site of the famed mental health facility last week, Giammo asked the HDC to reconsider the findings it made in a Courtesy Review of the project last year.

At that November 19 review, the HDC commissioners present expressed no objection to the plan of JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC for townhomes at the 500 W. Montgomery Avenue site. The development team's presentation was well-received, in stark contrast to the response of the Planning Commission and the public. However, the two HDC commissioners who are usually the most-outspoken on preservation matters, Jessica Reynolds and Craig Maloney, were both absent that evening. Maloney's term on the HDC has since ended.

But a re-review of the plan with Reynolds and new commissioner Stefanie Tincher on the dais could conceivably end with a different conclusion than the November session.

That possibility is on the minds of those opposing the plan, which includes Giammo. The former mayor told the HDC last night that the conversation planning commissioners had last week is the one he had hoped the HDC would have had last year. Giammo also was critical of staff's instructions to the HDC, which he noted were very narrow in scope.

In fact, Giammo said, Maryland law trumps the guidelines suggested by staff, and require the HDC to fully consider the impacts of such redevelopment on a historic site. That includes whether or not the project might have a negative, degrading impact on the historic character and integrity of the overall site.

The HDC must reach an "unequivocal determination" on all of the issues that have been raised, Giammo said. He also emphasized that the claims of the developer's historical consultant that there are no blueprints or design records that would permit reconstruction of Chestnut Lodge - which burnt down in a suspicious 2009 fire - are "entirely false." Giammo said Peerless Rockville and other historic preservation advocates such as historian Eileen McGuckian stand ready to assist in such an effort.

A legal agreement reached between the City and the developer at that time in 2006 required the rehabilitation of the Chestnut Lodge building as a condition for the construction of 7 condo units within the rehabbed structure.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Residents lambaste Chestnut Lodge plan, CarMax-site project site plan approved

Historic Chestnut Lodge
The Rockville Planning Commission may have set a new record for meeting length last night, starting at 6:15 PM, and wrapping up as the 2:00 AM hour approached. Commissioners spent about 4 hours on the controversial proposal to build 7 townhomes on the former site of Chestnut Lodge, once a hotel and world-renowned mental health facility.

Around a dozen residents came to testify at a public hearing on Chestnut Lodge, with even more sitting in solidarity in the audience. Among them were two Rockville mayors, past (Larry Giammo) and present (Bridget Donnell Newton). Before they could speak, staff and the applicant gave presentations, and were cross-examined by commissioners.

Despite getting a favorable recommendation for approval from city staff, JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC, brought its own historic preservation consultant, Kathryn Kuranda. She strongly endorsed the developer's plan for townhomes, and said the community desire to instead rebuild Chestnut Lodge - which burned down in what many suspect was an arson incident in 2009 - was misguided and impossible.

Kuranda said the papers that contain the necessary design and architectural records were in the basement of the former mental health facility, and were lost. Commissioners and speakers alike were skeptical of Kuranda's assertions, deeming them as merely her opinion on a matter whose options haven't been fully explored.

In response to threats by the applicant and City staff that failing to approve the plan would result in punishment of Rockville by the federal government, Commissioner Jack Leiderman scoffed at the possibility that "jackbooted thugs from the Department of the Interior would show up to pull the plug on funding" for the City over a minor planning decision.

Leiderman noted that the historic preservation group Peerless Rockville had furnished a list of many more options for the Chestnut Lodge site than the commission had received from the applicant or staff. All that's needed, Leiderman said, and all that was approved in the original project plan, were the exterior and footprint. Sufficient records exist, and were utilized by architects in the lengthy planning stage, to reconstruct the lodge to that extent, he said.

Commissioner Don Hadley quizzed Kuranda about those "records," asking if they had been protected or archived. Kuranda said they had not.

Nancy Pickard of Peerless Rockville, which owns the historic Frieda's Cottage on the Chestnut Lodge site, said she believes three City documents clearly call for preservation of the landscape and/or reconstruction of the lodge. Peerless believes the Planning Commission has the purview and responsibility to decide the outcome of this case, she said.

Pickard told commissioners that the contemporary building proposed by the applicant threatens the historic value of the site. She said that a reconstructed replica would better protect the site's status, as long as it was clearly labeled as "a contemporary recreation." Pickard noted that new buildings are discouraged in the West Montgomery Avenue Historic District, as well as "uses that are incongruent" with historical uses and character. She said the proposed building is more horizontal than the vertical-oriented Chestnut Lodge, which would alter the historic viewshed from W. Montgomery Avenue, and from backyards of nearby homes. "We are not taking a singular position on what needs to happen here," Pickard said, but added that she agreed that historical restoration in this type of case is typically always about the exterior of a building.

Hadley asked Pickard how the applicant's plan might impact the historical integrity of the larger Chestnut Lodge property. "It could call it into question," she replied. "You have to be careful about what you build here."

A representative of the Thirty Oaks HOA said his adjacent community would be stuck "looking at the 14 garage doors staring at our backyards." "Why's larger than what we had," he complained. "Why do we have to change the rules to satisfy the developer? It's all about maximizing profits. Not a single time has anyone approached us to get our opinion about it."

Another nearby resident, Marion Hull, requested commissioners "not recommend approval" of the application. She said someone needs to be held accountable for the failure to protect the Chestnut Lodge property and records. Holding up a high-resolution photo, she said enough detail was visible in it to recreate the lodge exterior.

Patricia Woodward, chair of the West End Citizens Association Chestnut Lodge Committee and a former head nurse at Chestnut Lodge, emphasized the history and impact of the work that was done there on the mental health field internationally. Many employees there went on to acclaimed careers at other facilities and learning institutions, she said, even as Chestnut Lodge itself "became the most notable mental health institution in the world." In fact, as recently as 1994-96, Chestnut Lodge remained in the top tier of U.S. News and World Report's annual list of the best mental health facilities. And Chestnut Lodge was the basis for the novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

"There's too much history here to be disregarded," Woodward concluded.

Former mayor Giammo concurred, saying Chestnut Lodge was the most historic property in the city before its demise. Giammo was the mayor when the property was designated historic, and when the City forged the Planned Residential Unit (PRU) agreement with the developer at that time. Last night, he said he was proud of his votes on both.

Giammo again criticized the developer who failed to secure the site in 2009, even as repeated break-ins occurred at the main building. He accused the developer of "willful negligence," recalling a pompous TV appearance by the principal of the firm, in which he appeared to mock the idea of security.

"There he is in a room full of shredded paper and flammables, joking about intruders," Giammo recounted. The former mayor pointed out that even lesser buildings on the site have been recognized as worthy of restoration. He said there absolutely is enough visual material from which a reconstruction of the exterior would be possible. Computer programs today, he added, can generate architectural measurements and data from photographs.

To the question of whether or not the applicant's townhomes would be appropriate for the site, Giammo said the answer was "a definitive no."  Leiderman asked Giammo what his reaction to this proposal would have been if it had been brought forward during his time as mayor. "It would have been a non-starter from the first millisecond," Giammo replied, adding, "God help us what this is going to look like when it's constructed."

Noreen Bryan, President of the West End Citizens Association, told commissioners there is widespread community opposition to townhomes on this site, because they don't recreate the historic feel of the site.
"Why wasn't the question of reconstruction considered by the applicant?" she asked. Bryan said a
WECA resolution calls on the City to develop a vision for the site in consultation with citizens.

Another HOA president, Paul Newman of Thirty Oaks, said he was speaking for himself only last night. He said any claim that there are no plans available from which to recreate Chestnut Lodge are "ridiculous" and "disingenuous." The applicant's plan would "obliterate" the property's signature traffic circle, and take up more of the lawn rather preserving it. Trees the developer promised to care for "are dying," Newman reported. "Why should anything change" from the original PRU, he asked the commission.

"It was far more important than simply a local landmark," resident Andrew Sellman told the commission. "Is it properly designated? Maybe it's a national historic site, and we need to consider that." Sellman said his research revealed that psychiatric papers as recent as 2014 are still citing work that was done at Chestnut Lodge. Chestnut Lodge ended the idea of "insane asylums," he said.

Historian Eileen McGuckian said the property is already on the National Register of Historic Places. "I still find it painful to visit the vacant site," she said.

McGuckian advised the commission that the City indeed has Chestnut Lodge plans from two different consulting firms, and numerous photographs. Any new structure should have four sides, and a common entrance, she said. The current proposal is "out of character" with the historic site. McGuckian suggested Forest Glen as a good model, where a historic gymnasium was converted into 12 condos. She said she was in the basement of Chestnut Lodge, and made a four-page list of all of the documents down there.

Reminding commissioners that the only reason this single-family home-zoned site got higher density was to save the main building at Chestnut Lodge, resident Jeanne O'Meara said, "We sold our soul" to keep the main building, she said.

Two residents of the single-family homes in the Chestnut Lodge development spoke in favor of the townhome plan, saying they are currently on the hook for the high maintenance costs for the common areas, and would like new residents who could take on their share of those expenses. They also said they fear a lesser plan could be put forward in the future that would make this one look good by comparison.

Newton spoke as a citizen, rather than as the Mayor, and reminded the Chestnut Lodge residents that condo owners in a reconstructed main building could contribute financially just as well as townhome owners.

After the public hearing ended, Leiderman made a motion to recommend the Mayor and Council not approve the amendment to the PRU requested by the applicant. His motion was seconded by Commissioner John Tyner.

Nobody gets a PRU amendment "by right," Leiderman said. The developer knew going in that purchasing land with that requirement was risky, he added. Multifamily zoning was offered "solely for the purpose of preserving that building," Leiderman continued, noting that with the building destroyed, there is now no rationale for multifamily zoning. The fact that the applicant's latest proposal exceeds the original footprint of the main building is a violation of the PRU, he said.

The townhouse plan "obviously does not fit in any way, shape or form" on the Chestnut Lodge site, Leiderman said. This proposal is "not even remotely appropriate to this site. To most people who look at this objectively, it's a no brainer."

Tyner concurred. "I just think it's not appropriate in this area," he said. "It's a very, very historic part of Rockville. It's an area we're extremely proud of." Hadley said it would be "irresponsible" to recommend approval of the plan last night, without exploring the other options for the site first.

Chair Charles Littlefield called the vote, and Leiderman's motion to not recommend approval passed unanimously.

Later, the commission also unanimously approved the site plan for the former CarMax dealership at 15931 Frederick Road, by the Shady Grove Metro station. A residential project, it will house 405 units. Commissioners again expressed strong reservations about the project's lack of retail space.

A waiver to allow underground installation of electrical transformers passed 4-2.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Alternatives for future use of the Chestnut Lodge site in Rockville?

Testimony at Monday's Mayor and Council meeting capped other efforts underway to reopen debate on how the former site of the historic Chestnut Lodge sanitarium should be redeveloped. There is, of course, a new townhome proposal on the table, which recently passed scrutiny by the Rockville Historic District Commission (although two members were absent that evening). Chestnut Lodge burnt down in 2009, in what is suspected to have been an arson incident.

Patricia Woodward, a resident who was once head nurse at Chestnut Lodge and now heads the Chestnut Lodge committee for the West End Citizen's Association, said a reconstruction of the original building "can be done," as a condominium development. This would reduce the size of what is proposed now by 63%. 

Woodward noted that "there is a precedent for rebuilding, reconstruction” on the site, including the stable, "wing B," and the Ice House. She said that, during her tenure, the Ice House served as a music room, with a baby grand piano, drum set, stereo system, and electric guitar. There was "room for jamming, and it was most enjoyable," Woodward recalled Monday night.

It is invaluable to have people who were actually at the Lodge during its operation participating in this discussion. 

It's also valuable to have input from former Mayor Larry Giammo, who was in office at the time when a Planned Residential Unit agreement was made with developer Chase Communities, and the Chestnut Lodge historic district was created. He made the point that townhomes had previously been determined unsuitable for the Chestnut Lodge site. Both he and current Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton have questioned the action of city staff in substituting their professional judgement for the terms of the PRU. Doing so was "actually illegal," Giammo said Monday night. He argued the issue should have been brought to the Mayor and Council. Newton questioned city staff later that evening as to why she and the Council were not informed of this matter.

The West End Citizen's Association has also started a petition to oppose the townhome plan, after Woodward's committee recommended the City deny the townhome plan. The petition has already gained 50 signatures. WECA is seeking further discussion that would determine a plan that considers both the historic importance of the site, and the previous PRU.

Chestnut Lodge was "the most important, most notable historic asset in the 
City of Rockville, before it was allowed to be destroyed by fire," Giammo said Monday.

Given the County's mental health crisis today - where both City and County police officers are often the ones who have to address the consequences of that crisis firsthand, and so many in the County are homeless - one wonders why the big talkers on mental health among our County Council didn't step in to acquire Chestnut Lodge, when it ran into financial difficulty.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Opposition to Chestnut Lodge proposal surfaces at Mayor and Council meeting

Chestnut Lodge in 2003
Rockville's Mayor and Council were briefed on the JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC proposal to build 7 townhomes on the site where Chestnut Lodge sanitarium once stood last night. But before that briefing could be delivered, several residents voiced objections to the advancement of the project during the Community Forum segment of the meeting.

Among them was former Mayor Larry Giammo, who raised several points regarding the destruction of Chestnut Lodge, and a past legal agreement developers made with the City.

Giammo chastised the owner of the property at the time Chestnut Lodge burnt down, a shell company for Chase Communities, for neglecting to secure the vacant historic building from trespassers and vandals. The fire that destroyed the structure was suspected to have been intentionally set. Giammo noted that a representative of the development firm appeared to laugh off the frequent trespassing at Chestnut Lodge - prior to the blaze - in a video. I believe he may have been referring to this Fox 5 news story on the Lodge, in which Chase Communities' Morty Levine jokes that he hopes to meet a ghost in Chestnut Lodge, so that he can sell the spirit a condo.

But the former mayor had some additional concerns regarding neglect. Giammo said "city staff is 0-for-2" in enforcing a binding legal agreement the City reached with that developer. It stipulated that no additional construction permits could be issued prior to the developer "rehabilitating" the historic Chestnut Lodge structure. Just because the building burnt down, doesn't mean the agreement is invalid, he suggested.

Rockville's current Mayor, Bridget Donnell Newton, also had some concerns regarding the briefing given later by the applicant's attorney, Soo Lee-Cho. Some of what was stated did not reflect her recollection of events, Newton said, and she asked city staff to provide additional information on those points. Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr asked staff to inquire with historical preservation organization Peerless Rockville on best practices, as the project moves forward to seek approvals from the Planning Commission and Mayor and Council.

The loss of Chestnut Lodge remains a painful one for preservation advocates in Rockville, as it seemed a totally-unnecessary fate for the prized building.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rockville Confederate statue move put on hold, Chestnut Lodge development reviewed

The absence of two members of Rockville's Historic District Commission at last night's meeting resulted in the postponement of action on moving the Confederate statue to the Beall-Dawson House until mid-December. Although the Commission had a quorum with 3 members present, newest member Emily Correll informed HDC Chair Rob Achtmeyer that she would recuse herself from the statue vote, having testified on the matter as a citizen at a previous hearing.

Commissioner Jessica Reynolds was out of the country, and Commissioner Craig Moloney was detained by bad weather despite his intention to fly back in time for the meeting, Achtmeyer said.

The Commission was able to handle the rest of its agenda, however.

Commissioners voted unanimously that there was no historical significance to homes at 714 and 729 Beall Avenue, allowing their owners to now demolish them. Both are in the West End Park subdivision. Achtmeyer suggested that, while neither of these homes were of the structural integrity to preserve, the City and residents should be having conversations about specific homes, blocks and areas within Rockville that could be designated historic, to preserve mid-century residential architecture.

Afterward, Commissioners conducted a courtesy review of the 7-townhome development on the site of the former Chestnut Lodge at 500 W. Montgomery Avenue, for developer JNP Chestnut Lodge, LLC.

Architect Randy Creaser told commissioners that he did extensive research on Chestnut Lodge, a historic hotel later converted into a sanitarium. In 2009, the abandoned building was burnt down in a fire many believed was an arson incident.
Chestnut Lodge as photographed
in 2003

Creaser said he was inspired by the building's 2nd Empire Victorian architecture, and wanted a design that would "acknowledge and give a nod to the grace and beauty of that architecture we lost."
The proposed townhome
Central to that, are the tower elements of the building's roofline. Ten foot ceilings - "a very Victorian height," Creaser noted - also allow for tall windows. Natural light was very important during the gaslight age, Creaser said. A gable element along the new building's south elevation will also pay tribute to the Lodge.
Tower elements at the
roofline recall
Chestnut Lodge
Garages will be recessed 17' behind the rear decks of the townhomes, and are at a lower grade than the access road, minimizing them as architectural elements, Creaser said.

The applicant's attorney, Soo Lee-Cho, said that by moving the footprint of the building south, mature holly trees will be preserved. An arborist testifying for the applicant said the trees "are worth this effort," and that he had worked out a long-term plan with the City arborist to ensure the health of those natural resources.

Of the Chestnut Lodge-inspired design, Achtmeyer said, "This is not typical in any way, and I think that's important for this site."

Commissioners did not express any objections to the plan. It will now be presented to the Mayor and Council in a briefing Monday night.

Photos courtesy City of Rockville