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The Commercial Corner in the 60s and 70s

The research of Robinson & Associates in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination forms the basis of this month’s overview of our Commercial Corner’s more recent past. It is gratefully acknowledged.

In the 1960s, property owner Kay Bowling, and later her son Bobby Lee, pursued various additional uses and alterations to the Commercial Corner. Their proposals included gutting, and later demolition, of the Odd Fellows Hall, conversion of the Hall to multi- family dwellings and retail space, the addition of five small stores to the property, and adding a paint store use. None of the proposals were met with approval by the Town. Battles ended with the court in 1968 enjoining the Town from denying Bowling a permit for a store downstairs and an apartment upstairs in the Hall. A new kind of grocery, Fast Foods, Inc., a low- key operation, moved from the old Fulks/Walker general store to the first floor of the Odd Fellows Hall.

In 1971, Bobby Lee, then owner of the old general store building and the Odd Fellows Hall comprising the Town’s commercial corner, requested a permit to redevelop the lots. His plan proposed demolishing the old general store and replacing it with a modern shopping center that would be anchored on the south by the Odd Fellows Hall and on the north by a 7- Eleven convenience store.

The plans were approved, and the project was completed in 1973. To integrate the Odd Fellows Hall with the new construction, the front façade of the molded concrete block building was faced with brick veneer and given a faux Mansard roof. The original stepped parapet at the front gable peak of the Hall was eliminated in the renovation. The original concrete block remains visible along the secondary elevations. Among the new tenants of the shopping center was the U.S. Post Office, which relocated from Hershey’s on Oakmont Avenue to the Odd Fellows Hall.

The 7-Eleven was a one-story, brick veneer building with large, plate-glass windows fronting Washington Grove Lane. Its low-pitched, cross-gable roof was embellished with Colonial Revival elements, including a roof balustrade, cupola, and weathervane.

Conflict Over the Commercial Corner

One of the defining events of Washington Grove’s current past was its successful lawsuit against The Southland Corporation, an international conglomerate and parent company of the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores. As one of the only convenience stores in the area, the 7-Eleven offered lottery tickets, pinball machines, video games, and movie rentals, attracting heavy foot and automobile traffic from all directions, but primarily along Washington Grove Lane and through the town’s adjacent streets and avenues.

This brought complaints of litter, petty crime, and car break-ins. Young African Americans walking from nearby Emory Grove, which had been recently subjected to an urban renewal demolition project, bore the brunt of the accusations. By 1975, the store was operating twenty-four hours a day, and the commercial corner had become an epicenter for littering, noise, loitering, vandalism, and other illegal activities.

As the years passed, the issue became more acute and battles over Town control escalated.  The 7-Eleven was declared a public nuisance, and the issue was frequently and passionately discussed at town meetings, special meetings, and conferences between town officials, the police, and neighboring communities. Citizens committees were formed to document the frequency and severity of problems and to establish a legal defense fund to cover anticipated legal fees.

Finally, the Town took action in 1983 when it added an article to its ordinances that regulated commercial activity, required business licenses, limited business hours, and required deposits on beverage containers. This, in effect, declared certain previously valid uses of the commercial corner to be nonconforming, resulting in a two-year legal battle with Southland. This was a formidable task for the small municipality and its cadre of activists and was viewed by many as having little chance for success. Washington Grove’s annual budget was less than $150,000, and Southland was an international corporation that had recorded $1 billion in sales in 1971. The Town faced years of legal battles and potential ruin.

The case was proceeding to trial, when, in 1985, a settlement was reached in the Town’s favor. Southland agreed to immediately reduce its hours of operation and to relocate within five years. In turn, the Town agreed to issue a business license to Southland and agreed not to enforce its beverage container deposit requirement.

The settlement left the 1983 ordinance amendment intact, demonstrating the Town’s ability to respond effectively to conditions that threatened the community life, welfare, and safety of its residents. A key player in the settlement was Grove resident Barbara Hawk, who joined the Town Council in 1979 and was elected the first female mayor in 1983. Hawk was a fearless advocate for Washington Grove during its long and bitter battle to protect the Town’s character and safety and was a key player in the successful settlement of the Southland dispute.

The ordeal culminating in the end of the 7-Eleven operation, under the leadership of Mayor Hawk, tested and proved the Town’s mettle. Town Attorney Steve Johnson expressed it this way, in a letter to the Gaithersburg Gazette:

“From the outset, this case was viewed by many as a David and Goliath confrontation. Support, encouragement, and optimism came from few quarters. The Maryland Municipal League, as well as most of my colleagues, thought the odds of the Town ultimately prevailing were between slim to none. But they did not know the Town of Washington Grove! This tiny, historic enclave is filled with well-informed, civic-minded, dedicated residents. Countless hours of planning went into the drafting of legislation under the leadership of Mayor Barbara Hawk. The Town is justly proud of its victory and I am proud of my client in its steadfastness. In the showdown of David and Goliath, the giant blinked first.”

The 7-Eleven operation moved out of the Commercial Corner following the settlement, and a new tenant, the Washington Grove Post Office, moved in from the Odd Fellows Hall at the other end of the strip. Today, except for the loss of its iconic 7-Eleven cupola, weathervane, and roofline balustrade during recent roof repairs, the 7-Eleven building exterior has undergone no substantial change. It remains a physical reminder of a long-fought battle by a town to protect its character, safety, and civic identity.

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