Over 58 years ago, Fair Lanes began construction on a massive new bowling facility on Marshall Avenue in Laurel. And when it opened on February 4, 1961, it was front page news:
That’s why it was with some shock and sadness that its abrupt closure earlier this week came with no fanfare whatsoever.
Somehow, in spite of the rise of video game popularity and other entertainment alternatives through the years, Laurel’s bowling alley not only remained open—it thrived. In fact, even when Fair Lanes itself went bust in 1995, AMF took over and kept it going.
I’ve written about what the bowling alley has meant to me before, (see here and here) so I won’t rehash too much. Suffice it to say, it was always a very special and familiar place, no matter how much it changed… or how much I changed. It even enjoyed an improbable rebirth in 2014, when duckpins returned to the bowling alley after 25 years.
Learning of its closure feels like losing an old friend. And with Laurel’s classic businesses now practically an endangered species, losing the bowling alley is losing a generational icon.
Nearly five years ago, I launched a Kickstarter campaign that resulted in the successful publishing of my very first book—Lost Laurel. It was a tremendous experience; and the crowdfunding aspect allowed me to create a better product and make it available to a broader audience. In addition to selling the entire supply, I was able donate copies to Laurel High School and the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (where I worked throughout high school and college, shelving books!)
The book is a surprisingly diverse collection of over 120 different postcards from Laurel, dating from the early 1900s to the late 1980s, faithfully reproduced at full size—front and back.
In fact, the correspondence on some of the cards is often as charming as the cards themselves. Check out this one, and remember that it was mailed from laurel 110 years ago:
The Kickstarter campaign will help fund the printing and distribution of a first run of books, and it’s also a chance for you to have a part in its creation. As an early backer of the project, your name will appear printed in the book’s acknowledgments. There are also different pledge levels, in which you can not only purchase the book, but some of the original historic postcards themselves!
The campaign runs for 30 days, and is an all-or-nothing endeavor. So please make your pledges now, and share the link with friends and family to ensure that the minimum goal is met. If the goal is exceeded, I can upgrade the book—including making a hardcover edition.
If funded, all books should be printed and delivered by this July—plenty of time for Christmas gifts!
Only minutes into the long-awaited Board of Appeals hearing last night at the Laurel Municipal Center, there was a major surprise when an attorney for Pure Hana Synergy—the applicant attempting to purchase the Tastee Diner—addressed the committee in the opening moments.
“The people have spoken, and we have heard. For that reason and out of respect for the community’s wishes, we have decided to withdraw the special exception application.”
Richard K. Reed, attorney for Pure Hana Synergy
And just like that, the meeting was adjourned. I’m very happy to report that the legendary Tastee Diner will not be turning into a medical marijuana dispensary, thanks largely in part to those who signed the petition and supported the efforts to save this rare and special building.
While our community activism certainly played a big role in this result, those of us rallying to “save the diner” actually shouldn’t get all the credit (or the blame, depending which side of the fence you were on) for the Pure Hana deal falling through. It ultimately came down to the City of Laurel’s own Municipal Code, which includes strict criteria for medical marijuana dispensaries—more than one of which should have disqualified Pure Hana from ever applying for the Tastee Diner location in the first place.
First, there was the issue of the “one mile rule” in relation to any other medical marijuana dispensary.
This rule was initially the focus of some creative interpretation, as the Diner site is well within one mile of Revolution ReLEAF, the dispensary just north on Route 1 at the former Sam & Elsie’s bar. Pure Hana proponents likely would have argued that because Revolution ReLEAF is located outside of the 21st District in Howard County, the one-mile rule doesn’t apply—even though the COMAR code clearly says that “the premises may not be located within one-mile of any other licensed premises.” It doesn’t specify District limits.
Compounding the problem for Pure Hana was the recent approval of another dispensary just barely* (*depending on how one measures it) one mile south at the Tower Plaza shopping center on Route 1 at Cherry Lane. Department of Economic and Community Development staffers claimed that “It’s very close, but they just meet (the one-mile requirement).”
But again, the code seems open to interpretation. How exactly is the distance measured—is it door to door, or is it from property edge to property edge? The distance between the Diner’s location and that of this new dispensary set to open soon at Tower Plaza could also easily have been challenged.
But it’s actually another rule in the Municipal Code that likely would have nullified this deal for good.
Because he didn’t have the opportunity to speak at last night’s hearing after all, I asked City Council member Carl DeWalt if I could publish the text of what he’d planned to say. With his permission, here it is:
Good evening. My name is Carl DeWalt. I retired from 22 years with the Laurel Police Department and proudly represent the Ward 1 Citizens of Laurel on the City Council.
I am here tonight to urge the Board of Appeals to uphold the decision of the Laurel Planning Commission to not recommend approval of the application of Pure Hana, also known as SH Realty Holdings LLC, to operate a medical cannabis dispensary.
While I believe that the Tastee Diner has important historical value and should be preserved, that is not the reason I am here tonight.
Two reasons lead to the conclusion that not only was the Planning Commission correct in its recommendation, but the Pure Hana application should not have proceeded to this point at all.
First. We have enough marijuana dispensaries.
As the Planning Commission noted, Laurel already has an approved Medical Marijuana Dispensary set to open very shortly.
• Distance is very close to the 1-mile mark, and if one uses the traditional legal definition of premises, the case can be made that the Blue Pharma company dispensary is less than a mile –4905 feet property line to property line.
• There is a dispensary in Howard County—Revolution ReLEAF. The Laurel Code states: “The premises may be not located within one-mile of any other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis.”
This dispensary is less than a mile —.07 miles—from the proposed dispensary, and while some may say the fact that it is in another jurisdiction means any restrictions don’t apply, I would disagree. A mile is a mile, and the law does NOT state “within a mile…within the Laurel City limits.”
• Do we really need 3 dispensaries in a 1.8-mile radius?
• There is another dispensary operating on Rt 198, in Burtonsville.
• How many medical dispensaries do we need?
• How many do we need in the Laurel City limits?
• When the City passed its amendment to the unified code, was their intention to make Laurel a marijuana mecca? I don’t think so. I hope not. And I hope you don’t think so either.
My second, and more important point addresses the fact that this application should never have been allowed to proceed this far.
• WHY. The Tastee Diner location disqualifies it from being a medical marijuana dispensary.
The Laurel amendments to the special exceptions in the unified code state: Premises shall not be located within 1000 feet of a lot line of a public or private school, or real property owned by the Prince George’s county Board of Education or house of worship.
I draw your attention to the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church, 12 2nd St, Laurel, MD 20707.
1. Image of sign and Church entrance. This well-established faith community is less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner. As the crow files, its 668 feet door to door. Less if you consider it lot line to lot line—which is the proper measurement.
Walking along established roads it is 747 feet.
2. How do I know these figures? Google Maps Distance feature, P.G. County’s own tool, P.G. Atlas, a laser Bushnell range finder and a surveyor measuring wheel. Under any measurement, the distance between Tastee Diner and the Prayer Tower Bible Way Apostolic Faith Church is less than 1000 feet.
3. According to the City’s own ordinance, which says a dispensary must be 1,000 feet from a house of worship, this application does not qualify for approval.
On the basis of both these factors I ask you to uphold the Planning Board’s recommendation.
I suspect that no one—from either the Pure Hana camp or within the City of Laurel’s Department of Economic and Community Development—ever noticed that there is, in fact, a church less than 1,000 feet from the Tastee Diner.
Perhaps because it isn’t in what we’d consider a traditional church structure, it was simply overlooked. But there it is—in the small strip mall at the opposite end of Dottie’s Trophies.
Between the sheer number of other dispensaries in the area, the questionable distance between dispensaries both north and south of the Diner, and now the realization that there’s an established church less than 700 feet away, it’s now clear that this location was just never meant to be a medical marijuana dispensary.
While I think we’d all love to know how the Board of Appeals would have voted, it’s probably best for the City of Laurel that they didn’t have to. Because had they somehow decided to overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation—especially in light of these facts—the optics would have been quite bad.
For the record, I don’t suspect that they would have done that. But I both admire and respect Pure Hana’s decision to withdraw their application.
While the immediate threat has been eliminated, the Diner’s future is still very much in jeopardy, however. Owner Gene Wilkes was understandably disappointed in the deal falling through, and remains eager—perhaps more so than ever—to sell the property. After last night’s meeting adjourned, he hinted at considering simply “closing it down and boarding it up.” Given the resurgence of business since news of the potential sale first broke, let’s hope that Mr. Wilkes doesn’t make any such rash decisions. But that’s something that we, as supporters of the Diner, need to help with—please continue to frequent the Diner and encourage others to do so as well.
It’s entirely fitting that on the very day that the dispensary drama would be resolved, the latest issue of the Laurel Leader came out with this as the cover story.
Now is the time for the City of Laurel to work with Mr. Wilkes on a way to purchase the Diner for the City’s Historic District. Mayor Craig Moe has already gone on the record, asking that Laurel be given the right of first refusal for any future sale—well, that availability is here. And with the help of state and county preservation grants, crowdfunding, and willing investors, it can be done—and the long term benefits would be immeasurable.
In the meantime, please continue to to support the Tastee Diner and its hardworking staff. Packing that parking lot on a regular basis is the surest way to keep the City’s attention… and more importantly, to keep the Diner open.
The full hearing is below, courtesy of Laurel TV, with the Diner agenda item beginning at the 27:35 mark:
Pure Hana’s owner, Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, spoke at length about her intention to bring the alternative medicine to Laurel, citing its benefits—particularly to veterans suffering from PTSD and other disabilities.
Members of the Planning Commission had a few initial questions for Christian Pulley and Robert Love of the City’s Department of Economic and Community Development, who’d frankly treated this hearing as a formality. When asked for an update on the City’s most recently approved dispensary—Mr. Love reported that the facility plans to open in approximately 30 days in the shopping center at Route 1 and Cherry Lane.
They were also asked about the fact that only two licensed dispensaries are allowed per district. Laurel is part of the 21st District, which as you can see, is quite large:
The district extends across both Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, from College Park to Odenton—and only two dispensaries are allowed to serve it. Laurel already has one of them—the aforementioned dispensary slated to open next month at Route 1 and Cherry Lane. If Pure Hana is awarded the second location, both would be in the city of Laurel limits—barely over a mile apart (and take special note of that—we’re going to come back to this point shortly).
The concern from the Commission was valid—isn’t that going to cause yet another traffic problem, with everyone in the 21st District having to come to Laurel?
The issue of the two dispensaries barely being over a mile apart is critical, as Mr. Rick Wilson pointed out that the distance between 118 Washington Blvd. and the new dispensary at Cherry Lane is not the 1.1 miles that the City claims. “It’s more like 5,281 and a quarter feet,” the commissioner said. Mr. Love acknowledged that “It’s very close, but they just meet it.”
I made the trip to Laurel to speak as well, hoping to remind the Commission of the importance of preserving the diner as it currently is—fully intact—and taking advantage of this incredible opportunity to work with all involved to move it to Main Street, rather than have it be sacrificed in the construction of a new dispensary. You can see my presentation at the 58:47 mark of the video above, but it’s transcribed below:
I started the petition that now has over 2,300 signatures urging the city to find a way to relocate the historic—and it is historic—Tastee Diner to Main Street.
There’s a line in the 1982 Barry Levinson film, Diner, that says simply, “We always have the diner.” For nearly 90 years, that’s a sentiment that’s been true in Laurel. Not only have we always had the diner, it’s been open around the clock—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only time it’s closed, is Christmas Day. So it’s sadly ironic that as we near the holidays, this might be the end of the road. Worse, the City’s rushing to push this sale through.
Pure Hana isn’t just taking over any old building. It’s taking over a legacy. Because we have always had the diner.
If you grew up in Laurel, you know it’s part of the city’s fabric. Your parents ate at this diner before you were born… Your grandparents ate at this diner. If you were fortunate to grow up and leave Laurel for bigger and better opportunities, you knew that whenever you came back, you’d always have the diner.
That’s something not many towns can be proud of anymore. An authentic diner that’s literally served us for generations is something that should be celebrated—not rushed to its demise.
I’ll say this again: The City of Laurel has a chance to do something truly special.
When you first learned that this diner was quietly up for sale, something should’ve clicked in your collective mind… and said, “We need to save this building… We need to move this diner to Main Street.” Even if you didn’t realize what you had, you’re surrounded by people who value this town’s history. And we would’ve told you in a heartbeat.
The City refuses to explore any of these ideas for relocating the diner, where it could be revitalized under new ownership—and Pure Hana could open according to their original plans, without this façade modification that would only serve as a constant reminder of a lost opportunity for us all.
The City already has resources—the Maryland Main Street designation, packed with relocation incentives; the Community Redevelopment Authority, who’s been conspicuously and inexcusably absent through all of this, despite owning the very land on Main Street that could accommodate the diner.
You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something truly good for Laurel—something that could transform Main Street for generations to come. So that your children… and your children’s children, will also be able to say, “We always have the diner.”
I’ve explained why this would be a good thing. Before you agree to this sale, it’s time for the City to explain why they think it isn’t.
Of the three Tastee Diners in Maryland, only Laurel’s has never been listed as a historic landmark. This is a grievous oversight by the City, which has always had the authority to designate it. It’s one of only two remaining Comac diners known in existence. It’s the model that inspired the American stainless steel diner archetype. Regardless of what Mayor Moe or anyone else says, it is historic. And it belongs on Main Street.
When the diner’s previous owners, Walter and Harry Susini, signed the first lease in 1933, they purchased the land from John H. Fetty—who happened to be Laurel’s mayor at the time. The deed says that the property already included a building “known as the Laurel Diner”. So it’s ironic that this diner’s lengthy history actually began with a mayor who made sure it was poised for long-term success. Today’s mayor, for whatever reason, seems a little too eager to be rid of it.
After the final speaker had shared her concerns about the potential loss of this essential piece of the community, the Planning Commission set about its business. And the subject of distance and oversaturation came up again in the motion made by Rick Wilson.
Reminding those in attendance that the Commission’s role isn’t to determine anything other than whether or not Pure Hana can put their dispensary at this address, Mr. Wilson stated,
I strongly believe that we have adequate coverage of medical marijuana. Anybody that needs it can drive 3,700 feet from this location to the north and go to an existing dispensary… four and a half miles to Burtonsville, and there’s an existing dispensary… and 5,282 feet to Cherry Lane, and there will be a dispensary within X number of days. I don’t believe we need another dispensary. So I would move that we deny the recommendation to the Board of Appeals.
Hon. G. Rick Wilson
Those in attendance (at least, those not on the Pure Hana payroll) broke into applause—applause that only intensified when Mr. John Kish seconded the motion, and the reality began to sink in that this sale was not going to be approved. As the roll was called, each member of the Commission unanimously carried the motion.
While at the diner, decompressing with a grilled cheese and cold beer, one of the cooks appeared from the back kitchen. Charles Durocher, a Vietnam veteran who proudly displays that honor on the baseball cap he wears, came over and shook my hand. The diner staff had been watching the Laurel TV broadcast of the Planning Commission meeting live. “I just wanted to say thank you.” Charles is one of at least two veterans I know of who work at the diner—hardworking veterans who’ve continued to do their jobs in spite of the palpable fear that the business will soon be sold.
I immediately thought of the veterans that Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri had spoken of earlier in the evening, and wondered if she’s aware of the veterans at the diner, whose modest jobs depend on that diner staying open.
Pure Hana didn’t comment after the ruling, but they’re expected to appeal the decision at the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting, also at the Laurel Municipal Center, starting at 7PM. I would urge everyone to attend that meeting as well, just in case the Boardmembers interpret anything differently.
Speaking of interpreting things differently, here’s something that might be critical…
After talking to Councilman Carl DeWalt, the stipulation that dispensaries must be at least one mile from each other within the city took an interesting turn. Is that rule really limited to “within the city”—or is it literal?
Here’s an excerpt from Laurel’s Unified Land Development Code, which actually cites the rule as defined in the Code of Maryland Regulations (“COMAR”):
I’m not a lawyer—or a politician, (and God knows I’d never want to be either) but that document doesn’t say anything about the one-mile rule being limited exclusively to within the City of Laurel. It says “The premises may not be located within one-mile of ANY other licensed premises of a licensed dispensary of Medical Cannabis”. And it says that’s a Maryland regulation, not a City of Laurel one.
If that interpretation is correct, now you have to take into account the even shorter distance between the diner’s location at 118 Washington Blvd. and Revolution ReLeaf—the dispensary just up the street at the former Sam & Elsie’s. That’s definitely less than a mile away. Or, as Rick Wilson astutely noted, it’s only 3,700 feet away.
Needless to say, somebody’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, if it turns out that Pure Hana never should’ve even gotten this far along in the process. That seems like an important point that they should’ve squared away long before any of these plans developed.
That having been said, assuming the Board of Appeals upholds the Planning Commission’s recommendation, what’s next? We’ve finally heard from Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes, who admitted to the Washington Post that he’s had it up for sale for the past five years. He still wants to sell, and at 75 years old, that’s certainly his right.
Now is the perfect opportunity for the City of Laurel to rectify a few things. The diner needs to be given the historic designation it deserves, first and foremost. Next, the City of Laurel should be the ones to purchase it from Mr. Wilkes.
All agreed that the site of the current Tastee Diner is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.
“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18
It also said something else:
The Mayor has also asked the developer to allow the City of Laurel to have the right of first refusal for any future sale of the Diner.
“Mayor Reaches Agreement with Developer of Tastee Diner Site,” Press Release, 11/30/18
Those are quotes directly from the City’s press release, finally acknowledging what we’ve been trying to tell them all along. Now it’s time to hold them to it, and encourage them to explore the available options. But it has to start by talking with diner owner Gene Wilkes—and doing it with transparency this time.
Mayor Moe has stated that the city-owned vacant lot at 312 Main Street will likely become a parking lot. I still say that site would be perfect to relocate the diner to—fully intact, and fully operational. As an official part of the Historic District, (and officially a historic property) it would become eligible for those preservation benefits we’ve talked about, which Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones will be all-too eager to assist with.
Wouldn’t the City be more interested in developing the lot at 118 Washington Blvd. themselves? Wouldn’t a parking lot there make more sense, given the proximity to the MARC train station?
These are all questions we need to consider over the next few days. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of the City’s Planning Commission for their unanimous decision, but we still need to call upon the Board of Appeals to uphold their recommendation. Please attend that meeting next Thursday, December 20th at 7PM at the Municipal Center.
I sincerely hope the City of Laurel is listening this time around. Remember, despite this initial victory, the Tastee Diner is still up for sale. But now there’s a real opportunity—and path—for the City to do the right thing and make it a legitimate part of Laurel’s Historic District.
Late Friday afternoon, the City of Laurel issued the following press release:
“Today Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe and members of his Senior Management Staff met with Ms. Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri owner of Pure Hana Synergy Medical Dispensary and the developer of the property at 118 Washington Blvd, Laurel, Maryland, and her development consultants and Mr. Douglas Hayes, Chair, City of Laurel Historical District Commission.
All agreed that the site of the current Tastee Diner is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons. It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location.
Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri has agreed with the Mayor’s proposal to keep the Tastee Diner in its location and reuse the building for her business, to allow the diner to be visible and not encapsulated by a structure around it and to provide for signage providing historical information about the Diner. It was also agreed that the developer would include in the development plans the placement of silhouettes in some of the windows of the Diner to further enhance the historic aesthetics of the building façade.
The Mayor has also asked the developer to allow the City of Laurel to have the right of first refusal for any future sale of the Diner.
Attendees saw new proposals for the renovation of the property and the thoughtful reuse of the Tastee Diner façade and building and agreed it met their goals and that of the community members who spoke at the Mayor and City Council meeting on Monday, November 26, 2018.
Mayor Moe stated “It is good to have the developer listen to the City and the residents of the community, and take action, the right action, that will preserve the Tastee Diner, while adding a nice reuse of the building.”
Chairman Douglas Hayes stated his satisfaction that this is a “good reuse of the building, and the new drawings of the Tastee Diner are outstanding, keeping the Tastee Diner building at its present location while adding a new business to the Route 1 corridor.”
Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri stated that she was “thankful to the community for their input and the assistance she has received from the City of Laurel.” Ms. DeMauro-Palminteri also stated she would be happy to work with the members of the Laurel Historical Society to donate some of the Tastee Diner furniture from inside the diner and signage.
The City of Laurel Planning Commission will hear the special exception application on the property at 118 Washington Blvd. on December 11, 2018 at 7:00 pm, the public is invited.”
Released on November 30, 2018 – 4:10pm | cityoflaurel.org
When announced on their Facebook page under the subjective headline of “Good news for the future preservation of the Tastee Diner,” the press release was met with a hearty serving of derision, support… and confusion:
I was confused as well. Not by what is now being proposed, but by how we got here.
Suddenly, the City is claiming that the diner “is a notable landmark and a building that is very worthy of preservation for historical reasons.” Most of them did not feel that way up until yesterday.
The agreement that Mayor Craig Moe reached with Pure Hana Synergy is better than the alternative—that being the total encapsulation and hiding of the diner that was in their original plans. But it is in no way what I’ve been suggesting, and what over 1,900 people to date have signed the petition for.
The petition calls for the City to explore ways to have the best of both worlds—to allow Pure Hana Synergy to still build their dispensary on the site, but to procure the historic portion of the diner, ultimately finding a developer who could revitalize it on Main Street where it could continue as a functioning, authentic diner. That has been my goal from the start.
I posed that idea to Mayor Moe in an email on November 1st—exactly one month ago today, and weeks before starting the petition. He never replied.
Despite a very select few at City Hall—chiefly Councilman Carl DeWalt—I can assure you that the City was not interested in preserving anything about the Tastee Diner. Which makes their press release ironic at best.
When all of the facts come out, I think we’ll discover that Pure Hana Synergy was lead to believe that not only did the City have zero interest in preserving the diner, they were anxious to be rid of it—quickly and quietly. I think we’ll also discover that the reason they’re insisting on repurposing the diner (rather than the logical building of a new structure from scratch on the larger lot) is to take advantage of grandfathered utilities clauses that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.
That being said, I’m disappointed that the mayor decided to have a closed-door meeting, attended only by him and his “senior management staff”—which, curiously, did not include the City Council—and certainly not anyone from the Laurel Historical Society, who’d also lobbied for the removal and preservation of the diner car. This group alone created the unilateral agreement outlined in their press release.
The agreement suggests that the exterior façade of the diner will now become an integral part of Pure Hana Synergy’s new building. But that’s all that will remain of it—the interior will be completely gutted, and the diner—one of only two remaining Comac models in existence—will be effectively destroyed.
Yes, it’s a small victory that our historic diner will in some way be adaptively preserved, but let’s be honest—what a complete waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this was for the City of Laurel, and Main Street in particular. The integrated look that Pure Hana Synergy is now promising to create using the façade of the diner could have been achieved by a new developer on Main Street—where we would have still had a fully-functioning diner.
The fact that the City was so unwilling to explore any of the many available resources to achieve this reflects poorly on its leaders. And the lack of transparency as it pertains to the CRA (the Donna Crary-led Community Redevelopment Authority that has purchased properties on Main Street which could have easily housed the relocated diner) is even more troublesome. Not once was the CRA part of the discussion, nor would the City respond to multiple requests to explain their absence.
This particular statement in the press release—“It has never been the desire of the City or the developer to demolish or remove the Tastee Diner from its location”—reminded me of a similarly laughable story I heard a few years ago. Without naming names, suffice it to say that a popular longtime Laurel businessman (who, like many in Laurel politics, has little affinity for historic preservation) once relayed the following:
“Someone once claimed to have found some Native American artifacts on my property, and approached me about preserving the land to ensure that they wouldn’t be disturbed. I promised him that I’d come up with a solution that would preserve the artifacts exactly where they were, and that no one would be able to touch them. He was satisfied with that, so I paved over it and made it a parking lot.”
Keeping the Tastee Diner in its original location, even with this amended plan that promises to no longer encapsulate it, hardly saves it. It will, however, be a constant reminder of what might have been.
Laurel/Lanham… what’s the difference, right? Well, Laurel is the one with the rare Tastee Diner that may soon be disappearing.
Benson was in town covering the Mayor and City Council Meeting. Or, just the City Council Meeting, as it were—attendees were informed that Mayor Craig Moe was actually still in Florida for the holiday.
The reason for the local news coverage was the general public hearing, in which representatives from the Laurel Historical Society and the City of Laurel’s own Historic District Commission Chairman spoke eloquently in favor of saving the diner.
After Jhanna Levin, Douglas Hayes, and Karen Lubieniecki spoke to rousing applause, City Council President Mike Leszcz offered only a terse reply:
That was it—no further elaboration. And whether Mr. Leszcz intended it or not, the impression it gave was that the Mayor and City Council don’t have a say in whether the sale of the diner is approved or not. That decision now falls on the Planning Commission and the Board of Appeals.
That being duly noted, the purpose of calling attention to the Mayor and City Council in the first place was never to block to the sale of the property at all. It was simply to urge them to do their due diligence in exploring options that might allow them to successfully take ownership of the historic 1951 Comac-built diner car, and relocate it to benefit Main Street—without adversely affecting Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to build their dispensary at the diner’s former location.
If you watch that NBC4 segment (again, ignoring the fact that it says “Lanham” throughout the piece) Mr. Leszcz makes a statement to Jackie Benson:
Mr. Leszcz, whom I know not only has a deep appreciation for Laurel’s history, but for the Tastee Diner itself—at the City Council meeting, he spoke at length of his fondness for it and his memory of the Tuozzo family, who co-owned the diner along with the Sussinis before Gene Wilkes took over in 1976. But you don’t have to read between the lines here to see that he hasn’t exactly been looking for a creative solution to save it.
Why would he say that the City doesn’t have the money, when he literally just admitted that he doesn’t know how much it would actually cost to move the diner?
That’s exactly why we approached the Mayor and City Council with this petition in the first place—to seek those answers. To seek out partners like Preservation Maryland and Maryland Milestones Heritage Area who are literally asking to help with this endeavor. Partners who have the knowledge and means to assist with grants and other incentives that the City Council seems to know very little about, frankly.
And make no mistake, that’s their duty. Elected officials are supposed to have the City’s best interest in mind, and constantly seek creative ways to benefit Laurel for the long term. Not to simply facilitate a sale in the interest of “cleaning up” a blighted block.
And honestly, my perception thus far has been that some at City Hall—certainly not everyone, by any means—have viewed this idea of saving the diner as an act of sheer folly; that it’s somehow an inconvenience to them to even have to entertain such an impossible notion of moving that diner.
If that’s indeed the case, I think that’s incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible to not even consider what might be achieved on Main Street by preserving and revitalizing such a rare piece of history—a piece of history that is otherwise going to be lost so unnecessarily in the building of this dispensary.
Mr. Leszcz’s comment about the City not having the money for something like this kind of stands at odds with another point he brought up at the meeting—about Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority, and their recent purchase of the Gude Mansion at Laurel Lakes, which I assume the City plans to extensively renovate with the idea of renting the facility out for weddings and such. That can’t be cheap. But then, good investments usually aren’t. Regardless, it prompted me to take a look at the public land records for these recent purchases, including the old Laurel Theatre at 312 Main Street, and the Laurel Town Lodge boarding house at 41 B Street.
I’m sure these were wise investments–I don’t doubt that for a moment. They’re investments that will eventually benefit the city in various ways. But they raise two very big questions: are they any wiser than investing in relocating the diner to Main Street, where a new owner could be incentivized to renovate it into something truly special? And should the City really be so quick to dismiss a creative idea with the notion that they “don’t have the money”?
That being said, the next step is the December 11th Planning Commission Meeting, followed by the December 20th Board of Appeals meeting.
Up until about a week ago, there was no outward indication that the Tastee Diner was in the process of being sold. There had been no talk of closing, no sign announcing a public hearing, no “word on the street” from regulars or staff about impending changes. It was still business as usual. But seeing surveyors on the property recently was an obvious clue—one that foreshadowed the extensive plans we’re now aware of.
One minute, life at the diner was essentially the same as it has been for the past 67 years. But seeing the drastic plans that Pure Hana Synergy has for wrapping the iconic structure changed all that in an instant. It became immediately clear that a part of Laurel that most of us have known all our lives will soon be changing.
Change is, of course, inevitable. And it can actually be a good thing. Aside from missing the regularity of the Tastee Diner—knowing that it’s always open for us where it has been for all these years—there’s nothing wrong with longtime owner Gene Wilkes wanting to sell the property to a new industry that promises to beautify that entire section of Route 1. If it were to result in the diner being moved to a new location on Main Street and operated under new management—a new owner with the incentives and resources that today’s Main Street promises—this could be a very good change, indeed.
But it has to start with a dialogue between the City, the owner, and
the buyer. And it has to begin quickly. There are undoubtedly some who
would prefer to see the diner simply disappear. They may not understand
or appreciate the history or rarity of it, but that certainly doesn’t
mean that they’re right in allowing it to be unnecessarily
destroyed—especially when there’s such a tremendous opportunity at stake
for the City to capitalize on relocating it to Main Street.
Within a week, this petition to save the diner has topped 1,600 signatures. To give you some perspective, that’s a significantly larger number than any winning Laurel politician typically receives in votes.
It’s a growing number of people who, upon learning that a place that remains relevant to them is suddenly endangered, want to do something to preserve it. And I mean the word “preserve” in the literal sense—most people, including many within the City of Laurel government, simply were not aware of the historic nature of our diner. Once ubiquitous, this 1951 Comac model is now one of only two that survive intact.
Pure Hana Synergy may very well be willing to relinquish the historic silver portion of the diner car without adversely affecting the plans for their new building. But the City of Laurel needs to work with them to help facilitate this. Preservation Maryland has already reached out to express their willingness to help in this process—now is the time to begin discussing what can be done in earnest to save and revitalize our diner in a new location.
But real questions still need to be asked—and answered—before this sale should be finalized. Namely, if Pure Hana were to insist on proceeding as planned with wrapping the full diner building, why? Are there some grandfathered clauses that would somehow allow them more benefits or loopholes if they were to keep the building, despite modifying it beyond recognition?
It seems odd that they would propose demolishing both the motel and large house on the property, yet build around the small diner rather than simply raze it as well. Again, I’m not opposed to the sale, but I cannot believe that they would need the actual diner car to proceed with their plans. And the City of Laurel would be wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relocate a unique and historic business to Main Street, should they allow this to go forward unchallenged.
Please go to the next City Council meeting on Monday, November 26th at 7PM, and let them know that you signed the petition—along with over 1,600 other people who want to see our historic diner preserved and moved to Main Street.
Laurel Municipal Center 8103 Sandy Spring Rd Laurel, MD 20707 Mayor and City Council Meeting Monday, November 26, 2018 7:00pm to 9:00pm
In addition to attending the City Council meeting, two other KEY MEETINGS are the DECEMBER 11th Planning Commission Meeting and the DECEMBER 20th Board of Appeals meeting.
If you can’t attend in person, please email the Clerk to the City
Council (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the buyer, Pure Hana Synergy
(email@example.com) and express your wish to save our diner.
In 1981, a longtime waitress known as “Miss May” takes an order from a Tastee Diner patron sitting right about where the Laurel History Boys typically do today. This Baltimore Sun photo, like the diner itself, is timeless. It could’ve been taken this afternoon, or even 30 years before it actually was taken, when the new Laurel Diner first opened its doors at 118 Washington Boulevard in 1951.
The diner property is being sold to Pure Hana Synergy, a medical marijuana dispensary that plans to modify the building by encasing it.
I started a petition last week, to gather signatures not to block the sale of the property, but to support saving the ultra-rare, 1951 Comac-built diner car—now one of only two left in existence that look and function very much as they did when they were made nearly 70 years ago.
The idea is simple in theory: have the City of Laurel first designate the diner car as a historic property—which it rightfully should be. Next, work with Pure Hana Synergy, (the buyer) Gene Wilkes, (the seller) and groups such as Preservation Maryland to see how best to remove the diner car and relocate it to Main Street without adversely affecting the buyer’s original plans for the site.
In less than five days, the petition has grown to over 1,100 signatures. Many of the signers are current residents of Laurel (voting residents, some were quick to point out) who want to ensure that the diner doesn’t disappear, literally or figuratively.
Entombing the diner within a new structure would only serve to do just that—hide it from view and end a nearly 90-year tradition of having an original diner in Laurel’s historic district. Instead, the city should do whatever it can to relocate the diner to Main Street, and incentivize a new buyer or developer to give it new life in its new location.
Coincidentally, Laurel has just become the first city in Prince George’s County to be designated in the Main Street Maryland program—a comprehensive downtown revitalization program created in 1998 by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
Check out the description of this program, and I think you’ll agree that it only makes our case for relocating the diner to Main Street that much stronger. Better yet, watch this short video about it from Laurel TV:
There are two potential sites on Main Street, both currently vacant lots which could accommodate the relocated diner:
312 Main Street, which was the home of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre.
The Farmers’ Market lot at Main & Avondale Streets.
A third possibility is to open discussions with C Street Flats about integrating the diner with their plans to expand toward Main Street. Any of these options would not only save the historic diner car, but give it a chance to thrive in a new environment that would reinvigorate Main Street as well.
Laurel residents, please go to the next City Council meeting on Monday, November 26th at 7PM, and let them know that you signed this petition—along with over 1,100 other people who want to see our historic diner preserved and moved to Main Street.
21st Mayor and City Council Meeting – Council Chambers Laurel Municipal Center 8103 Sandy Spring Rd Laurel, MD 20707 Mayor and City Council Meeting Monday, November 26, 2018 – 7:00pm to 9:00pm
City officials know that the petition exists, but please remind them why. It’s not just about any old restaurant closing, and it’s not just about trying to save any old building. Allowing the Tastee Diner to be wrapped and hidden within a new business would be an inexcusable wasted opportunity, particularly in light of Laurel’s new Main Street Maryland award.
I’ve likened this to the closing of a vintage car dealership. Sure, the business can close or change hands; but you wouldn’t destroy the classic cars in the showroom in the process, would you?
It goes without saying that the Tastee Diner is one of my favorite places.
It’s one of the last vestiges of the real Laurel—an authentic, original 1951 diner built by the legendary Comac company and delivered to the site that same year, when the Second Street bypass was opened, splitting Route 1 north and south.
The diner replaced a previous iteration, which had occupied the site since 1934. That one was shipped off to Baltimore, where it became the State Diner (now long gone.)
I won’t attempt to get into the full history of the Laurel Tastee Diner in this post. (To get an idea of that, you can watch a brief teaser for the video I’m still producing below.) But, suffice it to say, it’s a true piece of Laurel’s history.
Remarkably, the building—now 67 years old—still looks and functions very much as it did in its heyday. It’s a veritable time capsule. That’s one reason I enjoy spending so much time there, comparing notes and research with the Laurel History Boys.
That, and the staff are practically like family. When my father was undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, my parents would drive from their home in Salisbury to meet me at the diner. (They were afraid of driving into Baltimore themselves.) The waitresses would keep an eye on my truck in the parking lot while I chauffeured my parents.
And when my dad passed away in April, the staff even signed a sympathy card for me.
So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the diner property is being sold—and the buyer has extensive plans to render it completely unrecognizable… and turn it into a medical marijuana dispensary.
Architectural rendering of Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to convert the diner site.
Let me re-frame for a moment and make something clear–Gene Wilkes and his family have done an amazing job keeping not just one, but a trio of classic diners going for decades. He’s certainly earned the right to sell the business.
Likewise, Pure Hana Synergy, the company purchasing the diner site, has every right to open their new venture—which will not only offer a valuable service, allowing patients access to legal medical cannabis, they’ll undoubtedly clean up a site that has long needed improvement.
That brings me to another important point—the optics of the Tastee Diner having been seen as a “less than savory” spot for some time now.
Depending whom you ask, perception of the diner varies greatly. Some are purists who genuinely appreciate the authenticity. Then there are those who view the place as “dirty”, or a hotbed criminal activity.
The reality is that the diner gets a bad rap for two other establishments it shares ownership with: the TD Lounge and the adjacent motel. Problems that have required police response have typically involved the bar and the motel—not the diner itself. But because of its central location, the diner is often seen as the hub of this negative activity.
When Pure Hana Synergy purchases the property, they plan to modify the diner and the TD Lounge building that adjoins it, wrapping it in a modern façade and gutting the interior. The motel will be demolished, as will the large white house on the lot facing Second Street.
But the diner itself shouldn’t deserve this fate.
The diner doesn’t yet have the prestigious “historic designation” that some buildings receive, protecting them from development. It has been considered for it—but that was over 20 years ago, when diners such as it were ubiquitous throughout the east coast and beyond. The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a survey in May, 1998, and deemed the Tastee Diner as being “ineligible” for various reasons. (See the excerpt below for their crietria):
But how about now—when Laurel’s Tastee Diner is one of only two surviving, fully-intact Comac-built diners known in the entire country? (The only other being Jack’s Diner in Albany, NY.) Countless others have been demolished, or modified beyond recognition—just as the Tastee Diner is now facing.
Historian Spencer Stewart, who created the wonderful Diner Hunter website, shared this important insight:
In Maryland, once home to dozens of factory built diners, and a hotbed of trolley conversions back in the day, there are only four (or so) old diners still open. Of those, the Tastee in Laurel is arguably the most in-tact and has the longest history on the site, going back in various buildings almost 90 years. The gutting of the Laurel Tastee and its conversion to a dispensary would be an enormous loss of a rare survivor of something that was once ubiquitous in mid-atlantic culture and is now severely endangered.
I’ve proposed that the City of Laurel work with the owners of Pure Hana Synergy to preserve the diner car itself—which isn’t a linchpin of their architectural plan, anyway. The diner portion can be relocated. (Remember, it arrived here from New Jersey by truck in 1951—it can certainly be moved again.)
In fact, this is something that owner Gene Wilkes is all-too familiar with. In June, 2000, he collaborated with Montgomery County to relocate the historic diner car when Discovery Communications decided to build their headquarters on the diner’s original site. (Ironically, Discovery has since moved on—while the Tastee Diner remains successful in its new location.)
To that note, the City of Laurel has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to either seize for themselves, or to work with a developer such as C Street Flats (who already plans to expand to Main Street). Imagine relocating the diner, perhaps to the empty lot at 312 Main Street, which was the site of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. The city wasn’t keen on salvaging any parts of that old building—but the lot has sat vacant now for two years. Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority has been soliciting proposals for the property ever since. From their RFP:
The CRA purchased the property in 2014 in order to develop the property and is seeking ideas, a vision, and a methodology from experienced developers to transform this key site into a use that will complement the adjacent residential neighborhood and enhance Main Street while adding to the success of Main Street commercial core. The development of the Site will set the direction for new redevelopment along the City’s Main Street.
Imagine for a moment the Laurel/Tastee Diner in that spot—accessible from anywhere along Main Street by foot. There’d still be space for parking, and delivery access from Fetty Alley. Imagine the diner on its own—free from the stigma of the troublesome bar and motel, and under new management that will restore and maintain the historic building. Maybe it doesn’t have to be open 24 hours anymore, either.
If you’ve ever been to the fully-restored 29 Diner in Fairfax, VA, you’ll get a sense of what a landmark diner can be, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that a renewed dedication to Laurel’s Tastee Diner would be any less successful.
Laurel’s elected officials should realize that if properly managed, the diner could become an incredible heritage tourism attraction for Laurel, transforming Main Street and giving both it and this historic diner a new lease on life.
By now, most locals know that The Starting Gate liquor store closed its doors at the end of July. The building, which has occupied the northwest corner of Rt. 198 and Whiskey Bottom Road since 1960, is slated to be demolished—soon to be replaced by a sparkling new Royal Farms store and gas station.
The Starting Gate has been a polarizing spot for decades—particularly in the immediate neighborhood, where many residents of the relatively new Russett and Laurel Highlands communities associated the vagrancy, drugs, and prostitution problems that long plagued Whiskey Bottom Road with their proximity to The Starting Gate.
The building itself had become an eyesore over the years; its one-time iconic neon sign actually collapsed over a decade ago, and was never replaced.
To be sure, not everyone had a problem with The Starting Gate. Aside from countless regular customers over the years, there’s at least one person out there who has 50,000 reasons to be fond of it:
When I learned that it was closing, I’d planned on writing a brief history of the business for Lost Laurel. And I’ll still do that when time permits—taking a look back at the early days of the business, when it was quite the hot spot in town:
And other times, when it got a bit too hot:
Three alarm fire, 1963. Laurel News Leader photo.
But I discovered that The Starting Gate story isn’t actually finished yet… It’s also a story that seems to be quite misunderstood.
In fact, the business is planning to reopen in a new location nearby—3485 Laurel Fort Meade Road, which was the former McDonald’s across the street from the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department.
However, as one might expect, the business is facing a number of obstacles, and has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease. Helen Jung, whose family has owned the liquor store for 27 years, was planning to reopen in October. But their liquor board hearing has been postponed to November 13th—if approved for a new license, they now plan to open in late January/early February 2019.
I met Helen and found her to be a kind, smart, and engaging business owner eager to clear up a lot of major misconceptions about The Starting Gate. This was particularly interesting to me in light of a thread I recently saw on another Laurel-themed Facebook page, in which someone from the Russett community had started a petition to block them from reopening, citing some “600 police calls per month,” (which I found rather suspicious, if not physically impossible, but I digress).
Let me backtrack for a moment, and just preface this with my own recollection of living in close proximity to The Starting Gate—before Russett was even built.
In the summer of 1987, my parents bought their first home—a townhouse in the then-new Laurel Highlands development on Laurel View Court, just off Whiskey Bottom Road and practically in The Starting Gate’s back yard. I was 14 years old, and well aware of the types of problems—both real and perceived—that The Starting Gate tended to draw. And I can remember a feeling of apprehension living so close by, as I’m sure many living in the community in more recent years have experienced as well.
What I didn’t know then—and what most folks probably don’t realize today, is that The Starting Gate isn’t just one entity. Sure, you may know that the building was segmented into three parts: the package liquor store on the corner, the bar in the center, and the restaurant on the opposite end; but since 1991, when Helen Jung’s family took over the liquor store, they have been completely unrelated to the bar. (The restaurant, too, having been closed for decades). In fact, she revealed that she wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach the owners of the bar—which closed in May.
Another important detail is that neither the liquor store nor the bar actually owned the property on which the building sat. It’s owned by an entity called SG Property, LLC—which is based all the way down in Vero Beach, Fl.
So, that brings me to the issue of community residents attempting to block the liquor store from reopening across the street. Although I’m no longer a Laurel resident myself—nor do I have any kind of stake in The Starting Gate’s business whatsoever—I feel it’s only fair to provide some facts that seem to be getting overlooked.
The “600 police calls”
True, The Starting Gate has indeed been the source of this hefty number of Anne Arundel County Police calls—but this figure is not a monthly total. In fact, it spans back to 2014, and represents calls from both the liquor store and the bar (again, two completely unrelated businesses, with the misfortune of a shared location).
More critically, half of these calls were actually for traffic violations—not the drunken shenanigans you might’ve expected.
Before the bar closed in May, both it and the liquor store were making daily calls to police for protection. Since the bar closed, the liquor store’s number of calls significantly reduced—once a week, if at all. Customers noted that there was less panhandling around the building, and expressed feeling safer visiting the store after the bar had closed.
Neither the liquor store nor the bar owned the property. Nearly a decade ago, the landlord approached the tenants with the idea of redeveloping the property—possibly adding a gas station and building a separate structure for the liquor store. Unfortunately for them, the liquor store obviously wasn’t included in the deal with Royal Farms. But because redevelopment has always been the long term goal, evidently, the landlord did not help with any upkeep for most of the 27 years that Helen’s family has been tenants.
It’s also important to note that immediately behind the former Starting Gate building is a section of Old Line Road and a patch of woodland that has been a haven to vagrants, trash piles, and God only knows what else for decades. In recent years, the road was fenced off in an effort to deter both vehicular and foot traffic behind the building. Both that road and the woods behind The Starting Gate are actually Anne Arundel County property.
When a Russett community liason approached Helen in 2016 about the trash piles and vagrancy problem, she tried in vain to get the county to acknowledge its responsibility. Neither the county nor her landlord responded, so Helen’s family actually spent their own money trying to clean up the tax payers’ property—something they continued to do until they closed the liquor store on July 31st.
A fresh start
The main reason Helen’s family has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease for their new location is that they wanted to find the right partnership with the right landlord—one who would no longer neglect their property or their responsibilities.
Starting Gate Liquors wants a fresh start. They want—and deserve—the opportunity to separate themselves from the stigma of the Starting Gate Bar & Lounge, and the neglected old property at the corner of Whiskey Bottom Road.
The new location at 3485 Laurel Fort Mead Road is a standalone structure and will house the liquor store only. There will be no bar. (The former bar owners have retired and will not be reopening again elsewhere).
Directly behind the new location is the Tall Oaks apartment complex—and their well-maintained fence sits in the clearing between the sites. This is a far cry from the county-neglected street and woods behind the old Starting Gate building.
Is Starting Gate Liquors still relevant? Yes.
After Total Wine opened their venerable doors less than a mile away some 20 years ago, Starting Gate Liquors didn’t wither away—it continued to thrive. Helen’s family hired a marketing firm to track their Google searches, and before closing, their monthly search hits were in the 4,000 range. Since closing, that number has nearly doubled. Customers do seem to want the business to reopen.
Helen notes that for the past 27 years, her family has seen many positive developments in the Maryland City community. She feels that their customers have matured with them, and looks forward to serving them again with a much better foundation. Crime in the area has seen a steady decline, and that trend will undoubtedly continue now that the bar is gone.
Frankly, the biggest problem in that neighborhood is the string of 1-star (and that’s probably a generous rating) motels in the short stretch of Route 198 east of Whiskey Bottom Road. Statistically, that’s where the bulk of the serious criminal activity has always been.
I would urge those who live in the immediate neighborhood (and beyond) to consider all of these factors before condemning a historic family business that has lasted longer than most—and in spite of some significant challenges that most of us had probably never been aware of. Helen tells me that since that one complaint in 2016 about the trash piles behind the old Starting Gate building, the community had not approached her with any other issues—but she has always remained open to any suggestions or concerns they may have.
I would also encourage you to support their reopening at the hearing for their new license: