Tastee Diner's future may go up in smoke

Laurel Leader

A plan to replace an iconic Laurel diner with a medical marijuana dispensary has met with opposition from city residents and others who want the historic building preserved or even moved.

Pure Hana Synergy has a purchase agreement on 118 Washington Bld in Laurel. The property includes the Tastee Diner, the adjacent TD Lounge, and a small motel. Pure Hana Synergy plans to wrap Tastee Diner and TD Lounge in a new façade and completely revamp their interiors, as well as demolish the motel, before opening as a dispensary where approved patients can obtain medical marijuana products.

The Laurel Historical Society has called on the city council to find a way to save the diner car and an online petition with more than 1,700 signatures has urged city officials to move it to Main Street.

“We are in no way opposing the sale of the property or the construction of the medical marijuana facility by Pure Hana, but we are, however, very much opposed to the way the structure intends to be built,” Jhanna Levin, the president of the LHS board of directors, told city council members at the Nov. 26 meeting.

An offer by Pure Hana Synergy to donate artifacts and memorabilia from the Tastee Diner to the historical society was appreciated but insufficient, Levin said.

“It seems a little like getting scraps after the wreckage, all the while knowing the accident could have been prevented in the first place,” she said.

A diner has continuously occupied the site along Route 1 southbound since 1931. The first structure lasted just three years and was replaced by the Laurel Diner in 1934. The second diner building was there until 1951, when it was moved to Baltimore.

The current diner was built by the Comac Diner Co. and delivered by truck from New Jersey to Laurel in 1951. It is believed to be one of only two intact Comac diners still in existence in the country. Laurel Diner became Tastee Diner in 1976, when owner Gene Wilkes brought it into the fold of his Tastee Diner chain, with locations also in Silver Spring and Bethesda. Wilkes, who could not be reached for comment, purchased the property in 1982 and has sought to sell it in recent years.

The property’s prominent place along the heavily-trafficked Route 1 corridor makes it an appealing location for Pure Hana Synergy and will provide easy access for patients, said Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, a Montgomery County resident who holds the dispensary license.

We’ve been…trying to figure out the best plan to get the existing site teed up so it will be a really professional, clean, welcoming space for patients,” she said.

Project plans show a modern façade that maintains the elevation of the site but encapsulates the diner in earth tone stucco accented by wood look fiber cement board. The interior would feature polished concrete flooring, Japanese Cypress wood plank accent walls and quartz countertops. Pure Hana Synergy declined to share specific timeline or cost estimates.

“I have a lot of heartstrings attached to this project,” DeMauro-Palminteri said. “For personal reasons, I know what the medical benefit can be for people who need it.”

DeMauro-Palminteri was awarded one of two dispensary licenses for state legislative District 21 several years ago and has looked at about 200 possible sites in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, but none have worked for the numerous regulatory requirements imposed on dispensaries, she said.

The Tastee Diner property has at times been seen as unappealing or prone to problematic activity. The city has been eager to work with Pure Hana Synergy to clean up the lot and improve its service base, DeMauro-Palminteri said. If approved, it could possibly become the third dispensary within a two-mile stretch of Route 1 in Laurel.

BluPharms sought city approval late last year to open a dispensary in the Tower Plaza Center at the intersection of Route 1 and Cherry Lane, a mile south of Tastee Diner, though the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission website lists it as not yet operational.

A Howard County dispensary, Revolution Releaf, is open on southbound Route 1 some seven-tenths of a mile north of the Tastee Diner.

Proponents of preserving the diner are not opposed to cleaning up the site or turning it into a dispensary, they said, but they don’t want the diner lost in the process.

Richard Friend, one of the Laurel History Boys and a Virginia resident, began a petition on Change.org that urges city officials to acquire the diner car and move it to Main Street. It had more than 1,700 signatures as of Nov. 27. Many of the signatories are Laurel residents, but there are also many former residents and other visitors who commented that the diner is a symbol of the city to them.

Friend’s petition urges city officials to designate the Tastee Diner as a historic building and work with a developer to bring new life to the diner car at the site of the former Laurel Theatre or at the Farmer’s Market Lot, both in the 300 block of Main Street. The city’s recent designation as a Main Street Maryland community and resources available through groups like the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area could free up funding and other support to make the move viable, Levin and Friend said.

But a move would likely be costly and time-consuming, City Council President Mike Leszcz observed at Monday’s city council meeting. Funding would need to be identified, the new site would need to be prepared, a foundation would need to be laid, hearings would need to be held and permits would need to be secured.

Such a delay, DeMauro-Palminteri said, could jeopardize Pure Hana Synergy’s dispensary license because the state wants all those licensees that have not yet opened to do so as quickly as possible.

“We’re just beyond the room for additional timing,” she said. “When we have something that works, we’re being asked by the state to get it together so we can open our doors and serve patients.”

Ward 1 City Councilmember Carl DeWalt plans to meet with city staff to learn more about what is necessary to have the diner designated as a historic building or possibly move it, he said at the council meeting, and Ward 2 City Councilmember Frederick Smalls asked officials to include members of the Historic District Commission in those discussions.

Pure Hana Synergy’s proposed plans for the site will go before the city’s Planning Commission in a public hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 11. It will then move to the city’s Board of Appeals for a public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 20.

In the meantime, DeMauro-Palminteri said she looks forward to discussion of Pure Hana Synergy’s plans.

“We’re working in lock step with the city and the historical society to see what can we do with it so that everyone will be happy,” she said.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland in 2013 and sales began last year on Dec. 1, 2017.

Medical marijuana sales in Maryland in the first nine months of 2018 reached $67 million and are on track to hit $100 million by the end of the year, more than double market research predictions, according to a report by the Baltimore Sun earlier this week.

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