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Offices aren't enough to turn downtown Wheaton around

County Executive Ike Leggett says the best way to kick-start the revitalization of downtown Wheaton is by moving the Montgomery County Park and Planning Commission there. Will government offices be enough to get the ball rolling? Past experience says it's unlikely.


Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

In October, the Commission received a $200,000 grant to study moving its offices. Its 400 employees work at three offices in and around downtown Silver Spring, including their headquarters (we call it "the Fortress of Planning") at 8787 Georgia Avenue, which dates to the 1950's and is both cramped and obsolete. Eight years ago, the department proposed building a new headquarters on the site called SilverPlace, but it stalled due to a lack of funding.

Enter developer B.F. Saul, which wants to redevelop six county-owned properties in downtown Wheaton totaling eleven acres. They propose building a 120-room hotel, 40,000 square feet of retail space, and 250 apartments, in addition to 900,000 square feet of office space. B.F. Saul and the county are reaching out to government tenants, like the Park and Planning Commission, to fill those offices.

Not everyone's convinced a market for offices in Wheaton even exists. Downtown Wheaton's not too close to established job centers, and its 10,000 current workers pale in comparison to other places throughout the county, such as Bethesda-Chevy Chase (87,000 jobs), Rockville (74,000 jobs), and even Silver Spring (38,000 jobs). Previous visions have instead focused on entertainment or housing in the downtown, while strip mall developer Leonard Greenberg complained Wheaton couldn't support offices back at the height of the real estate boom in 2006.

Even if you could build and rent high-end offices in Wheaton, they won't do much for the local economy. As Richard Layman has pointed out, office workers don't spend much and don't go to a variety of stores.

A rule of thumb is that one worker needs about 250 square feet, so with 900,000 square feet of office space, we can assume that 3,600 people will work there. Retail consultant Robert Gibbs says one worker can support 2 square feet of retail, meaning they'll only be able to support a space of 7,200 square feet, about half the size of a CVS. Gibbs says they can also support 5 square feet of restaurant space, which would equal 18,000 square feet. By comparison, a typical "quick-service restaurant" like Noodles & Company or Chipotle needs about 2,000 square feet, and a sit-down place needs about 6,000 square feet.

It would take 3,600 office workers to keep a Red Lobster, a few Chipotle-like restaurants and half a CVS in business. So how are 400 Park and Planning workers supposed to revitalize Wheaton?

Leasing Sign, Triangle Park
Empty stores on Ennalls Avenue in downtown Wheaton.

We've seen the folly of relying on office tenants, especially government offices, to "fix" an area. In 1986, the Reeves Center was supposed to revitalize U Street with an influx of D.C. government workers, but it really took lots of new residents to turn the neighborhood around. At University Town Center in Hyattsville, the presence of federal agencies wasn't enough to prevent shops and restaurants from closing. Though Alexandria hoped the Patent and Trademark Office would bring Barnes & Noble to town, instead they got fast-food places. (So many, in fact, that my friend who lives there calls it the "Sandwich District.")

The same Planning Department that Ike Leggett wants to move to downtown Wheaton also produced the recently-approved Wheaton Sector Plan, which recognizes that the area can't draw and won't support  a lot of office development. As a result, the plan allows for just 3,000 additional jobs, not just in office buildings but in all fields of employment.

Meanwhile, it calls for 6,600 new homes in downtown Wheaton. Housing would do a lot more to turn Wheaton around, because unlike office workers who are only obliged to be there 40 hours a week, residents are there almost all the time, meaning they can spend a lot more money.

wheatonsafewaygaelevation
New apartment buildings like the Exchange, currently being built at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive, could help downtown Wheaton more than offices.

Another boost might come from the new campus of Ana G. Mendez University, a Puerto Rico-based institution that will start offering classes at Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Plaza this winter. The school offers associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees to working adults and classes offered in both English and Spanish. Though its projected enrollment of 600 students within five years means it won't have a big impact on local businesses, the school's evening and weekend classes will bring people to the area at times when most office buildings are dark.

Promoting office development in Wheaton is a good thing. I've written before that it might be a good location for companies with back-of-house operations that don't need a fancy Bethesda address. At the same time, it's not a justification for moving the Park and Planning Commission out of Silver Spring especially when its departure will just leave a vacant lot with no prospects for reuse.

Offices are just part of a strong, vibrant community, and it'll take a lot more to turn Wheaton around. I hope the County Executive is patient enough to embrace all forms of development there, rather than going after a perceived "quick fix."

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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I am confused. If the employees won't help wheaton, why will their loss hurt Silver Spring? because it leaves an empty lot? Why can't some of the new residential going to wheaton go to Silver Spring instead (in addition to whats already going to silver spring)?

Does Layman allow for the impact of employment location on residential location? Will more employment in wheaton add to demand for housing in wheaton? Is it good to have employment and high density residences together, where its possible to walk to work? Or is it better to have some metro stations reserved for residences?

Im also confused about folks take on M street SE. Layman seems to say that the offices on M street havent revived the area, cause they create little retail demand (and you link to him). Others have said here that the ball park has not contributed to the revival. Do folks think there has been no revival in near SE? Or that its all driven by residential change?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 6, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

Dan, not sure why you're focusing on the 400 MoCo workers. You should be focusing on the 900,000 square feet of office space. If only 400 workers would be in that building, they'd each have 2,000 sf of space to themselves.

Pitting this as an either/or is a disservice to the realities of an urban environment. No, Wheaton won't become a huge office center. Yes, housing will play a critical role. Density for either option will be critical. Having some office uses is a plus, however, in that those uses provide daytime use. Those workers might not support a Chipotle on their own, but they only need to carry the Chipotle during lunch hours.

Similarly, I'm not sure exactly what you're advocating for. On one hand, you say office isn't a silver bullet, but then you say it's also an important piece - but that office tenant shouldn't be a particular agency. Furthermore, the whole thing seems spurned on by an off-hand comment from a politician who's life (like any other politician's) is all about making off-hand comments about stuff like this.

by Alex B. on Dec 6, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

"n October, the Commission received a $200,000 grant to study moving its offices."

200K to study that seems absurd!!!!!!!

by David J on Dec 6, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

@Alex B.

I said 900k square feet of office space will hold 3600 workers, not 400. And I think offices are fine in Wheaton, but I think the argument that offices will "save" Wheaton (as I wrote, this isn't the first time or place where someone said that) is off-base. I'm also not convinced BF Saul can fill the amount of office space (and thus the amount of retail space) they're proposing, but maybe I'm just a Debbie Downer.

This isn't just an "off-hand" comment. Moving Park and Planning has been discussed for a while - first to Rockville, now to Wheaton - and now there's $200k behind it. I'm not sure what this accomplishes: no jobs are being generated, and there's no plan for what to do with the existing P&P site. (Maybe SilverPlace could be resurrected? I don't know.) Of course, the study could prove me wrong. I'm interested in finding out.

by dan reed! on Dec 6, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Once Barry the Magician left -- Wheaton will never be the same!

by John on Dec 6, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Wheaton Plaza 4ife

by John on Dec 6, 2011 11:02 am • linkreport

400 employees supports 800 s.f. of retail and 2000 s.f. of casual food service -- per Robert Gibbs...

Alex B's point about 900,000 s.f. of office, that's about 3600 workers, or support for 7200 s.f. of retail and 18000 s.f. of casual food service.

It's a contribution, but in and of itself, not "enough". Is there enough demand for commercial and residential in Montgomery to also support Wheaton revitalizing?

I don't know. But Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville Pike, and the I-270 corridor/Gaithersburg are a lot of competition, not to mention White Oak.

(this is a similar problem for Baltimore County. I don't see how Owings Mills Mall can be revitalized as it's main problem is distance from the core and relative lack of demand.)

by Richard Layman on Dec 6, 2011 11:02 am • linkreport

If Parks and Planning's current facilites are obsolete, why not move them to a new facility that's a better fit for their needs? I don't think that Mr. Leggett is claiming that such a move would be a silver bullet for Wheaton. It seems to be more a part of finding new Metro-proximate office space for Parks and Planning and adding a little economic vitality is an additional argument in favor of the proposed solution.

The move would provide a new office building with an anchor tenent, making it easier for a developer to rent the rest to other tentents. This is about getting the ball rolling rather than finishing the job. There is also new housing being built on the Safway site. People are more likely to go somewhere and check out renting there if there's already someone there telling them how it worked out for them. Remember that's exactly how Silver Spring was revitalized.

Plus this move would open up more lots for more residences in Silver Spring. There are plenty of in-demand new residential buildings under construction right now in Silver Spring. I know that the market wants more.

by Cavan on Dec 6, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

@dan

But you keep flipping between two separate issues: office development as a whole, and the relocation of this particular agency. I think it weakens your point to conflate the two.

As for the off-handedness of the comments, this reads as a reaction against the semantics of office 'saving' Wheaton. But when you talk about the actual policy decisions at hand, you say "promoting office development in Wheaton is a good thing." So, are you arguing against the rhetoric or the policy? Or neither? Your post isn't really clear.

by Alex B. on Dec 6, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

how much demand for apts near metrorail is there in the region, ultimately? When only a limited number of metro stations were "desirable" to crime/community issues, or planning/access, metro rail access was/is a hot commodity. With several station areas in DC "transitioned" in the last 5 years, with MoCo and Fairfax getting in on the act of making their existing stations more TOD friendly, and with new stations coming on the silver line (and with several light rail projects in the region) do we finally reach the point where we ARE providing adequate supply of high density TOD? Where its no longer supply constrained? Are we getting there soon?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 6, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

@AWalker

Prices will tell the tale.

The tricky part is that new construction always rents/sells for a premium, so it will take time for some of that newer stuff to filter down to more affordable rents. But we'll see it in the price data.

Gut feeling is that we're not close to there yet, however.

by Alex B. on Dec 6, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

AWalker, we're nowhere near meeting market demand for properties on the Metro. Rents are still increasing. Condo prices are stable.

The situation is skewed from what most people perceive as normal because it's so hard for potential condo buyers who previously would have had no problem getting mortgages being turned away by insolvent too-big-to-fail banks. That's not changing for years.

Single-family houses not near transit are falling because of the lack of demand and lack of access to credit. The fact that Metro-proximate condos aren't falling despite the diffuculty of most potential buyers accessing credit should be enough of an answer already. Add in the fact that rents are increasing because of all the people who'd normally be buying condos have to keep renting because of the credit environment.

In addition to my sort-of-expert analysis about economic conditions, my anecdotal experience walking around my home in Silver Spring says that lots of apartments are going up, with more in the approval process. Yet rents are still increasing in existing buildings. That says there's lots more demand for Metro-proximate housing.

Getting the market to perceive Wheaton as a lower-cost substitute for Silver Spring rather than a place that's beyond the end of the earth will be a gradual thing. Getting a good bar there will do the place wonders. Nightlife drives desire to live somewhere. It's a great bright shiny object to attract potential renters to a place who wouldn't even know it exists otherwise. Once they discover it's there, investigating rents follows. When I lived in Wheaton, I was amazed at how little most people who didn't live there knew about it. That included people who lived in nearby Silver Spring.

by Cavan on Dec 6, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

If it takes 3600 workers to support a Red Lobster and a couple of fast food places, how does Silver Spring, with 36k workers support so many restaurants - way more than 10x the example mentioned above.

I have always been torn about how to redevelop Wheaton because I have not seen in this area a very successful mixed income *dense* (i.e, high rise) community in this area. The Ballstons and Bethesdas of the area tend to cater more to the gucci and poodle crowds, and some of the more successful reduced income areas such as Baileys Crossroads have a few high rises but are mostly garden apartments. I am trying to figure out what Wheaton would do differently to pull it off.

by Joe in SS on Dec 6, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

@Joe

Because Silver Spring has housing/entertainment/other retail/public facilities/etc. that also drive customers to restaurants, not just offices. If it were just offices there, you'd see much less retail.

by dan reed! on Dec 6, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

Joe in SS -- because Silver Spring is a retail and restaurant destination that functions as a regional destination. The basic point is that office workers support a very narrow range of retail and food service and that if places want a wider range they need to look not at office workers, but at something else.

The general point is how much revitalization capacity is present in Montgomery County to support Wheaton's revitalization in the face of competition from those other places in Montgomery County. It's a tough issue.

by Richard Layman on Dec 6, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

I think you underestimate the impact of the Reeves Bldg on U Street. I worked there for a few months in 1992, not too long after the bullets stopped flying outside, according to my co-workers. The City's decision to make a major statement by the construction of this building added a lot of stability to the neighborhood. Restaurants serving the Reeves workers sprang nearby, and U Street gradually built up momentum, adding new residents attracted at least in part by the restaurants, and on and on. I doubt that the success of U Street would have happened without Reeves, or at least not as soon as it did.

by Larry on Dec 6, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

There is quite a bit of residential development going on in Wheaton right now and more on the way.

The Exchange is a $120M 18 story project that will bring 486 new units.

The old Good Counsel townhouses and condos are still being built out.

Alliance Residential has bought the BB&T site with plans to build "255 luxury apartment units with ground-floor retail."

Washington Properties has plans for 221 units at the The First Baptist Church site.

All 4 of these are on Georgia Ave within half a mile of each other. I think there is always a chicken and egg problem with redevelopment of an area like Wheaton. I wonder if the Safeway Exchange project is the tipping point. Couldn't hurt to have Parks and Planning headquartered here in Wheaton in the midst of the rebirth.

by Dave in Wheaton on Dec 6, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

Dan, you can't forget about those of us who live in Silver Spring walking to stuff and spending money. The residential going up in Wheaton bodes well for its future. Moving Parks and Planning there would be symbiotic with all the residential going up. The daytime foot traffic would also help improve the visibility of Wheaton.

by Cavan on Dec 6, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

To add, this proposal to move Parks and Planning only makes sense because their current facilities are now inadequate. This is very different than a proposal to move WMATA headquarters to Anacostia when their current location still works. If Parks and Planning's facilities already met their needs, the proposal to move would make little sense. Since they need new facilities, why not use the solution to that problem as a small piece in a broader puzzle?

by Cavan on Dec 6, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

The general point is how much revitalization capacity is present in Montgomery County to support Wheaton's revitalization in the face of competition from those other places in Montgomery County. It's a tough issue.

Richard, your point assumes that demand for Metro-proximate residential and office square footage is already in equilibrium. High rents in the region on such square footage (both inside and outside the District, because state borders don't restrict the flow of money) imply otherwise.

Rents at about $25-30 per square foot per year in Silver Spring and $25-35 per square foot per year (source: cityfeet.com) implies that those places are in high demand. That also implies that there is enough demand to go around to build out other Metro stations like Wheaton and White Flint.

by Cavan on Dec 6, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

Larry -- what restaurants? The McDonalds? The Reeves Center area--block by block, 1.5 blocks in each direction on 14th Street--remained bombed out for at least 20 years beyond the opening of the building. It's only changing on the block between T and U right now. That's not evidence of success.

2. Cavan, I am not talking about all Metro sites, I'm talking about Montgomery County. Wheaton sites compete within MoCo as well as within the overall region. I just think--it's just an opinion--that it will be tough to spark development in Wheaton until more of the competing sites in areas of greater demand are absorbed. I think that's a long time.

by Richard Layman on Dec 6, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

MNCPPC plans to redevelopment the MRO headquarters as the SilverPlace development have long fell through. With other pressing needs within the capital budget, building this development is a fantasy. With the building outdated and on its last legs, Park & Planning, which seeks to consolidate its offices, has several options: 1. relocate to the future Council Office Building in downtown Rockville. 2. seek leased space in downtown Silver Spring which already has high demand for development. Or, 3. anchor the revitalization of downtown Wheaton in a mixed-use development above Metro. Not only would hundreds of high-paying professionals be relocated to Wheaton but their imaginations would be focused on redevelopment of Wheaton. Park & Planning is a nationally recognized agency and anchoring the redevelopment of a struggling business district would further the agency’s mission.

by Cyrus on Dec 7, 2011 12:25 am • linkreport

If we totaled up all the available square feet of vacant office space in the country, I don't think we would have to build anything for the next 10-20 years. I have witnessed the aftermath of a tech boom in Portland Oregon where to this day, many office buildings sit empty and yet developers see VACANT land and think what a place for yet a new industrial park, mall, etc. Here in S Calif. there are many cities struggling just to figure out what to do with old supermarkets, one that was vacated 10 years ago. The rodents must love living in it.

by elizabeth shipley on Dec 8, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

@elizabeth

Unless you can move that vacant space to places that aren't vacant, I'm not sure that point is really relevant.

by Alex B. on Dec 8, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

Elizabeth, echoing Alex's point, real estate is about location, location, and location. Portland and southern California are not Wheaton. The demand for office space is very large in Greater (Greater) Washington.

by Cavan on Dec 8, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

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