Greater Greater Washington

Wheaton's limits may also be its strength

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously turned down a plan by County Executive Ike Leggett to rebuild a portion of downtown Wheaton, favoring an alternate plan instead. Residents who supported Leggett's plan are frustrated at the defeat, but this wasn't the best path for redevelopment in Wheaton.


Photo by the author.

In recent months, Leggett and the council have disagreed on how to begin the redevelopment. Leggett proposed spending $42 million to build a new town square and a platform over the Wheaton Metro station for future development, while the County Council proposed spending $55 million to build the town square and offices for county agencies.

The council ended up voting for a a combination of both proposals, providing funds for a county office building and town square now and to study building the platform later.

The decision ends a long and often acrimonious debate over how to spark the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton. In February, Leggett's administration claimed that there wasn't enough money to pay for revitalization in Wheaton and a new Metro entrance in Bethesda, pitting supporters of both projects against each other.

When the council found funding for both projects, the conversation turned to the merits of Leggett's proposal. While County Council analyst Jacob Sesker wasn't opposed to building atop the Metro, he created the alternative proposals because he felt it wasn't feasible in the immediate future. Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton has expressed concerns about local businesses, calling for a more substantial town square or a community benefits agreement.

MetroPointe & Wheaton Station
A platform may be built atop the Wheaton Metro station, but not for a while.

These questions led to accusations that the council was being meddlesome and was opposed to making Wheaton better. After the vote on Tuesday, resident Henriot St. Gerard wrote a scathing blog post on Wheaton Patch calling it a "show of disrespect" to the community.

I understand that people in Wheaton are impatient for change. I grew up in East County and started blogging six years ago because I wanted to see the kind of amenities that residents of Rockville or Bethesda enjoy right in my own backyard. But I too have had to grapple with a few uncomfortable truths:

Jobs are concentrated on the west side of the county and will remain there for a long time.

In 2010, there were 506,000 jobs in Montgomery County, 70% of which are located along the I-270 corridor. Bethesda alone has 87,000 jobs, more than Silver Spring, White Oak and Wheaton combined. Plans for additional employment growth in White Flint, the Great Seneca Science Corridor, and Germantown ensures that the west side will continue to remain the county's job center.

Companies located in East County aren't sticking around.

Last year, defense contractor BAE Systems moved a branch office from Aspen Hill to Rockville. The empty building added to an already high vacancy rate in the Kensington-Wheaton area, where nearly a quarter of all office space is empty, compared to just 11 percent countywide. Lee Development Group, which owns the building, will replace it with a Walmart because they concluded that the area was "a retail destination, not an office center."

Companies already located on the west side aren't interested in going east.

The county is planning to create a research and development center in East County called the White Oak Science Gateway around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus. Though the area enjoys the lowest office vacancy rate in the county, with just 6 percent of offices sitting empty, it's unclear who will fill them.

A recent report from planning consultants surveyed research and development firms located at the county's existing Life Sciences Center in Gaithersburg and found that wouldn't move to White Oak because they appreciate the proximity to other R&D firms along the I-270 corridor.

Officials are more concerned about keeping jobs in the county than where they specifically end up.

In addition to planning for future job growth on the west side, the county also gave subsidies to one company in exchange for moving there. Next year, Choice Hotels will move their headquarters from Silver Spring to Rockville with $4.3 million in loans and grants from the county, state and City of Rockville and additional tax credits.

Choice Hotels wanted to be closer to a Metro station, so having them move to Wheaton would've met both their needs and Leggett's goals. But after seeing firms like Hilton Hotels and Northrup Grumman pass up Montgomery County for Northern Virginia, county leaders were surely relieved that they decided to stay here at all.

residential-render
Concept rendering of downtown Wheaton from a 2004 charrette.

Wheaton has many strengths: stable neighborhoods, diverse population, and a compact downtown well-served by both transit and major roads. But as a potential job center, it competes with larger and more established places like downtown Bethesda, the I-270 corridor, and others throughout Greater Washington. That's why earlier recommen­da­tions for redeveloping Wheaton, both from the public and planning experts, focused on housing, retail and entertainment in the short term, with offices coming later if demand warrants it.

Residents are both eager and worried that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into a place like Silver Spring or Bethesda, but we shouldn't be limited to those examples. Skeptics of Leggett's proposal don't lack faith in Wheaton's potential. They recognize that Wheaton's constraints and strengths, if properly harnessed, will let it grow into something else entirely.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He 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. All opinions are his own. 

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So rather than getting a private developer to build a mixed use (hotel, office, retail) development plus a town square for $42 million (a plan that oh, by the way, was developed by professional planners over nearly 10 years), we're going to get a bland single use government building for $55 million, and a "square" that no-one will use because there is no foot traffic. Awesome. All because some LA thought of a "brilliant" way to transfer the Wheaton Redevelopment dollars into the Parks Department who would have needed a new building anyway. The county simply saw this as a vehicle to save a buck and continue to concentrate poverty in the Wheaton area. Well played counsel. Well played indeed.

by Wheatoner on Apr 13, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] The Council has just doomed another generation of East County folk to backwater status. This is a tragic decision, and tautological arguments (there are no jobs in Wheaton because there are no jobs in Wheaton) miss the point. Companies are moving East precisely because Wheaton and Aspen Hill are such unpleasant places to live and work. Wheaton must be redeveloped, and on a grand scale to turn things around and make it attractive for developers as well as young professionals who have left it behind, [deleted for violating the comment policy.]

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by oh_really on Apr 13, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

by companies moving East, I meant West, obviously.

by oh_really on Apr 13, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

I am no expert, and I certainly have no basis for assessing different proposals that I haven't examined in any real way. Having said that, I think it's a bit overdone to say that the Council found a "third way". They voted for their preferred version, and then through money to do a continuing study of doing something more significant.

If the idea is to put off the spending for further development for a few years when the local economy might be stronger, that would almost make sense, except for the fact that the county council approach will be much more costly in the short-term.

My guess is that the council is a bit leery of demand in Wheaton because of the weakness of the schools in that corner of the county. That is notwithstanding the focus that Weast put into improving that cluster of schools. In fact, the most effective thing the County could do is to provide more jobs in the area and, eventually, more of a middle-class neighborhood.

It seems to me the Council made the wrong choice for those reasons, and because it's hard to see how their proposed town center will succeed without greater development around it. Silver Spring is kinda cool, but the attractions are all a couple of long blocks north of the Metro -- and up a big hill, at that. Except for some condos, nothing is really happening down that hill.

Wheaton could actually end up being far more vital than Silver Spring, if it can concentrate development around and especially above the Metro. In fact, the two communities could even enjoy some symbiotic growth, since they are so readily accessible to each other by a short Metro ride. The key would be to actually do something significant around the Wheaton Metro. So far, that's not what the Council has voted for. I don't know if Leggett's proposal would create demand where none exists now, but I'm pretty sure the county's alternative won't do that.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

I don't understand why people keep saying, all over the place, that wheaton and aspen hill are so unpleasant! They just aren't. My family just bought a house last summer in Wheaton - and we are happy with it. The schools we are zoned for are good. We are close to a lot of retail, close to metro so we can commute to work and live a more sustainable life. We are young professionals, with young children - we have met quite a number of other folks like ourselves who are choosing Wheaton over other parts of the county. So I don't understand why this neighborhood is getting so bad mouthed. Sure, there are low income folks here but we like the diversity. We like that the restaurants we can walk to are locally owned and interesting. We lived in DTSS before for 4 years and while there is a lot there that is nice I'd rather walk to a local place then to a big box restaurant like Macaroni Grill. This plan the council has passed makes a great deal of sense in the current economic climate. It will bring some daytime traffic to Wheaton. When the two new huge apartment/condo complexes (safeway and the one where that church is) are done and full of people Wheaton will start to look even more attractive to developers. So what if they money was "really" for the parks and planning building, the council is killing 2 birds with 1 stone, so to speak. There isn't the money to rebuild Wheaton on a grand scale right now, although one reasonable complaint is that they did not move the library and rec center into downtown. That would have been very savvy, and they could have put the parks and planning building where the library is now. Or somewhere else in Wheaton close to the metro.

by Anotherwheatonresident on Apr 13, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

Dan-

Where does the office vacancy info come from? I'd be curious to see a map of how office vacancy varies throughout the county... perhaps home & rental vacancies, too, if the info is out there.

by Bossi on Apr 13, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

@Bossi

The office vacancy info is from real estate firm Transwestern, which you can find here.

@oh_really

It's not like Wheaton isn't going to be successful without a bunch of office buildings. There are examples of urban neighborhoods around DC that are dense and lively without a substantial office population, like Columbia Heights. Bethesda isn't the only example for redevelopment.

@Ed

The reputation of schools in Wheaton is important. One thing companies look for in locating a business is the quality of local schools for their employees, which is why they settle in Bethesda and along I-270.

by dan reed! on Apr 13, 2012 12:56 pm • linkreport

@Dan -- It could be a chicken/egg question, but I'd argue it's a question of proactivity versus addressing symptoms. The efforts to boost the schools in around Wheaton won't succeed until and unless the nature of the student body changes. Adding more middle class students could be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Trying to fix the schools first is trying to put band-aids on a hemorrhaging wound, or even on a cancer patient. You gotta be more proactive with more dramatic treatment that addresses the root cause, instead of trying to cover up the problem and hope it heals on its own.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

I grew up in Rockville and remembered going to Wheaton Plaza as a kid. I'm 33 now, but I used to go to the movie theatre there and to the Woodies that was there. I remember going to Montgomery Ward and the Hecht's there. I also remember going to the Wheaton library when I was in high school. I would frequent Wheaton as late as the mid-1990s before I went to college.

From what I remember, despite having the Metro, Wheaton seemed to go downhill in the 1990s. As late as the early 1990s I didn't feel unsafe there. Even as late as 1996 I didn't feel unsafe there. But as certain populations moved there in the late 1980s and early 1990s the quality of life there diminished. I was technically zoned to go to Wheaton High School; but, because the school had issues with gangs, my mother successfully was able to get me transferred to a public school in Bethesda. I was one block away from the bus stop for that school, so MCPS approved the transfer. Otherwise I would have had to have gone to Georgetown Prep or some other private school that my mother would have had to move Heaven and Earth to afford.

Wheaton Plaza has suffered because of the real (and perceived) threat of gangs. I think there was a shooting there at the Macy's a few years ago. Don't get me wrong. It's not like Wheaton is like the worst of PG County or SE Washington. It's not that dangerous, but it just has a horrible reputation.

I currently live in Ward 4 near Silver Spring and Takoma Park. With downtown Silver Spring significantly improved I have no reason to go up there. I usually do most of my shopping at Pentagon City, Montgomery Mall, and Tysons. Wheaton Plaza just doesn't have the same appeal to me and lacks the attractive stores.

I usually drive through Wheaton to visit friends at Leisure World. I see some new developments under construction. But it still has a long way to go. I think the biggest challenge facing Wheaton is the problem with gangs and crime, both real and perceived.

by Rain17 on Apr 13, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

Good piece, Dan. Back when I lived in Wheaton, I always thought that it was a prime location for more residential and light office space. I don't foresee it being an office center like Bethesda or Silver Spring. Start with residential, let the improved amenities that sprout up to serve the expanded residential base, then office demand will increase.

Offices like to locate around other offices or in places that are somehow cool to be in. Wheaton is currently neither. The coolness will pick up with the amenities, though. Office demand is a function of infrastructure and social circumstances. It's no coincidence that the largest employers in Silver Spring are science/engineering-oriented. In those circles, it's socially desirable to not work with the suits downtown and in Bethesda.

by Cavan on Apr 13, 2012 3:41 pm • linkreport

If Wheaton can add new residential developments, a few nice restaurants, and other "yuppy" amenities, I think it will improve. But they have to do something about the gang problem first.

by Rain17 on Apr 13, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

Well, time will tell I suppose.

Dan - I think you'd have to admit that the WUDAC has a right to be upset about this. And to a lesser extent residents like myself who have sat through long community meetings to hear about the B.F. Saul plan and generally discuss the future of Wheaton. The Council basically said to all of us - thanks for your input but we're going to do this our own way because we don't believe the market will support more. Based on very little data. Counter to the calculations of a very successful private developer and the executive. Based on NO organized input from the community. This is arrogance from elected officials - to just come up with their own plan behind office doors and decide they know better than everyone else. Doesn't mean that their analysis is wrong, but the process was an insult. And that matters.

And, to be fair in assessing one plan vs the other it takes quite a bit of willful blindness to not point out that the new plan leverages no private money, where the Leggett plan expected to see $200 to $300 million dollars of investment in Wheaton from B.F. Saul. Private money might follow this modest public investment but that's a far cry from the public/private partnership that was in hand.

by Dave in Wheaton on Apr 13, 2012 4:29 pm • linkreport

It should be no surprise that any ecomic development in Montgomery County can only happen if it passes the urbanism filters set by the county's senior officials. If they wanted Hilton or Grumman they would have made an effort to get them. But taxing the existing business with fees is better than increasing tax base by wooing major employers.

by Sam on Apr 13, 2012 4:35 pm • linkreport

@Dave

I agree that the process wasn't ideal. B.F. Saul did a fair job of community outreach, even if (in my opinion) their plan was flawed, and built up support. I'm not totally convinced of the Council's plan, either, but I wasn't happy with the backlash they're getting, as I don't think it's totally deserved. Saying that they "don't care" about Wheaton is completely uncalled for.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to get the cost-benefit analysis Leggett's administration claims they did to back up their proposal.

by dan reed! on Apr 13, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

@Rain17

So you're pretty familiar with the gang problem in Wheaton based on your occasional drive between SS and Leisure World? Or it's based on that single shooting at Macy's in 2008 you referenced earlier? Or maybe your shopping trips in the early 90s?

I hate to be that snarky blog commenter but good god – why does every single discussion of Wheaton have to feature a comment like this based on nothing to almost nothing factual.

by Dave in Wheaton on Apr 13, 2012 4:42 pm • linkreport

The platform over WMATA's lot would have sat empty for years. The whole idea is just an empty promise. At least with the new plan we get something positive now -- a new county office building and a larger town square.

by Hassan on Apr 13, 2012 4:59 pm • linkreport

Well, Dave in Wheaton, I have grown up in this area my entire life. It's based on my entire life experiences.

by Rain17 on Apr 13, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

I agree that one of wheaton's biggest issues is the lack of quality schools but don't agree that it has much to do with student body. I'm a graduate of Blair which has similar demographics to Kennedy and Wheaton High but is a much better school (with a better Great Schools rating). I'm no education expert so don't know how you get wheaton schools to SS standards but it should be possible. Finding a strong prinicipal like Gainous would be a good start.

by Falls Church on Apr 14, 2012 12:13 am • linkreport

I've been in Wheaton for a while too. The gang issue is and isn't real. Aside from the shooting at Westfield, gang names have been sprayed on fences where I live, and gang markings have been painted on a garage. I do not feel unsafe in Wheaton, however, because these are unusual--if not rare--occurrences. But these issues could discourage newcomers. Not gang-related, but 2 recent strong-armed robberies at 6:25 p.m. on a weekday at the Wheaton Metro won't make people comfortable either.

As for the Council, the process was inclusive only of groups that supported the Council's position. There was none of the openness and debate one would expect if they cared about the views of all stakeholders. At best, it was entirely paternalistic. At worst, intentional and self-serving to avoid public opinion when they knew many people would be unhappy.

As for the plan's substance, even with some space set aside for walking, how does Wheaton really enhance walkability by having a large building in the middle of a space that could be a great walkable area? Will the building actually block businesses on its sides or is there some assurance of a design that includes retail at the bottom with airy, open walkways underneath the building at the ground level? I think most people here want a flowing, walkable area. Is that somehow being ensured? I hope so.

Finally, I believe that Wheaton's future is largely based on what people believe Wheaton can become. Why wouldn't businesses, non-profits, federal government agencies, and individuals be interested in a less expensive area that has amenities and a Metro stop? I would rather see a large-scale effort to make Wheaton attractive to new business and to residents with money to spend. My restaurant purchases are probably 90% from Wheaton establishments. The more that Wheaton attracts residents with income, the better it is for the local businesses. The Council's decision appears to reflect the belief, contrary to mine, that Wheaton's possibilities for prosperity are incredibly limited now and in the future.

by Jason on Apr 14, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

Jason -- less rent is a motivator but it's more relative than you think. It's balanced with distance and what I write about a fair amount, agglomeration economies (http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch2en/conc2en/agglomerationeconomies.html).

Wheaton is going to have a hard time competing against west county as a jobs center, therefore expending money on that platform is a long shot, especially because the hardest type of development usually occurs "last" after the easy opportunities for build out and redevelopment have been exhausted.

E.g., it has taken 20+ years for development over I-395 between Mass Ave. and D Street to move forward in a substantive way.

And it has been an almost 10 year discussion about building over the Union Station railyard, with no date in sight about building the platform.

And there is talk, more and more, about building over parts of the Southwest portion of the SE-SW Freeway. E.g., Herb Miller and Jack Evans proposed it for the baseball stadium near L'Enfant Plaza. The NCPC Southwest Ecodistrict plan shows renderings with some building over of the freeway, etc.

Anyway, that is for DC, which is one of the strongest real estate markets in the US. It would go 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x for Wheaton in terms of that platform and the marketability of space on top of it.

by Richard Layman on Apr 15, 2012 7:35 am • linkreport

Thanks Richard. What are your views on a few related issues?

Why was a large developer willing to make a significant investment in Wheaton?

If the most open physical space is the Wheaton Triangle area and the goal is a walkable downtown to attract spending on retail, what do you think of potentially blocking off most of the Triangle with the planned County-owned large office building?

Finally, is there any reason to believe a County-owned office building's lunch workers will make a significant dent on Wheaton's economy? Should Wheaton's focus really be entirely residential for that purpose?

Thanks for your reply.

by Jason on Apr 15, 2012 12:01 pm • linkreport

1. from the standpoint of BF Saul, why? Probably because the county was willing to shoulder most of the risk.

2. I don't think a county used office building is a spur of economic development ("agglomeration economies" again).

However, I will concede that the new office complex in SW DC at the old Waterfront Mall, with government functions is doing pretty well. Although it's part of a bunch of other changes, including putting the street grid back, so it's on a traditional street guide. (And other places in the city haven't had that kind of success with government office spurred improvement elsewhere in the city such as with the Reeves Center, and other DC Government functions spread across the city, such as in the 2 office buildings on the 600 block of H Street NE.)

As I mention often, office workers support 2 s.f. of retail (typically narrowly focused convenience like CVS and other services) and 5 s.f. of food service (usually quick service), so it's not a significant source of support for retail, especially broad ranging retail. E.g., it's not like L'Enfant Plaza or Crystal City are great places for retail even though they have thousands of daily workers...

3. But it's still a contribution. I haven't walked around Wheaton for awhile, so my thoughts are out of date. I do think the rebuilt Safeway + residential will make a big difference. E.g. compare to CityVista in DC, or the Harris Teeter development at 1st and M Streets NE. OTOH, the H-T development on Rockville Pike isn't so great. I don't know what to say yet about "North Bethesda Market."

I do think that doing more with the Westfield mall site, more like what Melvin Simon Malls are doing with "alls", but General Growth Properties was also doing, makes more sense, but I don't think in the US that Westfield has done that kind of development. Or relatedly making it more like a lifestyle center.

This before-the-real-estate-crash article is about the redevelopment of the Natick Mall in Mass., to include housing. I don't know the current status.

http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2007/10/07/a_store_makes_the_best_dressed_list/?page=full

It's a really tricky question.

Look how long it's taken to have positive impact in Silver Spring.

by Richard Layman on Apr 15, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

1. The lesser risk certainly played into the calculation, but most developers would not take a large chance when B.F. Saul would have.

2. But what do you think of the open space issue? I believe your blog considers the physical makeup of space vitally important. What are your views on taking the large open area in the heart of walkable Wheaton and placing a large County-owned (potentially no retail) office building in 2/3 of the area?

3. Westfield is definitely improving, thankfully. A quick search on Natick showed that many condos had to be auctioned off at huge discounts to the original pricing and helped lead to the developer's bankruptcy.

A major part of the problem for everyone was the County Council's lack of interest in an open debate. Instead of having information and ideas shared with everyone and having public discussions with all stakeholders, which might have swayed minds one way or another, the Council's closed process has forced residents and stakeholders on both sides to debate the issues on blogs and online news sites.

I'm sure you have other things to do than keep writing on a computer on a nice day, as do I, so I look forward to any further comments when I log on after dark tonight. Thanks.

by Jason on Apr 15, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

@Jason

The BF Saul plan would've put an apartment building on Lot 13 in addition to a town square, as I wrote above. All three proposals involve some development there, leaving about 1/3 left for the square.

by dan reed! on Apr 15, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

1. Plenty of developers likely would have taken a shot at the project, had they known a bunch of $ would be offered up. The thing is, you don't want those kinds of developers, usually (e.g. the Monts types--the guy who originally had the contract to develop over I-395 in DC).

2. WRT "open space" at the heart of a town center, typically you want programmed spaces at the core. But tightly planned. Not big spaces necessarily.

The typology of types of park/open spaces in the Buckhead Collection Plan (Atlanta) is a better example than I think many people are thinking about when they talk about "open space" as it relates to "town centers."

- http://livablebuckhead.com/sustainability/greenspace-2/buckhead-collection/

3. I don't know Natick. But you can't take what happened as the crash occurred as something generalizable. As far as that particular project's impact on GGP's problems, it was likely a rounding error. (They had much much much bigger problems.)

Again, I don't know Natick, but in these kinds of developments, I recommend apartments, not just condos. E.g., I am surprised that there aren't apartments above the retail in "Arts District Hyattsville" and for going on 10 years I've suggested that Hechinger Mall be redeveloped upwards, including apartments as part of a mixed use development.

by Richard Layman on Apr 15, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

One of the reasons Wheaton is perceived as unsafe is its vacant storefronts, outdated infrastructure, and lack of shoppers and diners walking around. Where do you feel safer, on a dark sidewalk with little foot traffic or a crowded sidewalk. If Wheaton wants to address the perception of crime, it needs to be redeveloped into a destination.

by Sean on Apr 17, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

After reading and thinking about Richard Layman's comments, I think the idea of a large office building is terrible for downtown Wheaton right now. It will be a ghost town at night and potentially block off open space where people currently feel comfortable walking. Close your eyes and imagine walking around the area we have today, largely with the same old strip malls downtown and then add a large building with no one in it after 5:00 p.m. Feel any safer? Want to walk around the area? An apartment building with retail would be much more inviting by providing real foot traffic at all times (not just "feet on the ground" for lunch) and bring in more people with disposable income. Wheaton would benefit much more from an apartment building. A large office building will be a very poor choice for the space, but then again, the Council never really asked what residents want.

by Commentous on Apr 18, 2012 7:35 am • linkreport

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