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Will a new Montgomery Planning HQ catalyze Wheaton?

Downtown Silver Spring is anchored by the Civic Building. Rockville Town Center has its library. Wheaton, meanwhile, will have the Montgomery County Planning Department. If the revitalization of Wheaton is going to succeed, it'll need much more than a government office building.

The Fortress of Planning today. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Last month, the Park and Planning Commission made a nonbinding agreement with Montgomery County to build their new headquarters and a town square on Parking Lot 13 at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, for which the Montgomery County Council set aside $55 million last year.

A new headquarters would be a big improvement for the Planning Department and Department of Parks, whose current home in downtown Silver Spring is a aging, cobbled-together building I jokingly call the "Fortress of Planning." But the county's decision to locate it at the core of downtown Wheaton gives these agencies some pretty big shoes to fill.

Done well, the headquarters could be a catalyst, drawing people and investment to the area while serving as an example of everything Montgomery County stands for. Done poorly, it'll be a black hole, sucking the life out of Wheaton and hampering its redevelopment. How can we Montgomery County get this right? Here are a few suggestions:

Farmers' market at Arlington Courthouse Plaza. Photo by cliff1066 on Flickr.

Mix it up.

The current concept is to build a 150,000-square-foot building that would contain the two departments' headquarters, a credit union, a day care center and an underground parking garage. A second building could later be built behind it with apartments and ground-floor shops.

That seems a little backwards. After all, the headquarters would directly face the new town square, which would be a more desirable location for retail than farther up the block as proposed. Restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating could help add life to the square, while putting offices there that close at 5 pm would just create a dead spot.

Montgomery County should follow Arlington's lead. Its located its Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development and other government agencies in Courthouse Plaza, a complex with ground-floor shops, restaurants, a movie theatre and a farmers' market surrounding a pedestrian mall. While the space isn't as robust or lively as Clarendon next door, it's active throughout the day and the week and serves as an anchor for the larger neighborhood.

The House of Sweden. Photo by afagen on Flickr.

Engage the public.

Planning isn't the sexiest government agency. Little kids don't idolize zoning clerks the way they do fire fighters and police officers, and with one exception you won't find many television shows about planners. Nonetheless, planners play an important role in shaping our communities, and the new headquarters provides an opportunity to tell that story.

One example of how to do that is the House of Sweden in Georgetown, which houses the embassies of both Sweden and Iceland, plus offices and a conference center. Designed to reflect the Swedish ideals of openness, transparency and democracy, the building is open to the public and hosts exhibitions, talks, and concerts showcasing the nation's arts and culture.

The Planning Department already holds public events like last fall's open house or their annual speaker series. These events, usually on weekends or during the evening, could help activate the building outside of the Planning Board's twice-weekly meetings.

It would be cool if the building's design could make those activities visible from the street, the same way that the House of Sweden's lobby opens to the Georgetown Waterfront. It could include a small gallery to showcase the latest projects, allowing residents to find out what's happening in their community while, say, going out for dinner.

Waterfront Station, housing the DC Office of Planning and other agencies. Photo by the author.

Design for a statement.

Most modern public buildings are unremarkable and undistinguished. For every gorgeous, inspiring edifice like the Civic Building, there's a Transit Center whose design prioritizes utility and little else. That's not acceptable for an agency committed to improving the the county's built and natural environment.

In 2011, the District of Columbia moved its Office of Planning and other agencies into Waterfront Station, a mixed-use project on the site of the former Waterside Mall in Southwest. Designed by renowned local architects Shalom Baranes Associates, Waterfront Station earned LEED Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council due to the use of energy-conserving features like a green roof and shading devices to reduce heat gain from sunlight.

Like in Arlington, there are shops and restaurants on the ground floor, including a Safeway. The Office of Planning itself doesn't necessarily engage the public, as it's located on the 6th floor and you have to go through security to reach it. However, placing this agency and others in this complex still makes a meaningful statement about the District's commitment to urban revitalization and environmentally-sensitive development.

I've been skeptical in the past about the merits of relocating the Planning Department and Department of Parks to Wheaton, but now that it's basically a done deal, let's make this the best project we can. For decades, Montgomery County has been a leader in innovative planning, and now it's time for county officials to put their money where their mouths are.

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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It's remarkable the number of Wheatonians I've heard complain about the HQ being moved there. I'd love to see the current site redeveloped and the HQ/jobs stay in downtown Silver Spring!

by jag on Feb 11, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

Not to say effort shouldn't go into making the Wheaton site plan as great as possible, as Dan suggests, it's just odd to see people thumb their noses at hundreds of jobs. Especially in a place like Wheaton where jobs being added is almost always in the context of minimum wage retail coming to town.

by jag on Feb 11, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

The county could save a lot of money by not putting in any underground parking at this building and renting space in the underused Metro garage across Veirs Mill Road.

And the planning board would be setting a good example for all its applicants.

by Ben Ross on Feb 11, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

Short answer no. It's maybe 300 people. 300 people support 600 s.f. of retail and 1500 s.f. of quick service restaurant. It's not like military relocation where contractors relocate as well (e.g., around the Navy Yard).

2. Your examples are good ones. The big thing isn't the use as much as it is the form. E.g., the thing about 4th St. SW is (1) it's mixed use; (2) they have the urban design right at the ground level; (3) they have other activity generators on the ground floor (e.g., Safeway); (4) this project restored the grid--reopened 4th St. as a through street; (5) is next to the Metro Station; (6) is very close to a fair amount of multiunit housing, which further increases ground level activity. It will only increase as more housing is built and the SW Waterfront is redeveloped.

3. OTOH, you can argue that the dispersal rather than the concentration of DC Govt. Offices increases travel times for many, decreases efficient use of the mobility network, shifts more trips to the car away from transit.

But you're absolutely right about getting it right if you're gonna do it. I think a real problem is lack of immediately adjacent housing.

4. Your HoS example is good in terms of the way they program it, not good in terms of its location being off the beaten track. But yes, if the equivalent of the Silver Spring Civic Building is constructed, so that the space is active outside of government hours, that would be a good thing, and an asset that contributes to and extends the public realm framework in multiple ways.

by Richard Layman on Feb 11, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

I'm in favor of relocating the planning dept. I'm looking at the current location on Google Earth, and it looks ripe for redevelopment opportunities. Does anyone know of any plans to develop the big parking lot to the northeast of the current Planning HQ?

by Steve on Feb 11, 2013 8:19 pm • linkreport

I think the DC planning example would be better than the House of Sweden becasue one is an urban context, the like I hope they're striving for in Wheaton while the other is an object building in a field. The Silver Spring building works becasue it is THE object at the head of the main public square, and as such can stand alone from it's neighbors. Also, all that transparency doesn't really work as windows end up being super reflective and people don't like to work in a fish bowl, generally. Eitherway it should be good for both communities becasue it's not adding anything to Silver Spring and god knows Wheaton needs a catylist.

by Thayer-D on Feb 11, 2013 9:26 pm • linkreport

There's no reason to focus on the buildings housing the various planning departments - any local government office could do.

That said, I know the DC example is a privately owned office building leased to government agencies. I believe the Courthouse area in Arlington is a mix of government-owned buildings and privately-owned buildings leased to agencies.

It's no coincidence that the better mixed-use examples are the privately owned and managed buildings where the government is the tenant.

by Alex B. on Feb 11, 2013 9:42 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

You're right, I didn't have to focus on planning departments, but I thought it was interesting since Montgomery seems to be the only one in the region with their own building. All of the other ones are either in buildings with other agencies (ex. DC, Alexandria, Baltimore City) or in complexes with the rest of the government (ex. PG, Fairfax, Arlington, Howard).

@Richard, Thayer-D

I agree that the House of Sweden is a little out of the way, but its programming is spectacular and worth emulating. If it were in a more central location (say, on Scott Circle where the Australian Embassy is), I can only imagine how awesome it would be.


A few years ago, the Planning Department planned to redevelop their current building and the parking lots around it with a mixed-use development containing a new HQ, housing, retail, etc. called SilverPlace. Unfortunately, the project fell through for a variety of reasons, but it's worth looking at to see how the site could be reused.

by dan reed! on Feb 11, 2013 10:59 pm • linkreport

"Engage the Public"

Well they did, we spent 4 years and countless hours of the various commissions and boards to get shafted by a pro-union deal by Navarro and Ervin. They took out the BF Saul deal with the retail, hotel and revitalization and dropped in a faceless office building where everyone will drive and not participate in the neighborhood. Of course the fact that it will now be built with union labor and there is a large subsidy to help LEDC had nothing at all to do with it.

Ive lived in Wheaton for 13 years and the County has been bungling the redevelopment the entire time Ive been here--Duncan's "arts district", the BF Saul Plan, and now this boondoggle. Im saving up and moving to Arlington as soon as I can between the taxes and the stupidity there are limits.

by one-star on Feb 12, 2013 8:27 am • linkreport

Dan wrt the HoS example, and my writing of the integrated public realm framework and Silver Spring () it would be f*ing awesome to work to do that wrt Montgomery County's Hispanic population and organizations, much of which is centered in the Wheaton area, international business development etc.

2. Alex B's points (as always), in this case about who does mixed use well, are really important. I hope that BF Saul doesn't suck at it. It's taken a few iterations to get it right in DC (and ArCo for that matter). E.g. compare most DC Govt. buildings, including Reeves Center, to the new complex by the Waterfront Station. As Alex knows, the vitality in that area now is quite tremendous and positive and should give all of us urbanists hope that good stuff truly is possible.

by Richard Layman on Feb 12, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

Dan, what happens to downtown Silver Spring if the M-NCP&PC vacates 8787 Georgia Avenue and moves north to Wheaton? What will happen to that site (I presume that the building will be razed).

Silver Spring these days is a much less busy, much less vibrant place than it was in the 1960's and 1970's when the Hecht Company and J.C. Penney's were the retail "anchors" of the area around Colesville Road and Fenton Street; and Computer Sciences Corporation occupied the big building in the 8700 block of Colesville Road (which is now a combination Hampton Inn/Homewood Suites).

by C. P. Zilliacus on Feb 12, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport


My hope is that the county would sell off the land and encourage a developer do something along the lines of SilverPlace (which I linked to above). Even without Park and Planning as an anchor, it might be a desirable location for another corporate headquarters with a mix of housing/retail alongside.

by dan reed! on Feb 12, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

These are great suggestions, Dan, and I appreciate the continuing attention on Wheaton's redevelopment. I support the goals that emerged from the Silver Place workshop, including "great design and a spacious public park." However, I hope that the stock design that showed up on the M-NCP webpage is nothing like what is eventually built on the site in Wheaton. I agree that the independent development of the M-NCP and mixed-use buildings already sounds like a poor exercise in planning.

As a community, I hope we’re given room to imagine what a residential-focused downtown Wheaton with substantial “street-level activity” and a vibrant “nighttime economy" (from the new sector plan) can look like. Let's look at integrating the surrounding ethnic restaurants and long-running business into a park/piazza rather than segregating them off. Let's draw in families during the day like in Columbia Heights and people of all ages for food/drinks/music in the evenings. Marchone's Italian Deli has been part of that square for 58 years... why not look at something like a European-style pedestrian street of cafes and restaurants? Wheaton is the most diverse community in Montgomery County and can both generate and draw in a thriving daytime and nighttime community if given the thought, investment, and planning.

I would think that of any organization, a group that is actually titled “Park and Planning” would want to showcase the very best of what is possible for parks and planning in the Washington region through its new headquarters.

by Randall on Feb 12, 2013 4:18 pm • linkreport

Hey, hey! Not just one show about planners. What about Parks and Rec? :)

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 12, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

Am I the only one who thinks moving the headquarters may be a bad exercise in planning? Right now there is MARC and a close in METRO station that Planning staff can use to commute. If you move to Wheaton, you have METRO, although further out in the suburbs making for longer reverse commutes, and you have no MARC train. Thinking people will take the MARC to SS and then METRO back into the suburbs is giving way too much faith in the faithfulness of transit commuters. There better be a big parking garage!

I think the proposed space is too small and awkward for an office building, and that entire lot should be one big central park/plaza. If there is to be a new Wheaton Planning Hq, find another lot, or start to develop parts of the Westfield Wheaton site.

by Gull on Feb 13, 2013 9:49 am • linkreport

Gull, what you are describing, in the context of DC, when DCG makes similar decisions, I call intra-city sprawl, because it makes for much less efficient trips, reduces agglomeration benefits, etc. So in MoCo, I guess it would be intra-county sprawl although the deleterious effects on agglomeration benefits aren't so clear, because most of MoCo's offices are up in Rockville.

by richard Layman on Feb 13, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

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