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Good design, lots of parking at Wheaton's tallest building

Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.


The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.

Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.

It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.

Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.


Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.

Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.

It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.

Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.


New, ample sidewalks along Georgia Avenue have outdoor seating.

But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.

Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.

That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.


The Exchange turns its back on Fern Street and Veterans Park.

Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.

Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.

It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.

Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.

In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.

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. 

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Are you serious? This thousands of times better than what was there. http://bit.ly/18jEw2X Importantly it will bring market rate housing (as opposed to Metro Point with a high number of "affordable" units), which should, in turn, bring in a more desirable demographic, and hopefully drive out some of the 30 or so check cashing places within a 5 minute walk of this parcel.

Also - It's a grocery store. It needs both a loading dock and a parking garage. One blank wall out of 4 isn't too bad. I live less than a half mile from here, but you think I'm going to walk with the two kids and pick up 10 bags of groceries? Heck no, I'm driving, and if there isn't a convenient garage, I'm certainly not shopping here. The way it is set up is fantastic, easiest in/out grocery store I've ever been in, and a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

by Wheaton Res. on Dec 3, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

@Wheaton Res.: You live a 5-10 minute walk away from a grocery store but never go unless you need to buy ten bags of groceries? I don't understand.

One of the things I love about living half a mile from a grocery store is that I can walk the dog there and pick up a bag or two of food. Sure, sometimes we drive to get more/heavier stuff, but it would be silly for them to design only for those trips and not for all of the smaller ones.

by Gray on Dec 3, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

Overall I think the Exchange/Safeway building is well designed, and it is certainly a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Out of the four sides to site the required loading dock, Fern Street was probably the best choice.

My biggest peeve about the project is the raised median that was recently constructed on Reedie Drive. Obviously people wanting to go to Safeway from the Metro are going to cross Reedie right out of the Metro, not at the corner of Georgia and Reedie. They should have put in a crosswalk there rather than a raised median.

by Rebecca on Dec 3, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

@Wheaton Res

I didn't say you shouldn't drive to the grocery store. But when we design buildings in an urban environment solely around the idea that everyone will drive there, we produce sucky buildings and a crappy urban environment. And a Wheaton with unattractive buildings that don't contribute to the pedestrian experience will ultimately be a less desirable place to be, which in turn hurts property values (i.e., your property values).

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2013 11:10 am • linkreport

@ Gray

Substitute your dog for two toddlers who won't sit in strollers and see how many times you walk to the grocery store and carry stuff home. Notwithstanding that, this store is actually extremely easy to walk to, but the criticism from the article is too much parking and one out of 4 walls are "blank." My point was that it needs parking and a loading dock and in this particular instance the grocery store's spaces sit directly under it. If you've ever been in the building it is certainly not an excessive amount especially considering the sea of parking at Westfield.

by Wheaton Res. on Dec 3, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

It sounds like the problem is not that there is parking at all, but that there is too much parking. A store like this, with residences on top and next door, is going to draw a LOT of foot traffic. Much of that parking will go unused. I used to live in the North Bethesda Market complex, on top of the Whole Foods. They also had a parking ramp that went down four stories below ground and two stories above ground. The top floor of parking was always vacant.

by alurin on Dec 3, 2013 11:14 am • linkreport

@ Dan - agree with your point, but we need to accommodate drivers as well. I think Bethesda is the perfect model for this as there is plenty of parking for those that wish to drive and it is walkable as well. The more Wheaton moves in that direction the better.

by Wheaton Res. on Dec 3, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

I didn't say you shouldn't drive to the grocery store. But when we design buildings in an urban environment solely around the idea that everyone will drive there, we produce sucky buildings and a crappy urban environment.

Lots of things to unpack here.

The store will have some requirements: Modern grocery supermarkets depend on drawing from a wider area than just those within walking distance, particularly in a suburban area like this. From the business side, they will want some parking to accomodate that wider part of the store's trade area; as well as parking for those that buy larger amounts of groceries.

The developer will have some requirements: Since they're the ones inking a lease with a retailer, they know how much parking the retailer wants, and how much they'll need to build in order to get the lease signed.

The developer will also often have financial requirements: A developer's financing might be conservative and may require more parking than the devleoper thinks is necessary as a way to reduce the risk should the developer fail and the bank needs to take over the project and sell it to someone else.

The zoning code has requirements: they're often high relative to actual demand.

And that's just the retail parking, not the residential. Once you know how much parking the building will have (for whatever combination of the reasons above), then you can get into the design issues. Obviously, it's easier to hide less parking than more parking, but that's not the only factor.

by Alex B. on Dec 3, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

Is it possible, say 20 years down the line when it turns out this was too much parking, to appropriate the parking for something else? More apartments? Businesses? Offices? Obviously not all of it, since much is internal without windows, but some?

by JDC Esq on Dec 3, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

@Wheaton Res

Design is a big factor in why Bethesda works so well. Take the parking garages at Bethesda Row - the county and Federal Realty worked together to ensure not only that there would be ample parking, but that it would be completely hidden behind the buildings to create a more attractive, walkable environment.

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

but that it would be completely hidden behind the buildings to create a more attractive, walkable environment.

It's a lot easier to hide that parking when you're dealing with a large site like Bethesda Row. I'm just eyeballing it here, but the Wheaton site looks to be a much smaller footprint - about the equivalent of the Bethesda Row parking garage in total.

by Alex B. on Dec 3, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

@JDC Esq

It depends on how the parking is constructed. If it consists mostly of sloped floors, it will likely be prohibitively expensive to convert it to another use. However, if most of the square footage is flat (with sloped ramps between floors) you may be able to convert it if you spent enough money.

The bottom line is that we construct way too much parking in this country. There was a good Breakfast Links article this morning about how even on Black Friday, many shopping centers across the nation still had empty parking spaces. Dan's article correctly infers that the only reason this building has as much residential parking as it does is because of Montgomery County's outdated zoning code. There is no reason to require this amount of residential parking in a building literally across the street from the Metro. Montgomery County talks a good game about making areas like Wheaton and White Flint more "urban," but until they tackle the parking requirement issue, these efforts will not be as successful as they could be.

by Rebecca on Dec 3, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

@Alex B.

And there are still ways to hide the parking, even though the project's smaller.

I understand the financial drivers behind why there's so much parking. But that doesn't make them right. You can look at projects like North Bethesda Market or DCUSA and see that retailers are clearly overestimating how much parking they need, which contributes to crappy urban design and ultimately undermines the attempt to create an urban place which, in the end, can reap financial returns for retailers and developers (and the lenders who support them).

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

Yes, when you have only one exposed wall on a super-block sized parcel like in Bethesda you can hide the infrastructure. in alleyways. This is not the case here, as the footprint of the building takes up nearly all the land. Also, in downtown Bethesda, the grocery stores all have a lot of dedicated parking, especially the Giant immediately adjacent to Bethesda Row.

by Wheaton Res. on Dec 3, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

I don't think the issue is parking as much as design. Look at the massive parking lot right off Veteran's Plaza in beautiful downtown Silver Spring. It's not hiding anything,yet the ground floor is full of stores. If you are designing public spaces, blank walls don't work.

by Thayer-D on Dec 3, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

Dan,

And there are still ways to hide the parking, even though the project's smaller.

You mentioned this in your post, but you didn't elaborate on the path not taken here.

For what it's worth, the podium parking option with ground floor retail isn't that bad - you could do a lot worse. Given that X parking spaces are built, it's not terrible.

I understand the financial drivers behind why there's so much parking. But that doesn't make them right.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for less parking. But I do think there's a subtle difference between 'getting it wrong' vs. 'being wrong.'

Part of the problem with why we build too much parking is that our processes end up requiring it, and they do so because every actor involved is making the right decision, based on their incentives.

You can look at projects like North Bethesda Market or DCUSA and see that retailers are clearly overestimating how much parking they need, which contributes to crappy urban design and ultimately undermines the attempt to create an urban place which, in the end, can reap financial returns for retailers and developers (and the lenders who support them).

Again, you don't need to convince me about the ills of too much parking. But the real challenge isn't in just demonstrating that cost, but in adjusting the decision-making process (from all of the participants in the process - city, developer, tenant, financier, etc.) that generates those outcomes.

by Alex B. on Dec 3, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

Hopefully, this will make a contributions to MoCo's tax duplicate, because it's so easy to criticize otherwise. highrises usually are sold on their being self-contained and being separated from the surrounding environment and this seems particularly true in the 'burbs. The deadest stretches of downtown Bethesda correspond to its highrises, including some with ground floor retail like the one with the Safeway (there's a sign for it on Wisc but it's impossible to find on foot--until you realize it's on a side street). DTSS's high rise residential also is dead and self-contained.

Architecturally, it's an uninspired hulking mess, and an easy target for height limit restrictors. tTe Safeway it replaces was on of the elegant "marina" stores from the 60s. probably outmoded and not the most intensive use of the space, but a classic vernacular design.

by Rich on Dec 3, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

I'd love to write a post one day about how the decision-making process creates more parking. But this post is about the urban design implications of parking. There's only so much you can say in 900-ish words.

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport

Eh that's a tough one. Wheaton isn't Bethesda or DTSS yet... For me its more about trying to ensure that curb cuts don't ruin the pedestrian environment. Certainly not as heinous as the overparking of DCUSA in Columbia Heights. That was just asinine.

by BTA on Dec 3, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

BTA what's this about curb cuts? Is there something you meaning other than the ones for disabled access, because those don't harm walkers in any way, they just allow more people to walk. It's not just access for the disabled, bike people and those with strollers like them, too.

by asffa on Dec 3, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

I meant curb cuts for driveways. I realize the terminology was a little loose but its usually used to refer to both.

by BTA on Dec 3, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

BTA okay. I've seen some city designs that have made me think some gremlins oppose curb cuts, especially any being right where there is disabled parking - this doesn't affect people who don't use chairs & many disabled won't notice, but for those who do, that's ridiculous.
Speaking of -DC has placed some of their Traffic Camera poles right in the middle of said cuts, meaning people in chairs need someone to help them get around the stupid barrier placed in the middle of the way. Curb-cut opposition gremlins.
No, you were talking about something else.

by asffa on Dec 3, 2013 1:44 pm • linkreport

It seems to me like parking garages are better than adding surface parking to Wheaton (I'm thinking mainly of the mall, but if you go 4-5 blocks from the metro in any direction there are many smaller surface lots dotting the area). That said, I hope that someone will be studying the utilization of these new garage spots so that the buildings that Dan mentioned are still to be built in the future can use that data in their own planning and decision-making process.

by grumpy on Dec 3, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

I don't see the problem with the configuration at all. This is definitely one of the best designed residential buildings in East County outside of the Beltway.

At least half of the visitors to the Safeway will travel by car since it'll be serving areas of Wheaton beyond that strip of mid- and high-rises on Georgia (whose residents will likely walk). Very few people will actually take Metro since there's already plenty of supermarkets two stations down in Silver Spring, and I don't see many residents taking the Metro from car-loving Glenmont.

A similar set-up exists at Wisconsin Place in Friendship Heights with a huge, multi-section underground garage serving a high-rise residential and office buildings, as well as a Whole Foods and other retail. Although the site is pretty much on top of a Metro station, the garage is very well used and is very convenient, certainly more so than hunting for street parking on either side of the DC/MD line.

by King Terrapin on Dec 3, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

But this post is about the urban design implications of parking. There's only so much you can say in 900-ish words.

Indeed.

I guess I'm curious for your thoughts on alternative designs that might have worked better here, given the constraints of the site and given the parking program. You highlight the shortcomings of this design quite nicely, but I'd be interested in your thoughts on remedies. You cite it as an example of what not to do, but that doesn't answer the question of what should be done.

I don't know that a full liner (Bethesda Row-style) is realistic given the size of the site and the amount of parking. Perhaps the screening of the podium could be better executed? I've seen parking podiums where the facades have full windows an are fully enclosed, just like the rest of the building.

by Alex B. on Dec 3, 2013 3:32 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

I hinted at this in the column, but one solution would be to put really shallow liner shops around the parking on the ground floor along Fern, and perhaps along Reedie, though the hill would make that harder. I envision shops maybe 20' deep (about the depth of a parking space), which would probably be too small for most chain retailers, but is a good size for small businesses that don't need a lot of storage space: dry cleaners, cafes, etc.

Foot traffic might be an issue because you're on the opposite side of the building from the Safeway entrance, but I think with a well-crafted mix of stores you could create a little destination that would draw people. Wheaton has made a name for itself as an ethnic dining destination, so maybe it could be something related to that.

Another option might be to do something similar to what happened in the upper floors and have window-like openings to the parking garage along the street, like at Rockville Town Square. This doesn't really "activate" the street since you're still walking by cars, but at least it looks better, and people inside the parking garage going to their cars could provide "eyes on the street."

by dan reed! on Dec 3, 2013 3:56 pm • linkreport

I always find it interesting how the "loading dock" so heavily rules new design, yet old urban development is able make-do without the massive, facade destroying loading dock. It just means that deliveries need to better coordinate their shipments so the street frontage isn't jammed with the tractor-trailer during peak business hours. I think you hit it spot-on lamenting how the design turns its back on the park. It's a shame and an excellent opportunity lost, forever! Similarly, in Annapolis we have the new Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, which from the inside avenue is a solid accomplishment to new urban design standards, but turns its back on the outside by placing blank walls, exhaust vents, and parking garages to the main roads outside. Any expansion of development in the area will have to gaze at those eyesores. I realize it is easier to criticize a finished product than to plan the design (this is where public input/charrettes have their advantage), but at the very least to provide an open patio tiered back on the Safeway Level, with some sort of outdoor amenity facing the park, would have been a nice gesture. A cafe or restaurant, for example. Veterans park provides an excellent little urban respite to enjoy a snack, picnic, or coffee, but won't as easily come into the minds of area shoppers with this layout. Whereas, had shop frontage been placed along Fern, people would be walking by or in the shops, see the park across the street and think "That looks relaxing; I have 15 minutes to spare; I want to be a part of that".

by Tom B. on Dec 4, 2013 10:22 am • linkreport

yet old urban development is able make-do without the massive, facade destroying loading dock. It just means that deliveries need to better coordinate their shipments so the street frontage isn't jammed with the tractor-trailer during peak business hours.

The key point is that old urban development pre-dates the use of 18-wheeler trucks for local deliveries.

And yes, the loading dock requirements for many buildings are over the top - but for a supermarket? Safeway won't be switching to smaller trucks just for one store.

I can understand the concerns about the building turning its back on the park, but you don't want it to turn its back on Georgia Ave and the Metro station, either. Reedie has significant grades making loading/parking access a challenge; and the fourth side is up against the property line for adjancent lots.

by Alex B. on Dec 4, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

Alex B. Wrote, "And yes, the loading dock requirements for many buildings are over the top - but for a supermarket? Safeway won't be switching to smaller trucks just for one store."

Understood.

Since the suburban design standard is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to drive the urban design standard, the ultimate challenge would be to better incorporate those loading docks into the design of a facade. Perhaps hide them behind false, retractable fronts that mimic the shop fronts along that same facade and restrict the hours of deliveries. Innovation like this would undoubtably come with a higher development cost, but would certainly bring more revenue to the property, be asthetically pleasing and not destroy an entire face due to a single pimple.

by Tom B. on Dec 4, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

One way to handle these loading docks is to make an internal street to a building. Meaning there's one entry point and exit to the building foot print where by the loading can take place inside. And delivery timing is exactly how many larger urban stores are handled. If there's money to be made in a market, things like loading are just problems waiting for good solutions, but if the municipality dosen't push for good place making regulations like Portland, we won't see innovation in design.

by Thayer-D on Dec 5, 2013 6:11 am • linkreport

Though this column is about the new Safeway building, as a Wheaton resident who uses the Metro kiss and ride area frequently (we live a mile from the station and pick up guests there often), I'd love a GGW article about how the decision to put a median on Reedie Ave in the Safeway / Kiss and Ride block was made. It narrowed the street to one lane east bound, meaning that when a bus is at the bus stop, traffic backs up into Georgia Avenue. This happens many times a day. Surely MoCo's transportation planners did field studies here, right? Right. Looked good on paper, eh?

by notjustmary on Dec 7, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

@Dan: Thank you for the post on the Exchange.

It was interesting to read the post and all the comments, since I was the transportation planner at the Commission who reviewed the application and to some extent responsible for the good and bad that came with this building considering transportation planning and accessibility factors. I was the reviewer for Solaire as well, on the corner of Georgia and Veirs Mill. I would note that I no longer work at the Commission.

I need to get out to Wheaton and take a look at the final product before I provide more complete comments as response. But I would like to note that this was a very complicated project for several reasons - the site grade (I think the grade difference was about 30 feet or more between Georgia Ave and the Fern St/Reedie Dr corner), Safeway's need to provide the store on one level, frontage on three public street and one a major highway, County's loading dock requirements (commercial + residential), the need to separate access as well as parking for residents and shoppers, respecting Reedie Drive functionality, utility lines along Reedie Drive, overall traffic circulation, wide sidewalk (actually a master-planned bikeway) along Reedie Drive, bus accommodation along Reedie Drive, and the list goes on. The effort to get to a compromise design was not at all easy - I think staff at Park and Planning and the development team worked very hard to get to the best functional design they could.

Regarding comments on parking, setting aside the onerous parking requirements, the developer could have provided zero parking on-site by paying into the Wheaton Parking Lot District, but then I guess it just made sense from an use standpoint (and possibly from design and financial standpoint as well) to leave the parking that is there today in the new building.

There was a lot of effort from Planning staff to activate Reedie Dr; but then, the design just couldn't be worked out with the internal parking garage circulation (in fact, an initial version of the design had the Safeway parking garage exit out to Reedie Drive!), loading areas, loading access, etc. The pedestrian entrance off Reedie Drive was the best compromise in terms of activating the Reedie side. Parks staff was not happy with the loading and Safeway garage entrance off Fern across from Veterans Park, but then, the compromise design had to put these along Fern. The developer tried their best by design to minimize the visual impact.

The developer also paid (as mitigation to traffic impacts) for the complete redesign/rebuild of Reedie Dr between Georgia Ave and Fern St (I need to see how this has worked out). There was a lot of coordination with MCDOT and SHA on this and the street was finally designed with pedestrians in mind, prioritizing their safety. Sorry to hear about the backup on Georgia when a bus stops on Reedie; but my recollection is that the bus stop was to be further away from Georgia at Fern St (to the east of the kiss-and-ride access) and vehicles could bypass the stopped buses at Fern.

I am not trying to minimize the few negatives associated with this building, but we need to take the many positives and apply it elsewhere.

by CE on Dec 19, 2013 12:46 am • linkreport

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