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Town square could wake up Wheaton's sleepy downtown

Wheaton could get a new town square with an amphitheatre, performance space, and a dramatic ramp connecting it to the Metro station. It's part of Montgomery County's latest plan to revitalize Wheaton's struggling downtown, which officials released earlier this month.


This could be Wheaton's new town square. All images from the Montgomery County Department of General Services unless noted.

Representatives from the county and developers StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto presented the new design December 11 in a public meeting at Wheaton High School. Montgomery picked them in September to build a square and a government office building on the site of a parking lot and the Mid-County Regional Services Center, a sort of "town hall" for Wheaton and surrounding areas, both located on Reedie Drive near Georgia Avenue.

It's hard to create an exciting urban place around an office building, since there isn't a lot of activity after the workers go home. Residents were skeptical of an earlier design for this project in September, but many of the changes the architects made in response will help make the streets and square livelier.

Square connects downtown to the Metro

International design firm Gensler and local landscape architects Oculus designed the square, which is three-fourths of an acre in size. It straddles Reedie Drive, which today has three lanes, but would be rebuilt as a two- or even one-lane street with wider sidewalks and street trees. A special paving pattern would tie the two sides of the square together, and the street could be closed for events.


Site plan showing the square (left), government building (middle) and apartments (right).

On the south side, there would be a space for performances. Next to it, a WMATA-owned grassy lawn at the corner of Georgia and Reedie would become a stepped amphitheatre. WMATA has told the county they're open to this, said Ana van Balen, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.

On the north side would be outdoor seating and dining areas, as well as a fountain or public art. A steel structure dubbed an "armature" would wrap around the square, forming the performance stage and containing a ramp that would descend from the square down to the Metro bus bays and station entrance. Banners, lights, and other decorations could hang from it, allowing it to change in appearance over time.

Designers add ground-floor retail space

Lot 13, which fills an entire block at Reedie and Grandview, would give way to a 12-story building housing Park and Planning, a new Regional Services Center, and offices for other county agencies. Behind it would be a high-rise apartment building, which would be built later. An underground parking garage would fill the block below them.

Originally, the architects placed the Park and Planning auditorium on the ground floor facing the plaza, but it's since been moved upstairs. Now, both buildings have ground-floor shops and restaurants along the length of the square, Triangle Lane, and most of Grandview Avenue. The auditorium still faces the square, meaning people will get to see what's going on in there, but the retail will help make the square more active.

"We don't want this to be a space that empties out after 5pm," said Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the county's Department of Transportation, which owns the parking lot.


Left: Residents felt the Park & Planning headquarters design looked like a "downtown DC office building." Right: The new design.

The building's glassy fašade, which neighbors said looked like a "downtown DC office building," was swapped out for one with a mix of glass, aluminum, and earth-toned fiber cement panels. The architects passed around samples of the panels, which will "break up the fašade and make it more interesting and animated," reflecting a "bolder expression of Wheaton's character." The building will also have several environmentally-friendly features, including a green roof and treating grey water and storm water on site, making it eligible for LEED Gold certification.


Rendering of the "jewel box" and retail along Triangle Lane.

They also closed off an alley between Triangle and Grandview, which would have extended the pedestrian passage between Georgia and Triangle. The passage will end at a "glass jewel box"-looking structure containing the entrance to a parking garage. Doug Firstenberg from StonebridgeCarras said it would bring more people, whether coming by foot or car, to Triangle Lane, where most of the new retail will go.

30 years since talk about Wheaton's future started

The team hopes to finish the final design next year, start construction in 2016, and open in 2018. By then, it will have been almost 30 years since Montgomery County began talking about how to revitalize downtown Wheaton in 1989. A deal with developer BF Saul to build a much larger project fell through last year after the County Council balked at the cost.

Not surprisingly, residents are disappointed, and wanted to see more from the new plans. "I like the building about the same as the old one," said neighbor Randall Spadoni, who lamented that the connections to Wheaton Plaza across Veirs Mill Road were "awkward."

Resident Danila Sheveiko wanted more green space. More than a few people compared the new building unfavorably to the newly-opened Exchange tower, which one man called "one of the worst buildings in Wheaton."

There aren't many places in the DC area where people are as hungry and eager for new investment as in Wheaton. Some residents may be underwhelmed by the county's new, smaller proposal. But with an iconic town square and a building that helps activate the street, this design has the right pieces to spark a larger revival.

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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The rendering for the town square looks great, but I am worried that it is somewhat misleading. The green area in the left of the image is currently the WMATA bus dropoff area - unlikely to be filled with grass and trees anytime soon. Also, the area in the right foreground of the rendering doesn't jive with the site plan. It still shows Reedie having three lanes, but somehow there is magically enough room for a wider sidewalk and two planting strips outside the Dunkin Donuts parking lot.

Anyway, as a new Wheaton homeowner I am obviously hugely supportive of the county's redevelopment efforts. I just don't want to be shown pretty renderings that aren't possible in real life. Also, if they really want this to be an area that doesn't empty out after 5 pm, the county needs to work with (and by "work with," I mean "force") the Maryland SHA to make Georgia, University, and Veirs Mill more pedestrian friendly so that local residents actually WANT to walk here and hang out. Speed limits along those routes are way too high for an urban environment, and there aren't enough signaled pedestrian crossings. (Rant over!)

by Rebecca on Dec 24, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

This bucolic paradise only works because it omits people getting run over trying to cross University or Georgia Ave.

by SJE on Dec 24, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

@Rebecca

As an architect by training, I know a good rendering can make people excited about the possibilities of a project, but it can also look very "final," suggesting that details have been worked out when, in fact, they haven't. That said, what the rendering proposes isn't too far off from reality.

If you look at an aerial of the site, you'll see there is some green space in the Metro bus bays right now (the island in the middle is a lawn), though the sidewalk leading to the Metro entrance itself is shown as a green area.

As for Reedie Drive, the section west of Triangle Lane has two through lanes and two parking lanes (they aren't completely used for parking, but the space is there). There's room to narrow that and leave two lanes (or one, that hasn't been decided yet). And at Georgia, where there are two through lanes and a turn lane, it's got the parking lot and WMATA lawn on either side, so you could widen the sidewalks. That might require some property taking (for Dunkin Donuts at least), but it's not impossible.

by dan reed! on Dec 24, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

SJE is right - the major problem downtown Wheaton has is the multiple 8-10 lane highways gashing through it. Downtown Silver Spring has a similar problem, but not to the same extent. Wheaton will be stuck in the 20th century so long as the state refuses to look at roads with a 21st century perspective.

by jag on Dec 24, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

Ain't nothing around it to make it a 'lively' square. An open bathtub does not a downtown make.

by Arch on Dec 24, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

The design looks exciting, but in terms of shrinking the travel lanes of Reedie Dr, I hope WMATA and Ride-On are involved in routing issues. As a planner and frequent user of the kiss and ride entrance to the Metro station, accessed from Reedie just east of Georgia Ave, it is maddening to experience the traffic impact of the planted median on Reedie that reduced east bound to one lane. When a bus is at the multi-route bus stop, all east bound traffic is blocked, sometimes backing up into Georgia. Unless bus routes are going to be moved, Reedie needs to be at least two lanes east bound.

by notjustmary on Dec 24, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

They should make the Public Parking Lot 13 the town square and put mixed-use buildings around it between Triangle Lane and Georgia Avenue; Grandview Avenue and Viers Mill Road; and Triangle Lane and Ennalls Avenue. The area right by Reedie Avenue is too small and awkward and Lot 13 is too small to shoehorn a building in. It's the perfect size for an Italian-style piazza, though. It could be surrounded by bollards to keep cars out of the central part. I also don't see why they can't encourage businesses in the existing buildings around Lot 13 that better serve commuters, like cafe's groceries, dry cleaners, etc. If anything, there needs to be better pedestrian circulation between the station and Lot 13.

by Steve on Dec 24, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

I don't know where there are "multiple 8-10 lane highways" in Wheaton. Although it probably seems that way if you're trying to cross one of the three 6-lane highways on foot.

by Frank IBC on Dec 24, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

One improvement they could make along Triangle Lane is replace the parking right in front of the stores with a pedestrian area. If the merchants insist they can't lose the parking, parallel parking could be allowed on the other side of Triangle Lane. Rather than have a sidewalk by the stores, they could create an informal European-style pedestrian area with bollards. Blurring the line between vehicle and pedestrian areas like on Ellsworth Avenue in Silver Spring would slow the traffic down and allow for shared space.

by Steve on Dec 24, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

Frank, you're not considering the additional turn lanes you find in the "downtown" area, specifically.

by jag on Dec 24, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport

These planners need to consult Brookland residents to find out what makes their Historic Green such a lively center of neighborhood activity, and work hard to emulate that.

by Gray on Dec 24, 2013 7:07 pm • linkreport

I agree with Arch. The proposed town square here is surrounded by Reedie Drive, bus bays, Georgia Avenue, and the side of a retail building. It is hard to imagine people using this space. The planners are underestimating how much traffic is on Reedie Drive and it will be dangerous for pedestrians.

If Park and Planning insists on being on Lot 13, maybe they could make the residential building a skyscraper on the site of the Mid County Services building south of Reedie and move P&P to the north side of Lot 13 where the residential building is currently planned.

Then the town square would all be on the north side of Reedie and be more safe and attractive. Councilmember Hans Riemer in his blog at http://www.councilmemberriemer.org/2012/03/what-does-wheaton-needque-necesita.html envisioned the Wheaton town square as an East Coast version of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens. That will be more achievable if the town square isn't bisected by Reedie Drive.

by Mike Smith on Dec 26, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

For me, nothing says town square like a clock tower...

by Richard on Dec 26, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

Rebecca, I agree the image is misleading.
This has been the "town square" of Wheaton for 30 years - yes, it wasn't particularly green, but events happen in that entire parking lot. Now they make it a County Government office park - the County Gov. refused to consider more County-friendly locations, just "lets kill these local businesses - let's take that one".
I was wondering why when the green space's purpose was supposedly to let people still enjoy a future town center a visually blocking walkway was placed almost in it's middle. Your answer makes sense- because there is no green space actually planned on the left.
It's too late, but I think when the art is unrealistic and misleading, the project should be reconsidered until the truth is given. And those responsible for trying to be "tricky" should probably not get further projects green-lit.

by asffa on Dec 27, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

Wait, did someone actually plan an accident-space/congestion-causer er. "traffic circle" in the new plans?
And this got approval?!

by asffa on Dec 27, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

Mike Smith thank you for the link
I appreciate Hans Reimer's saying this "Wheaton certainly needs new office workers to support the businesses, and the county needs to relocate agencies in order to reduce leasing costs. Fortunately, there are many places in Wheaton to locate new office buildings. We could even build a tall tower where the Mid-County Regional center is today."
Thank you Hans Reimer - who may be a minority voice about this, but IMHO the right one. Thank you

by asffa on Dec 27, 2013 12:47 pm • linkreport

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