Wheaton Costco would exacerbate poor walkability
Montgomery County economic development officials want to spend $4 million to add a Costco to the Wheaton mall.
There are plenty of problems with this. For one, the County Executive is continuing their habit of making plans in secret and trying to lock them in before anyone can object. They briefed the Council in secret and are trying to get approval without a hearing.
The Executive is also proposing to spend a lot of money
to gain jobs of dubious value. There are already Costcos in Gaithersburg and Beltsville, and while one in eastern or central Montgomery County would be convenient for many residents, it's hard to see the importance of spending millions.
But most importantly, this project as designed will push Wheaton even farther from walkability. Right now, the existing mall is not designed for accessibility by pedestrians, and takes up substantial amounts of space near Metro for surface parking lots. Its home page doesn't even list public transportation under "how to get to Westfield Wheaton."
It's a long-term hurdle to making Wheaton into the kind of walkable, transit-oriented place planners and residents want. When, during Wheaton visioning discussions, residents have suggested redeveloping the mall, the response is that it's too expensive to use public money to incentivize Westfield to change things, and Westfield doesn't want to on their own. Now, suddenly, the County wants to use public money after all, but to pay the mall to move in the opposite direction.
The $4 million would go to preparing the site, such as regrading the parking area to the lower left that is on a slope to accommodate a gas station.
Adam Pagnucco writes,
Costco customers drive in, sometimes from areas many miles away, to buy in bulk and leave. They do not travel by Metro or bus. They require a giant parking lot. They do not walk from the Costco site to engage in nearby pedestrian activities. The Costco on Route 1 in Beltsville is a perfect example of the company's business model: a giant big-box on an auto-dominated strip. While one part of the county government is planning to make Wheaton a mixed-use, transit-oriented community, another part of the government is offering a subsidy for car-oriented sprawl. Does this make sense?Some local small businesses feel the Costco would drive them out of business. It's not even clear the Costco would benefit the mall itself. A mall's appeal is to bring together multiple stores so that shoppers need not drive long distances to many stores. Costco, on the other hand, is designed to serve virtually every need in one store. Not only would shoppers probably not walk from a Costco to a nearby coffee shop, library or park, but they probably wouldn't go to a nearby shoe store either.
Montgomery County spans 507 square miles, about 476 of which are not within a mile of a Metro station. If County officials want another Costco, how about picking a suitable commercial area in those 476? Such a site might also not require the extensive regrading that's causing Costco to ask for public money.
Update: Thanks to the many who participated and disagreed in the comments. The core issue is not really about whether a Costco would or would not make Wheaton better or drive other businesses out. There's definitely the question about whether the subsidy is wise, compared to the other ways Montgomery County could spend it. But most of all, it's about whether promoting another big box surrounded by acres of parking with a gas station gets Wheaton closer to the kind of place it should be.
If Costco wanted to build an urban-friendly store in a compact footprint, in a way that promotes some street-facing ground floor retail and facilitates developing the surrounding land as buildings rather than parking lots, then sure, though there would still be the debate over the subsidy. But the Executive doesn't seem to have a larger vision for the area, and designing a Costco this way will just make it harder to evolve Wheaton into a walkable place in the future.
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