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Public Spaces

Wheaton town square will stay public, emulate Bethesda

A parking lot in downtown Wheaton will soon be transformed into a town square. Not only will it make the area more walkable and vibrant, but Montgomery County officials say it will belong to the public and emulate many elements of the successful Bethesda Row.

Parking Lot 13 in Wheaton. Photo by the author.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about concerns that the new square on what's now Parking Lot 13 would not be owned by Montgomery County, which raises some serious issues about the public's right to public space.

In contrast, Montgomery County leased downtown Silver Spring's Ellsworth Drive to a private developer. After private guards hassled photographers taking pictures on Ellsworth, County Executive Ike Leggett clarified that it is a "public forum" allowing free expression and photography.

I reached out to my former employer, Councilmember George Leventhal, who in turn asked David Dise, director of the county's Department of General Services. Dise is responsible for managing property within the county, from new libraries to public open spaces like Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. He sent this response:

There are no plans for private ownership of the Wheaton town square similar to that in Silver Spring. Plans will include active public space including a Bethesda Row type setting as well as lawn and plaza space. The intent is to plan for continued use of this area for highly successful events like Taste of Wheaton but also permit more programming as this becomes a more planned and versatile space.
Though the county has given local developer B.F. Saul the rights to redevelop much of downtown Wheaton, it's a relief to know that they will own and maintain the area's most significant public space.

Elm Street in Bethesda Row. Photo by the author.
Nonetheless, those who fear that revitalization will threaten Wheaton's character might jump at seeing a county official say they want to create a "Bethesda Row type setting" there.

Does that mean East County will get its very first Apple Store? Probably not. It's more likely that Dise is interested in the urbanism of Bethesda Row: buildings close to the street, wide sidewalks with benches and dining tables, lots of activity throughout the day, and a mix of homes, offices and shops. That's a precedent worth repeating in Wheaton.

Ten years of discussion on revitalizing Wheaton has revealed a consensus for building up in the downtown while making the area more attractive. Residents are unhappy with the quality of recent development in the town center, but equally nervous about what redevelopment has done to Silver Spring or Bethesda.

By ensuring that Wheaton's town square is a public space, it appears that Montgomery County officials are listening to what the community wants. But it won't be until B.F. Saul presents their plans for the area that we know we've avoided past mistakes.

Between Silver Spring's Veterans Plaza, and a new square for Wheaton, you wonder if people in Bethesda are green with envy. After all, the closest thing they have to a town square is the fountain outside Barnes & Noble.

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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Great news! I'm glad the county is moving in the direction of public ownership of public spaces. The Ellsworth Affair was a good case study.

by Eric Fidler on Mar 30, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

Glad to hear the county isn't planning on handing over the public space! Thanks for doing the leg work and getting them on the record Dan!

B.F. Saul's PR reps put up this new "Town Square" tab on their website. Like all good PR it's pretty good at saying almost nothing about the subject. It does look like they're anticipating a dispute over how much of Lot 13 is used for the public square - they link to a PDF overlaying the proposed space on other public spaces in the area and the world. You know, in case you're wondering how the new Wheaton will compare to the Piazza Della Rotunda in Rome.

But seriously, I'm glad that B.F. Saul seems to be honestly involving the community. Here, in another PDF, is a digital rendering of how Taste of Wheaton would fit into the new space.

by Dave in Wheaton on Mar 30, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

Can't wait to see the plans. Honestly, I can't imagine Wheaton being able to overcome its massive suburban mall, cheap strip malls, and the massive gash that is Georgia Ave., but steps like this at least begin to bring pockets of 21st century urbanism to the area.

by jag on Mar 30, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Bethesda has more than just the Fountain outside of Barnes and Noble. There is the Veteran's Park triangle area near the Tastee Diner, Starbucks and Burger Joint.

by Anon on Mar 30, 2011 8:50 pm • linkreport

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