Posts about Wheaton
Montgomery County has lots of empty parking garage roofs with great views, but they're closed to the public. We could take advantage of this wasted space by turning them into event spaces.
Last week, a map of rooftop bars in DC made by Petworth resident Tom Allison circulated on social media. Produced with the help of contributors on Reddit, the map shows several lofty watering holes in the District and Arlington, but just one in Montgomery County, at the Doubletree Hotel in Bethesda.
There have been some rooftop parties in the county, like Sky At Five in Rockville Town Square and one hosted by the apartment building formerly known as Georgian Towers with a model-turned-sushi bar. But how can we do more? On Twitter, reader Joshua Gorman joked about having a speakeasy on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring.
It sounds far out, but it might actually work. Montgomery County is blessed with a number of above-ground public parking garages in the downtowns of Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton. Their rooftop levels have great views, but outside of a few events each year, most of them are empty.
Our parking garages may not be as pretty as the Herzog and de Meuron-designed garage in Miami Beach which doubles as an event space. But since many of our garages are intended for commuters, they're usually next to Metro stations or bus stops, meaning you don't have to drink and drive.
People and cars are forbidden from using the top floors of many public garages in Montgomery County.
Unfortunately, most parking garage roofs in Montgomery County are blocked off with chains when they're not being used for parking. County police threaten to arrest anyone who tries to go up there.
In 2011, photographer Chip Py attempted to do a photo shoot of a popular go-go band atop a parking garage in downtown Wheaton. He'd been detained by police for taking pictures there before, so he decided to contact the Department of Transportation, which manages the garages.
"It was 13 people, lights and everything. And I didn't want to risk going in there and getting it shut down," Py said. But officials from the county said he'd get arrested for trespassing. "You can't do anything in there except park a car," he remembers being told.
Of course, people go anyway. One Saturday afternoon last year, I decided to visit the top floor of every parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. As with any forbidden-but-accessible place in the urban realm, I also found teenagers. On one garage roof, I walked into a stairwell to leave and stumbled on two kids sketching and listening to music on a little boombox. The smell of pot wafted through the air. I wanted to ask, "Why are you here?" but before I could, they freaked out and packed up.
To me at least, the answer is obvious. I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Town Square Garage on Ellsworth Drive with my friends from high school before it opened in 2004. There's the thrill of breaking the rules, yeah, but there's also the great view and the feeling like you're in the middle of everything and completely alone at the same time.
That's not too different from being in a great urban park or plaza. Public parking garages belong to the public, and we should think about them as part of the public realm. In other words, Montgomery County should take advantage of all this empty space they have, especially since it's not being used for parking. Of course, not all parking garages are engineered to actually hold people, like this one in Phoenix that violently shook when Arizona State University students held a dance party on top. We'd have to make sure that our garages were up to the task.
In recent months, there's been a lot of talk about growing the county's nightlife scene. However, it's primarily been about street-level drinking, or in the case of the Quarry House Tavern in downtown Silver Spring, subterranean drinking.
Not only would rooftop events on parking garages be a good use of wasted space, but they might be unusual enough to draw people here for a night out. The DC area may have a lot of rooftop bars, but definitely not one like this.
For more examples, check out this photoset of views from parking garages in downtown Silver Spring.
After the Montgomery County Council passed a law that was intended to prevent Costco from opening a mega gas station adjacent to its new Wheaton store, the Planning Board recommended against the gas station.
The next step is a set of 6 hearings before the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.
In a comments on Wheaton Patch, "ED" says:
I'm happy the hearings are postponed until after the [April 10] Costco opening. I think the residents of Wheaton will be up for a rude awakening when they see the traffic for Costco.
If the Costco will bring in 4,000-5,000 customers per day (per Westfield's estimates a couple of years ago), how many more cars will they bring in if a mega-gas station is offered? I can only hope that someone has a camera when Costco opens and takes the pictures to the hearings.
Just as I previously wrote about the topic, a mega-sized Costco gas station is incompatible with the Wheaton Sector Plan, passed January 2012, that calls for a more walkable urban Wheaton. There are few uses that would impede Wheaton's revitalization and redevelopment than a mega-sized Costco gas station.
Such a use would require extra road infrastructure that would create an unwalkable dead zone. A lot of land that would be better used for more walkable urban formatted amenities would be taken up with bigger multi-lane access roads that will have idling cars lined up at all hours of the day.
The Montgomery County DOT will be especially reluctant to design any roads for pedestrians instead of cars with massive numbers of vehicles constantly traveling to and from the gas station.
Here is an aerial view of a the Woodmore Costco store that has a gas station:
The Costco store in Gaithersburg does not have a gas station:
Finally, here is the Wheaton site. The Costco is scheduled to open April 10:
The Wheaton site is wholly unlike the Woodmore site, which is extremely car-oriented, and has no Metro station or legacy street grid. It is also much more urban and pedestrian-oriented than the Gaithersburg site. The Wheaton site is comparable to the Pentagon City Costco. Just like in Gaithersburg, that store has no gas pumps.
Costco is a nationally successful business that will clearly make a healthy profit at the Wheaton store. I don't think anyone would dispute that the store will be packed from the day it opens. Costco clearly does good business in neighboring Gaithersburg and Arlington without gas pumps.
The next round of hearings is part of the process for special zoning text amendments. The hearings have been rescheduled for April 26, May 1, May 6, May 14, May 17, May 20, May 23 and June 4. All hearings will be at 9:30 am in the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building, Second Floor Davidson Memorial Hearing Room, at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
After years of fighting between residents, a developer, and Montgomery College, Montgomery County's parks department will will turn an abandoned art school in Wheaton into a park. While it's good for neighbors who didn't want houses built there instead, it shows how indifferent the county can be to its own goals for walkable communities, providing more housing, and land preservation.
Montgomery Parks recently acquired the former Maryland College of Art and Design at Georgia Avenue and Evans Drive in Carroll Knolls, a community of modest post-war homes less than a mile from the Wheaton and Forest Glen Metro stations.
They bought the 2.47-acre property for $1.14 million, well below its original asking price of $2 million, with plans to demolish the building and add 1.2 acres the county already owns to form the future Carroll Knolls Local Park, a construction date for which hasn't been set.
Neighbors acknowledge that the area already has a number of parks, but argue that they're either too far or require crossing busy Georgia Avenue. "We are relieved that we will not have to cross Georgia Avenue, a six-lane state highway, without a pedestrian bridge, a crosswalk, nor an intersection light to access nearby parkland," said Beverly Sobel, head of community group Green Space on Georgia, in a press release from Montgomery Parks.
It's "not realistic for parents to ask their kids to cross Georgia Avenue to go to a park," said County Councilmember Marc Elrich at a community meeting in 2009.
Montgomery Parks staff agreed, calling Georgia Avenue a "de facto river of traffic that blocks pedestrian access" in their recommendations to turn the MCAD site into a park. They drew a map of the area with 1/4-mile circles around each park to show what was within a short walk, but cut them off at Georgia Avenue, rendering Carroll Knolls parkless.
However, one could argue that this conclusion was premature. There are already stoplights and crosswalks a block north and two blocks south of Evans Parkway Park. Making those crossings safer, expanding the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue, and building new sidewalks on the side streets could have provided a nicer and safer not only to the park, but to other amenities in the area.
So why didn't neighbors push for those improvements instead? Green Space on Georgia's homepage makes it clear: "Our current efforts are in opposition to the proposed development of townhouses on the current site of The School of Art + Design at Montgomery College."
After absorbing MCAD in 2005, Montgomery College gave the property to the Montgomery College Foundation, which raises money for the school. In 2007, they had a contract to sell it to developer Kaz Brothers, who successfully petitioned the County Council to rezone the property to allow townhouses.
Residents balked, arguing that townhouses violated Carroll Knolls' 1948 covenants, which allowed only single-family homes in the neighborhood. They formed Green Space on Georgia and applied to have the property become a park through Legacy Open Space, a county program that preserves places with historic, cultural and natural significance. The Planning Board rejected it, saying that the cost would be too high.
Kaz Development sued the neighbors, arguing that the now-derelict school already invalidated the covenant; though the Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled in their favor, the neighbors appealed and the decision was reversed in the Maryland Court of Appeals. A second application to Legacy Open Space was approved last year.
The creation of Carroll Knolls Park is a triumph of grassroots campaigning, but it contradicts many of Montgomery County's stated goals and policies. The county wants to promote walking in and around downtown Wheaton but missed an opportunity make it easier to cross its main street. County Executive Ike Leggett talks about facing "unprecedented budget challenges," but nixed an opportunity for needed tax revenue.
Montgomery Parks' strategic vision for the county's park system calls for prioritizing existing facilities, but spent millions of dollars to build a new park across from a park they're already expanding. The county placed a third of its land in an Agricultural Reserve, but creates more pressure to develop it by not building in the rest of the county.
And Carroll Knolls isn't the only neighborhood doing this. White Oak residents opposed to an affordable housing development asked the county to create a nature preserve instead. In South Silver Spring, neighbors who don't want their views blocked by a proposed apartment building are calling for a park as well. And residents in East Silver Spring are preemptively fighting the redevelopment of the old police station, saying it should become a community garden and arts center.
That's not to say that parks aren't necessary, or that the best solution for every vacant lot is private development. But Montgomery County is faced with a significant housing shortage, with a need for as many as 108,000 new homes in the next 20 years. We simply can't afford to turn every unwanted development site, especially those in close-in communities, into a park.
The Montgomery County Council passed a law specifically to stop Costco from building a large gas station adjacent to a residential neighborhood in Wheaton. Now, Costco has made another proposal that would simply move it 300 feet to the east.
A gas station is not appropriate for the future Costco site at Westfield Wheaton. Underground gas tanks have a tendency to leak, and the proposed site is adjacent to people swimming at the Kenmont Swim and Tennis Club.
A gas station also contributes to making Wheaton more car-oriented and less walkable, moving it in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.
The recently approved Wheaton Sector Plan includes provisions to make Wheaton more walkable. As the surrounding area becomes more vibrant and economically successful, the large Westfield parking lots represent ideal opportunities for urban-formatted housing and amenities right near the Wheaton Metro.
But a new, jumbo-sized Costco gas station would create a large, unwalkable dead zone, add pollution, and bring constant traffic jams, all making redevelopment much more difficult. The Montgomery County DOT will be especially reluctant to design any roads for pedestrians instead of cars with massive numbers of vehicles constantly traveling to and from the gas station.
When the County Council rejected the previous gas station proposal, it passed a bill that bans large gas stations from being within 300 feet of schools or recreation centers. The original bill prohibited gas stations within 1,000 feet of schools or recreation centers, which originally seemed to have the votes to pass until intense lobbying from Costco changed several councilmembers' minds.
Costco's new gas station location proposal is 300 feet to the east of the rejected site.
Top: 2010 proposed Costco gas station location. Bottom: 2012 proposed Costco gas station location. Note that the new location is just to the east of the line that delineates 300 feet to the swimming pool. Diagrams are based on documents from the Kensington Heights Civic Association.
Altering a bad proposal so its location is a few feet to the east doesn't change that it's a bad idea. Costco has also already said that they will open the Wheaton location with or without the large gas station. Montgomery County has already given a $4 million subsidy to Costco. They should respect the spirit of the County Council's decision and drop the gas station rather than cynically trying to exploit a loophole.
With its distinctive sign, the Glenmont Arcade was a local landmark and an emblem of Montgomery County's suburbanization after World War II. But as the county prepares to redevelop Glenmont, will it still have a place in the community?
Located in the Glenmont Shopping Center at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, the Glenmont Arcade is like a little mall-within-a-strip mall. The arcade was built in 1952 by the Glenmont Land and Development Company, which built many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. It was the first part of the Glenmont Shopping Center, which was completed in little pieces over the following decade.
The arcade consists of a short, enclosed hallway lined with shops that ends at the entrance of a bowling alley, a beloved local institution that closed in 2002. Unlike a mall or other arcades where the shops are placed in a straight line, each of the shopfronts are angled towards the parking lot, so you can see what's inside without actually having to go inside. According to this 2001 study of the site's history, the arcade originally contained 11 "one-person businesses" in small shops.
Though I've lived in Montgomery County most of my life, I'd never actually been to the Glenmont Arcade before last weekend, when I talked to Scott Whipple, a historic preservation planner at the county's Planning Department, at their open house. He's particularly interested in commercial areas from the mid-20th century, like the Flower Shopping Center in Long Branch, which is currently being studied for preservation.
"It's not often that we get to do something like that," he said. There aren't many remaining examples of architecture from the 1950's and 60's; many buildings have either been torn down, remodeled beyond recognition, or under constant threat from the wrecking ball. One of them is the Glenmont Arcade, which could be demolished under a new plan the county's working on.
Unassuming as it may seem, the Glenmont Arcade comes from a long line of shopping arcades, which first originated in Paris over two hundred years ago before coming to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They first appeared here in 1925, when the Chevy Chase Arcade was built on Connecticut Avenue in the District. Arcades also served as the inspiration for modern shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza, which was built 7 years after the Glenmont Arcade, and other strip malls around the country.
Stepping inside the arcade feels kind of like a time capsule. There are linoleum floors, bright-white and shiny, though they replaced the original terrazzo floors. Fluorescent lights reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria hum quietly. There's an old address sign (for "12345 Georgia Avenue"), which appears to have been hand-painted and a barber pole rotating slowly outside the barbershop that's been there since the arcade opened.
Nonetheless, the space has seen better days. The bowling alley was eventually replaced by a church, which papered over their entrance; all of the shops on the left-hand side were combined into one restaurant, which also papered over their windows. And the two storefronts at the very back, which were probably the most sought-after spaces when next to a busy movie theatre, are now both empty. There are no people in the arcade, save for four teenagers hanging out and smoking, and the occasional customer walking from a check-cashing place out to the parking lot.
Outside, I try to take a photo lining up the Glenmont Arcade sign with the water tower a few blocks away, when I'm approached by a guy wearing oval-rimmed glasses and three coats. He asked what I was doing. "I like the sign," I replied.
"Yeah, it's a nice sign," he said. "It's a shame what happened to the Arcade," he adds, voice trailing off as he shuffles away.
The Planning Department is currently working on the Glenmont Sector Plan, which will chart a course for turning Glenmont's business district around. However, the Planning Board chose not to study the Glenmont Arcade for its historical merit. Since the Glenmont Shopping Center was built in several pieces, it's broken up into 15 different lots and has 13 different owners. That will make both redeveloping the shopping center hard, but preserving any part of it even harder.
The arcade itself has just one owner, Greenhill Capital, a Bethesda-based company that owns a third of downtown Wheaton. There are no current plans for redeveloping the Glenmont Shopping Center, though Greenhill may be sympathetic to calls for preserving all or part of the arcade. Company head Lenny Greenberg, who I interviewed earlier this year, has stressed the importance of preserving Wheaton's local culture. When he redeveloped the Anchor Inn, a once-popular restaurant there, he chose to save the 1950's-era sign.
Whipple told me that there's "nothing like" the Glenmont Arcade in Montgomery County, and he's right. As he wrote in a recent blog post, it's better to "reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash." Do we have to throw the Glenmont Arcade in the trash to improve this community? We won't know unless we give this building a fair shake and consider it for historic preservation.
Check out this slideshow of the Glenmont Arcade then and now.
Unhappy with getting a smaller slice of downtown Wheaton than they originally hoped for, developer BF Saul has pulled out of Montgomery County's redevelopment scheme for the area. Residents impatient for new investment will be frustrated, but Wheaton's revival is already underway, and it'll continue with or without BF Saul.
Two years ago, County Executive Ike Leggett made an agreement with the Bethesda-based firm to redevelop several county-owned parcels in Wheaton's languishing downtown with apartments, shops, government offices and a hotel, along with a town square. The project would have over a million square feet of new development and be paid for with a mix of public and private funds.
Leggett and BF Saul hoped the project would give Wheaton a shot in the arm, bolstering local businesses while attracting additional development to the area. Though the project had a lot of community support, the County Council balked at its size and cost.
Most controversial was the $39.5 million price of building a platform over the Wheaton Metro station so BF Saul could build offices and a hotel on top. Noting that this was probably the most valuable site in the downtown, council economic analyst Jacob Sesker wondered why county should pay for it instead of the developer.
"Unlike a school or a train, a platform does not teach any child to read and does not take anyone to work," Sesker wrote in this report.
As an alternative, the council suggested spending $55 million for BF Saul to build a new headquarters for the Park and Planning Commission, a new town square and an underground parking garage on Parking Lot 13, located at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue and considered to be the "heart" of downtown Wheaton. In April, they voted to approve a "compromise" proposal, which also included funds to study building over the Metro station in the future.
Not surprisingly, supporters of BF Saul's plan were upset. Blogger Wheaton Calling accused the council of "throwing a wrench" into the redevelopment process, while resident Henriot St. Gerard called the council's vote a "show of disrespect" to the community. It's likely that they're even more frustrated now that BF Saul walked away because they wanted a "larger parcel" for development.
However, the fact remains that Wheaton doesn't have a market for offices, at least not right now. Not only is Leggett and BF Saul's emphasis on office development risky, but premature. The downtowns of Silver Spring and Bethesda were retail destinations and population centers before they became office hubs, and it's safe to assume that Wheaton will follow suit.
Projects like the Exchange, a new building across from the Wheaton Metro station, are being built without public assistance.
Besides, it's not like Wheaton isn't already attracting private investment. It just happens to be housing and shops. There are several residential and retail projects being built in or near downtown Wheaton right now without public funds. And in nearby Glenmont, arguably a more troubled area than Wheaton, developer JBG plans to build a massive mixed-use development without any subsidies.
The Metro station is the most valuable site in downtown Wheaton and thus has the most potential for profit, but it's also the most complicated part of the entire redevelopment. We could use public funds to help BF Saul build unwanted office space there today. Or we can wait and instead focus on other, less complex development sites in downtown Wheaton, such as the county's five surface parking lots.
Through a mix of policy incentives and limited subsidies, we can encourage the development of other uses on those properties, like government offices, housing, shops and restaurants, and even entertainment venues, as has been proposed before. This will generate tax revenue and build up Wheaton's reputation while creating demand for office space. And eventually, Wheaton will become such a desirable area that developers will want to build on top of the Metro station without government help.
The loss of BF Saul is a blow to the revitalization of downtown Wheaton, but it says more about them than it does about Wheaton. Investment is happening here, and in the coming years, we'll see a flood of new residents and new businesses in the area. While Montgomery County can and should encourage more development here, they should be judicious about how and where public funds are used.
On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously turned down a plan by County Executive Ike Leggett to rebuild a portion of downtown Wheaton, favoring an alternate plan instead. Residents who supported Leggett's plan are frustrated at the defeat, but this wasn't the best path for redevelopment in Wheaton.
In recent months, Leggett and the council have disagreed on how to begin the redevelopment. Leggett proposed spending $42 million to build a new town square and a platform over the Wheaton Metro station for future development, while the County Council proposed spending $55 million to build the town square and offices for county agencies.
The council ended up voting for a a combination of both proposals, providing funds for a county office building and town square now and to study building the platform later.
The decision ends a long and often acrimonious debate over how to spark the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton. In February, Leggett's administration claimed that there wasn't enough money to pay for revitalization in Wheaton and a new Metro entrance in Bethesda, pitting supporters of both projects against each other.
When the council found funding for both projects, the conversation turned to the merits of Leggett's proposal. While County Council analyst Jacob Sesker wasn't opposed to building atop the Metro, he created the alternative proposals because he felt it wasn't feasible in the immediate future. Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton has expressed concerns about local businesses, calling for a more substantial town square or a community benefits agreement.
These questions led to accusations that the council was being meddlesome and was opposed to making Wheaton better. After the vote on Tuesday, resident Henriot St. Gerard wrote a scathing blog post on Wheaton Patch calling it a "show of disrespect" to the community.
I understand that people in Wheaton are impatient for change. I grew up in East County and started blogging six years ago because I wanted to see the kind of amenities that residents of Rockville or Bethesda enjoy right in my own backyard. But I too have had to grapple with a few uncomfortable truths:
Jobs are concentrated on the west side of the county and will remain there for a long time.
In 2010, there were 506,000 jobs in Montgomery County, 70% of which are located along the I-270 corridor. Bethesda alone has 87,000 jobs, more than Silver Spring, White Oak and Wheaton combined. Plans for additional employment growth in White Flint, the Great Seneca Science Corridor, and Germantown ensures that the west side will continue to remain the county's job center.
Companies located in East County aren't sticking around.
Last year, defense contractor BAE Systems moved a branch office from Aspen Hill to Rockville. The empty building added to an already high vacancy rate in the Kensington-Wheaton area, where nearly a quarter of all office space is empty, compared to just 11 percent countywide. Lee Development Group, which owns the building, will replace it with a Walmart because they concluded that the area was "a retail destination, not an office center."
Companies already located on the west side aren't interested in going east.
The county is planning to create a research and development center in East County called the White Oak Science Gateway around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus. Though the area enjoys the lowest office vacancy rate in the county, with just 6 percent of offices sitting empty, it's unclear who will fill them.
A recent report from planning consultants surveyed research and development firms located at the county's existing Life Sciences Center in Gaithersburg and found that wouldn't move to White Oak because they appreciate the proximity to other R&D firms along the I-270 corridor.
Officials are more concerned about keeping jobs in the county than where they specifically end up.
In addition to planning for future job growth on the west side, the county also gave subsidies to one company in exchange for moving there. Next year, Choice Hotels will move their headquarters from Silver Spring to Rockville with $4.3 million in loans and grants from the county, state and City of Rockville and additional tax credits.
Choice Hotels wanted to be closer to a Metro station, so having them move to Wheaton would've met both their needs and Leggett's goals. But after seeing firms like Hilton Hotels and Northrup Grumman pass up Montgomery County for Northern Virginia, county leaders were surely relieved that they decided to stay here at all.
Concept rendering of downtown Wheaton from a 2004 charrette.
Wheaton has many strengths: stable neighborhoods, diverse population, and a compact downtown well-served by both transit and major roads. But as a potential job center, it competes with larger and more established places like downtown Bethesda, the I-270 corridor, and others throughout Greater Washington. That's why earlier recommendations for redeveloping Wheaton, both from the public and planning experts, focused on housing, retail and entertainment in the short term, with offices coming later if demand warrants it.
Residents are both eager and worried that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into a place like Silver Spring or Bethesda, but we shouldn't be limited to those examples. Skeptics of Leggett's proposal don't lack faith in Wheaton's potential. They recognize that Wheaton's constraints and strengths, if properly harnessed, will let it grow into something else entirely.
Next Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council will choose a development proposal that it hopes will jump-start revitalization in downtown Wheaton.
Two competing proposals have emerged from County Executive Ike Leggett and the council for several publicly-owned properties in the area, both of which include significant office space. Leggett's proposal is larger and enjoys community support, but it may not make economic sense. The council's proposal is smaller, but takes a more deliberate approach to redevelopment.
While residents are impatient to see change in Wheaton, rushing into a redevelopment scheme that could harm existing businesses without quickly creating new value in is not in the community's best interest.
In 2010, Leggett made an agreement with developer BF Saul to redevelop several county-owned parcels in the center of downtown Wheaton. On Parking Lot 13, located at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, BF Saul would build a six-story, 250-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail and a new town square in a setup comparable to Bethesda Row.
The developer would also build a platform over the Wheaton Metro station's bus turnaround as the base for a hotel and three 14-story office buildings. With approximately 900,000 square feet, nine times the existing amount of Class A office space in downtown Wheaton, these buildings would bring about 3,600 workers to Wheaton's downtown every day.
Those offices would house the county's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), both currently located in Rockville, along with the Park and Planning Commission, currently in Silver Spring.
The county would also like to find a federal government tenant, though the rent cap on government offices will require them to subsidize rent, as they already do for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's headquarters in downtown Silver Spring.
Leggett wants to set aside $42 million for the project, which would only cover the cost of building the platform. It's unclear how much it would cost to build the rest or whether the county or BF Saul would pay for it. Nonetheless, the proposal has been endorsed by the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee and Mid-County Citizens Advisory Board, another developer working in Wheaton, and the Gazette.
Council plan similar, but priorities are different
Concerned about the size and cost of Leggett's proposal, the County Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee offered a counterproposal last month. In their proposal, estimated to cost $55 million,
BF Saul the county would build a new town square on Lot 13 with an underground parking garage, at a cost of $2.5 million and $5.6 million, respectively, along with a building for DEP and DPS for $46 million.
There's also room for the Park and Planning Commission if another $46 million is found to build another building. Both buildings would contain 415,000 square feet of office space and hold about 1,600 workers.
"It is misleading to say that $42 million will revitalize Wheaton," says Councilmember George Leventhal, who sits on the committee. (Full disclosure: I used to work for Leventhal.) "The only thing that $42 million buys now is a concrete hat over the bus bay, and if you want to relocate county agencies, the cost will go above $100 million."
Though local blogger Wheaton Calling accuses the council of "throwing a wrench" into the redevelopment process with their counterproposal, the benefits of Leggett's proposal remain unclear. The county's Department of Economic Development usually does a cost-benefit analysis of major public investments, like the $4 million big-box retailer Costco received to open a store in Wheaton Plaza, but they haven't done one for this project.
"The 'end' is not to build a platform, to execute a General Development Agreement, or to attract a federal tenant," writes Jacob Sesker, economic analyst for the County Council, in a report for the PHED committee. "Rather, the desired end is to introduce land uses (to wit, office space) . . . that downtown Wheaton currently lacks and which the market will not provide."
In a phone call, Sesker points out that in large-scale redevelopment projects, the best way to start is with the least challenging or expensive parts, like Lot 13. Those improvements will add value to the rest of the development, which makes the expensive parts more profitable to build later on, meaning BF Saul will require fewer subsidies.
The platform also has no direct benefit to the community by itself. "Unlike a school or a train, a platform does not teach any child to read and does not take anyone to work." Without those benefits, Sesker says, "If it is not generating revenue, then it probably is not a good investment."
"The County Council is the steward of public money," adds Leventhal. "If we're going to spend that money, it's reasonable to ask what this will do for taxpayers. We have to be very cautious about our decision, and we need much better analysis than what we've gotten."
Some still say offices just don't make sense in Wheaton. In 2009, a group of real estate and design experts commissioned by the Urban Land Institute to offer recommendations for redevelopment concluded that there is "no inherent reason" for offices to locate there:
The panel heard from a number of stakeholders that there is a desire for more office space in the CBD, in order to bring in greater daytime foot traffic . . . Wheaton is not well-positioned to attract development of, or users for, new large-scale office space. There are simply too many other office centers within the region that possess greater strengths, particularly in the near-term, where so much new office space has recently been built.Instead, the panel suggested building apartments and townhomes to draw young professionals being priced out of Silver Spring, as well as chain stores and restaurants to Wheaton Plaza to "anchor" the downtown, and developing a small music venue to take advantage of its proximity to the renowned Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center.
On Lot 13, the panel proposed a town square and a smaller "2-3 story building" with shops and apartments. Like Sesker, they recommend waiting to build over the bus turnaround, as that site is the "most valuable" in downtown Wheaton and has "the potential for the greatest density." This vision, particularly its focus on music and entertainment, fits in with earlier proposals for Wheaton that were well-received by the community.
No matter what the county does, they should heed the ULI panel's warning on any development in Wheaton: "Wheaton's strengths, such as its eclectic retail mix, are also quite fragile, and could be irreparably harmed by any redevelopment projects that are ill-conceived or rushed. Thus, the panel recommends a gradual approach to redevelopment," they write. "An attempt to force a desired result . . . would not only fail, but would also end up undermining the unique identity that Wheaton already possesses."
We've been waiting for a new Wheaton for twenty years, so it's understandable some are impatient. But rushing into any project without a thorough understanding of its potential costs and benefits could destroy what people already like about the old Wheaton while limiting its future potential.
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