I think there's always been some anxiety about plans to redevelop Downtown Wheaton. For those who have been working on it for, like, twenty years, it might be both a relief and a shock that "things" might actually "happen" soon. Ever since Barry's Magic Shop on Georgia Avenue was bulldozed to make room for a pedestrian walkway, fears that local businesses would get subsumed by redevelopment (as people complain has happened in Downtown Silver Spring, which I think is a falsehood) have only been amplified. Delegate Al Carr, who represents the area, even introduced a bill earlier this year to help preserve local businesses.
So far, at least, we've proved that you CAN have awesome local businesses like El Pollo Rico and DeJaBel Cafe alongside major chains, provided those chain stores are sequestered inside a mall. And if we agree that Wheaton is threatened by what some might call "gentrification," the goal should be finding was to recast the area. The money's coming, so how do you direct it? Towards becoming a standard "upscale shopping destination" or embracing the quirkiness that Wheaton allegedly possesses?
This is what marketers call "Branding," and it goes beyond Montgomery County's designation of Wheaton as an "Arts and Entertainment District." What can Wheaton offer that other places don't, and how can that be parlayed into different kinds of investment? And let's not be limited to the central business district but the surrounding neighborhoods as well. They are a package: together, they provide the widest variety of housing types and amenities (including schools and parks) while remaining under the difficult-to-define umbrella of "Wheaton."
1) 1950's suburban nostalgia. Wheaton was the epicenter of a post-war building boom that stretched from Langley Park to Rockville as builders put up thousands of tiny Colonials, ranchers and split-level houses. Built in 1959, Wheaton Plaza was one of the first shopping malls in the nation, let alone the region. This was the era when Montgomery County entered into its own as an affluent bedroom suburb for federal workers, and Wheaton is where it began.
What's the point? Sell the image that Wheaton was and is a family-friendly place to live with lots of built-in "amenities," including good schools, shopping, and easy access to roads and Metro. Throughout the 1990's, the Mantua neighborhood in Fairfax County ran ads pitching it as an closer-in alternative to newer planned communities. After all, why move to Clarksburg and wait for a grocery store to come when you've already got them here?
2) "Baby Boom Modernism." My architectural history professor, Isabelle Gournay, coined this term for stuff built during the Baby Boom (late 40's through the early 60's) that took inspiration from capital-M modernism at the time (think of Mies Van Der Rohe's MLK Library in the District, Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport, or Cesar Pelli's COMSAT building in Clarksburg). The Wheaton area is home to two of the region's most renowned modern neighborhoods, Rock Creek Woods and Hammond Wood, both designed by famous architect Charles Goodman.
What's the point? Both Rock Creek Woods and Hammond Wood are well-known for their architecture, so tap into the growing nostalgia and appreciation for mid-century modern commercial and institutional buildings through education and adaptive re-use. Good Counsel High School and its funky stained-glass windows have bit the dust, but its contemporaries (get it?) remain.
3) Super-multiculturalism. It was during the 50's and 60's that Wheaton became a haven for the Jewish middle class, which is giving way to immigrants from Latin America and everywhere else. The biggest result is food, and lots of it. Nowhere in Montgomery County - or hell, the entire region (save for Eden Center in Falls Church, which is about as close to Saigon as you can get without taking a plane) can you eat so well, from so many different countries, for so little.
What's the point? Market Wheaton as a unique dining destination. Mention the variety of food, publicize good reviews, make it clear the prices are Good Good Good. The Taste of Wheaton festival is a great thing to have.
4) The favored quarter. Wheaton is roughly in the middle of Montgomery County's developed area. Within a half-hour, you can go to the middle of D.C. or the middle of farm country. Rockville and the I-270 corridor are just as easy to reach from Silver Spring or Bethesda via Veirs Mill Road.
What's the point? Market Wheaton as a good place to put back-office stuff to attract employers. The eastern side of the county is hurting for jobs, but big companies may prefer to have their main office in more prestigious zip codes (cough cough Bethesda). But back-office positions (tech support, accountants, marketing . . . anything we haven't already outsourced) could find a good home in Wheaton. They don't require Class A office space which would be expensive to build anyway, but they still provide well-needed, high-paying jobs. And they help support local businesses that, due to perceptions of crime, can't rely on foot traffic after dark.
The issue (or perceived issue) of crime is one thing I haven't covered here. In fact, there are many, many concerns with revitalizing Wheaton that fall outside the purview of these four points I've mentioned. But I think they represent a good start. Wheaton's no Silver Spring or Bethesda, and it won't take long for anyone trying to make a buck here to figure that out. (Just ask Steven Karr, about the closest thing to a developer-veteran Wheaton's got.) And by focusing on what Wheaton can do - as opposed to what people say it can't or shouldn't do - we'll have a better plan for making it Montgomery County's next great place.