Monday, December 14, 2009

four scenarios for revitalizing wheaton, from new paint to tabula rasa

part THREE in a series on the decades-long fight to revitalize Downtown Wheaton. check out part ONE | part TWO | and later part FOUR, in which I outline my vision for the Wheaton CBD.

new wheaton plaza entrance
2004 proposals for Wheaton included adding a new entrance to Wheaton Plaza connecting it to the rest of Downtown.

Eight years ago, Montgomery County brought in design consultants to hold a "Visual Preference Survey," examining what Wheaton residents would like to see in their community. In 2004, they followed up with a charrette, or design workshop, to turn those suggestions into a vision for the community. The county teamed up with the National Main Street Center, Baltimore-based architecture firm Allison Platt & Associates, and staff from the Planning Department to develop four concepts for how Wheaton's downtown could be redeveloped.

Like last summer's charrette in Burtonsville, the Wheaton charrette resulted in four scenarios - outlined in this PowerPoint presentation - for how the CBD could be improved. They ranged from making minor cosmetic changes to basically leveling the Downtown core and starting over again. Nonetheless, all four proposals had a few solutions in common, including:

- Turning all or part of Parking Lot 13, located at Grandview Avenue and Reedie Drive, into a public green.

- Streetscape improvements, especially along Georgia, Veirs Mill and University, including wider sidewalks, trees, and additional landscaping.

- Re-routing Ennalls Avenue between Grandview and Georgia to improve traffic circulation and create more regularly-shaped blocks for easier redevelopment.

- Visually and physically connecting "Wheaton Plaza" (the plan pre-dates the mall's purchase and renaming by Westfield) to the rest of the CBD to encourage shoppers to circulate between Downtown and the mall.

The "Fixer Upper" scenario sought to retain Wheaton's "eclectic image," focusing on existing businesses and making "small scale improvements." Surface parking would be added throughout the downtown, though some vacant lots could be used for infill development. Lot 13 would still be used for parking, but a site plan suggests using special pavers that could allow it to double as a plaza on special occasions. The strip malls along Georgia Avenue, shown above, would receive new fa├žades but little else.

The "Entertainment District" scenario recasts Wheaton as a "center for music entertainment, equipment and production," building on the renown of Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center on Veirs Mill Road. Space would be set aside for recording studios and artist housing. A cluster of night clubs would be created. Much of the downtown core would be leveled; Lot 13 would be completely closed to auto traffic and turned into an outdoor performance hall, shown above.

The "Residential Village" scenario seeks to form Wheaton as a neighborhood center, not a regional destination. Vacant properties would be developed as townhomes and mid-rise apartments or condominiums. Retail would be mainly local-serving, like supermarkets, though this scheme still proposes redeveloping the strip mall between Georgia and Triangle Lane, shown above. Lot 13 would become a leafy "village green" with a civic building and a playground.

The "Office Town Center" scenario focuses on bringing jobs to Wheaton, clustering office uses around the Metro station. High-rise buildings would be encouraged along Georgia Avenue at Reedie Drive, shown above, and a site plan proposes razing all of the Downtown core for parking garages and new buildings. Big-box stores would be built around Wheaton Plaza Westfield Wheaton mall. Of the four proposals, this seems to provide the least amount of open space, turning only part of Lot 13 into a plaza.

None of these four scenarios could really "fix" Wheaton by themselves, but each contains smaller ideas that can and will be combined to create a solid revitalization plan. While some proposals seem pretty outrageous - turning Downtown into a mini-Merriweather Post Pavilion, for instance - they'll be a better gauge of public opinion while encouraging unorthodox solutions for improving the CBD.

Some of the things first outlined in the charrette, like the walkway connecting Georgia Avenue and Triangle Lane, have already been done. Others, like expanding Wheaton Plaza, happened in ways not anticipated by these plans. But they did represent yet another step in the decades-long push to revitalize Downtown Wheaton, one that would eventually culminate in the Wheaton CBD Sector Plan that we'll see early next year.

Visit the Mid-County Regional Services Center's website (and scroll all the way down) to see this and other documents on the Wheaton revitalization, or check out this slideshow of proposals from the 2004 charrette.


retgroclk said...

Until the crime and late night drunks are cleaned up- no money should be wasted on changing Wheaton.

On the other hand, the rows of stores along the Triangle area are what gives Wheaton it atmosphere.

There are a lot of cars in both Triangle parking lots-- where will they go if you remove the parking.

We do not need any night clubs, or more restaurants- these ideas will only bring more traffic to a busy intersection(University and Georgia and University and Veirs Mill)

The neighborhood is already pedestrian unfriendly- we do not need to make it worse.

Clean up the crime, the loitering and the crime- new facades and all will be well.

Bob Fustero

Dan Reed said...

Bob, how would any of these changes make the area less-pedestrian unfriendly? It sounds like a lot of the proposals, like wider sidewalks and landscaping, would make it safer and more pleasant to walk in Wheaton - which might take a few cars off the road as well.

retgroclk said...

Let us say I wish to go to Target.

I can not take the Metro to Target as I would probably have to walk about a 1/2 a mile to get to Target.

So maybe I will drive to Target, buysome things, put then in my car and let me see maybe I need to pick up my guitar from Chuck Levin.

Do I walk from Target and go 1/2 mile to Chuck Levin- no I have to drive- I get my guitar and now I have to go to Marchones for a sub, and to the Aquarium store for some fish- do I walk no I have to drive
so I drive over to the parking lot at Grandview and Reedie(if it is still there)

Now if I did not have a car I would be in trouble-if it was poor weather I would be in a bigger fix and if a person suffered from severe lung problems(like I do) I am in even worse trouble.

There is no public transportation in side Westfield Plaza(there use to be)
There is little parking for Chuck Levin-
The Triangle parking lot is always full.

A pedestrian can not do much shopping if he had to rely on walking everywhere- no place to store packages(such as a car trunk)
and if you take away more parking
there will probably be less sales and more stores closing down.

Bob Fustero

Dan Reed said...

I don't think that's true. Many people already shop in Downtown Wheaton without a car. It has excellent transit access. I for one used to ride the Metro from College Park to shop in Wheaton during college.

If you have packages that are too large to carry, there are delivery services that can bring the stuff home for you. Even IKEA, whose whole business model is predicated on taking furniture home in your car, offers a delivery service because they know that someone's not going to bring a car with them.

DCUSA in Columbia Heights is an example of successful retail, even big-box retail, where the car isn't a necessity. I think that can be replicated in Wheaton, and will have to, so long as we can't widen Georgia and Veirs Mill and University for the people who already come through here and will do so in increasing numbers in the future.

Given, not everyone can walk everywhere, yourself included. Obviously, we have to make accommodations for those who have to or choose to drive. But after decades of letting them rule the show, I don't see anything wrong with putting other transportation modes on equal footing.

People give stores business, not cars. That is, unless you're a car dealership.

John said...

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this development to happen

Melanie said...

Adding the people and buisnesses will help clean up Wheaton. Bring it on.

Robert said...

Bob Fustero is right. Business in Wheaton would suffer if parking is reduced or made more inconvenient.

Dan said "If you have packages that are too large to carry [on public transportation-- that is what you meant, isn't it, Dan?], there are delivery services that can bring the stuff home for you." Sure, that's correct, but why go to Wheaton and pay somebody big bucks to deliver your purchases if you can drive elsewhere, put the purchases in your car, and drive home? Wheaton would die as a retail location without adequate parking.

Bauhaus Bob said...

The big problem with improving Wheaton is going to be battling the perception that it is overrun with the criminal element and that it is a dangerous place.

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to deal with the criminal element is to flood the streets with non-criminals. Then the criminals tend to retreat to the fringes of the high-occupancy zones and pick off stragglers, but in the high-occupancy zone, there's generally little crime other than spur-of-the-moment fighting.

A perfect example of this is to be seen in the Adams Morgan weekend nights, which are vastly overrun with crowds of partying drinkers and diners. On 18th Street NW itself, there's little crime, though after Last Call there is frequently a predictable rash of muggings as pedestrians leave the vicinity.

Yet Wheaton differs greatly from Adams Morgan, if only in that it is indeed suburban, or at least we might say that it's surrounded by suburbia and the exact people who could crowd the streets are going to drive there and drive home later.

I can only speak for myself but I imagine that there are those who would agree. If I were going to Wheaton to party, to go have a nice dinner and a few drinks, I'd be damned if I'd come out of a decent nightclub and then go stand around at a dark bus-stop in a crime-riddled pesthole of an overrun town, waiting to get on the Red-Eye Express Y9 out to Olney and then have to take a cab from there to Ashton. The more I enjoyed myself in Wheaton, the more dangerous (or at least annoying) the ride home would be.

Bauhaus Bob said...


Doubtless people will mention "designated driver" but that has only one meaning: you go with friends or family, and that means that unless you're a pedestrian living nearby, you won't be going to Wheaton as a single looking for a date. At least you won't if you have any sense, because every last cop who hasn't met their quota for the month is going to be going after the "low hanging fruit". It's a lot easier to get the bartenders to tip you off to drunks, and pick 'em off as they leave, than it is to stake out a "dangle" and nab some car-burglars.

Thus, partying in Wheaton is not for singles and definitely not for singles who drive there to party. The perception that on the one hand it's overrun with criminals, and that on the other hand the PD would far rather lock up tipsy drivers than roust a gangster, all contribute to a perception of Wheaton as someplace you might visit only if you actually lived there, and not a destination people would choose to visit "from afar".

Leaving the singles and "commuting partyers" out of the discussion, who's going to Wheaton? Mom and Pop and the kids? For shopping, maybe. But as a rule, the sort of person who's got money to spend isn't going to drive to Wheaton to spend their money, not when there are better places closer to them, or even better places farther away that don't have the reputation of Wheaton.

Wheaton's sole saving grace as a drinking-and-dining destination is in fact the availability of parking. You can drive there, you can park there, and you can even park in places that aren't dedicated to that in such a way that screams "criminals get your victims here, they can't park anywhere else". For example, it's well known in criminological circles that the vast majority of "stranger rapes" take place in parking garages which don't have adequate security. As it is, potentially you can walk out of some establishment and be in your car, with steel and glass around you, in a matter of a few steps. Who's going to trade that so that they can ride a bus full of sketchy night-job commuters?

So let's say that Wheaton gets turned into a carless paradise. All pedestrians are likely to be locally resident. And if you're paying the kind of prices one reasonably expects for the Brand New Wheaton that the Urban Planner Trendies demand, you probably can't afford to eat out, and everyone will know it. So what business is going to set up shop in a place that nobody can drive to and where all the pedestrians are penny-pinching? That would make no sense at all.

WashingtonGardener said...

You know what I don't see in these great future drawings? Ugly-ass utility poles! Hope that burying them is the first thing budgeted for in this effort to beautify Wheaton.

And it is NOT that bad a walk from Weaton metro.buses to Target esp as most of it can be done cutting through the Mall so you are indoors and protected from the elements.

dave said...

WashGardner - there is no county budget for burying utilities, and their never will be. But, this will be a requirement for future developers if/when blocks are redeveloped. Only way this ever goes underground is if private dollars pay for it. That's the way it works.

As for the god given right to park 10 feet from everything - it's dead. (With a notable exception for the handicapped.) Maybe in Olney it has some years left, but near Metro in Wheaton its days are numbered. The able-bodied will need to learn to walk a block or two from time to time.

Triangle lane has huge underused garages within 400 feet in both directions! There is absolutely no reason to have 15hr meters in that lot. With the area currently occupied by those 15hr meters we could have a space that could truly serve as the center of the community and have enough spaces for short term parking to serve the small businesses.

The Safeway project - if it gets built, the shelves are starting to go bare - will bring a lot more feet, eyes, and wallets to the center of the CBD. Like Melanie said - bring it on.

montek said...

All this discussion about parking, pedestrians, and partying is nice, but until Wheaton gets a better offering of quality restaurants and stores, I think it will always suffer. Who choose Wheaton as a destination for food or festivities?

Bauhaus Bob said...

@montek: Wheaton is in fact noted for its ethnic eateries.

@dave: I'm not talking about parking right near the destination during the daytime. I'm talking about maybe on a Thursday night after 7:00PM.

You'll know Wheaton is A Destination when that parking disappears... but by that time, it won't be a problem; the streets should be so crowded that crime practically disappears.

montek said...

@Bob - Yes, but the offering is small compared to Silver Spring, Bethesda, or DC. We have a zillion little Asian and Latin restaurants, many of which fail to have sufficient clientele to offer real promise and choice. I guess I'm trying to figure out who tells people to Come To Wheaton for dining adventures?

I don't find there to be a serious crime problem here. Have I been missing something?

Mark said...

I don't understand why people hate the idea of turning Wheaton into a rockville town square? I love the new RTS. It's got a great community vibe going on: a library, a family pavilion, movie theater, good mix of chain shops and contrary to many many new and old ethnic restaurants near by which happen to be flourishing (if you know where to look. which is a good thing). And why do we not want this for Wheaton? I don't think I'm a sellout for thinking this. It was just good planning on the part of Rockville. I've been coming to Wheaton every weekend since a child and now that I live here I see we're still 'stuck'. So ..whatever they've tried, it hasn't been working. It's time for a drastic change. And we can do this without killing the heart of Wheaton which are..(not parking lots) local shops and restaurants.

montek said...

I totally agree with Mark. I'm all for local flair but only if Rockville's setup is fantastic.