Thursday, December 3, 2009

wheaton sector plan recommends taller buildings, more open space (updated)

Wheaton Cake
Mmm, Wheaton. I believe this yellow cake came from the Little Bitts bakery on Triangle Lane.

People have been talking about how to revitalize Wheaton since before I was born. Even if a slew of meetings in the past year have restarted the conversation with increased fervor, there's been little focus on what exactly it'll take to make the Wheaton CBD a better place.

Today, Planning Board staff will make preliminary recommendations on revisions to the 1990 Wheaton CBD Sector Plan, which lays out how the downtown should grow over the next few decades. A new Sector Plan will be released early next year, though it may not be approved for a while longer. What makes this process exciting is that we've moved past simply brainstorming ideas. Planners are making more specific suggestions, such as:

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton
Lot 13 and other public parking lots in Downtown Wheaton could be converted into open spaces.

- Allow buildings as tall as 200' along Georgia Avenue between Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard, with heights stepping down further away. Buildings immediately adjacent to residential neighborhoods could be no taller than 45'.

- Convert public parking lot #13, at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue in the center of the CBD, to town square, and building an indoor public market similar to Eastern Market nearby. Public parking lots #14 (at Elkin Street and Blueridge Avenue) and #17 (at Fern Street and Price Avenue) and part of Wheaton Plaza's parking lots would become smaller, neighborhood greens.

- Get rid of the retail overlay zone first placed in 1990. Meant to preserve low-rise buildings and mom-and-pop retail in the CBD, it prevented the larger-scale investment that could've anchored the downtown. Instead, the county would explore creating Moderately Priced Retail Units (similar to the existing Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program the County runs) to provide rent-controlled space for small businesses.

Parking And No Parking, University at Georgia
A retail overlay zone meant to protect small businesses has potentially kept investment away.

- Rezone properties in the CBD currently zoned solely for commercial or residential use, like Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Plaza mall, to the CR Zone (Commercial-Residential). This could accomodate anything from live-work buildings to a proposed apartment complex atop the Safeway at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive.

- Reopen the Pleasant View Elementary School, located at 3015 Upton Drive two blocks outside the CBD, to accommodate increases in student enrollment. It's currently used by Crossway Community, a Montessori school.

- Reducing speeds on Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road to 30 miles per hour, and creating more through-block walkways like the one completed between Georgia and Triangle Lane to improve pedestrian safety.

The next Wheaton CBD Sector Plan should be released this January, after which it'll be reviewed by the Planning Board and, if that's approved, it'll go before the County Council. At each point there will be public hearings for community input. Given that schedule, it's likely that the plan might get approved sometime in 2011. It seems like a long way out, but given how long talk of revitalizing Wheaton's gone on, a couple of years doesn't seem too long.

Next week, we'll look at some previous concepts for redeveloping Downtown Wheaton, including the results of a survey that reveals the often contradictory things Wheaton residents say they'd like to see downtown.


M said...

Seems to me the retail zone is the only thing keeping Wheaton interesting. We already have Silver Spring and PG Plaza being turned into chain-store paradises with little to distinguish them, why make Wheaton yet another cookie-cutter blandburb?

As Tyler Cowen has noted, "The best ethnic restaurants are often found in suburban strip malls, where rents are lower and the degree of feasible experimentation is greater. Small and cheap ethnic restaurants are often better than large ones. Northern Virginia and Maryland are underrated; Adams-Morgan, although it has many fine places, is by no means the fount of ethnic food. West Alexandria, Bailey's Crossroads, and Wheaton are underrated; Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, and Bethesda are overrated."

That's why you can find well recommended ethnic places like Nava Thai and Full Key in Wheaton and not some pricier place. Develop if you want, but keep Wheaton unique!

chippy said...

Yeah! What M said!!

dave said...

I love the ethnic restaurants in Wheaton - in fact, it's one of the reasons I moved here and my favorite thing about living here.

But, while I'll concede redevelopment might mean higher rents and higher rents would no doubt price-out some small businesses, this is no reason to not redo the Sector Plan and encourage reinvestment and growth. All communities must do this. If keeping Wheaton funky means chasing away all investment while the CBD crumbles then count me out.

Most of the Sector Plan has to do with things like building-heights, setbacks, parking arrangements and zoning issues. It's about walkable sidewalks, crossable streets, maybe having a tree or two - which would be two more than we have now. And it's about making downtown denser around the Metro which will make it more vibrant.

I hear a lot of fear about the planning board turning Wheaton into a generic suburb overrun by chains. The strangest thing about this is that SS and Bethesda are pointed to as hellish bastions of chain-stores. Downtown SS and Bethesda have a preponderance of local owned restaurants and small stores (even the chains on Elsworth are mostly local chains). If the real desire is to keep Wheaton cheap then just say so.

I'm willing to bet Nava Thai and Full Key could be more successful in a revitalized downtown. Hey, maybe we could even get a bookstore. Check-cashing leaches and pawn shops may suffer.

Keep Wheaton interesting - definitely! Keep it in a perpetual state of disrepair, no thanks.

dave said...

Oh, and Tyler Cowen may be right. But I'm willing to bet he doesn't live in West Alexandria, Bailey's Crossroads, or Wheaton.

retgroclk said...

What makes Wheaton interesting is the lack of major restaurant chain stores.

What also makes Wheaton a more pleasant place is the availability of parking for many of these mom and pop stores.

If you get rid of the parking lot in your article you eliminate the pleasure of many handicap people parking and enjoying these stores.

I suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, I can not walk a great distance with becoming short of breath.
It is one reason I avoid Old Town Alexandria and Silver Spring.

It seems that wenever people talk about pedestrian walkways and shopping centers the needs of the handicap(especially those with mobility problems) are over looked.

Not everyone who is interested in development and Smart Growth are young and in great health.

Bob Fustero

Robert said...

So, build a lot of tall buildings, eliminate all the parking, and make traffic worse through Wheaton. There will be more open space between the buildings, but it won't be used because no one will be able to get there (or want to go there) and park.

It sounds like the people doing the planning for White Flint now want to destroy Wheaton, too. The County Council already rejected the Planners' traffic proposals for Rockville Pike at White Flint, but here they come again with more of the same. It's time for a change at M-NCPPC!

Dan Reed said...

You know, I'm pretty happy with what M-NCPPC is doing, and if I wasn't, I wouldn't have written this post. There are some awesome businesses in Wheaton that don't get the amount of customers they deserve because the downtown doesn't look all to nice and frankly, I know a lot of people who are afraid to go there. This is a fact. So why shouldn't we want to make Wheaton more attractive, more livable, and more vibrant?

Not everyone is going to drive to Wheaton in the future - hell, quite a few people already don't. I understand that parking should be close at hand for those who are disabled, but those of us who can walk might can stand parking in a garage a little further away if it means Wheaton gets a real town square.

The key is lower rents, not built form. The County's Moderately Priced Retail Unit program will keep rents low so small businesses can locate in Wheaton. And they'll have a much nicer environment to do business in that'll attract more customers and hopefully give them more profits.

"Blandburb"? Downtown Silver Spring has lots of local businesses and chains and hardly feels bland to me. "Destroy"? Have you been to White Flint lately? Even the people who hate what's being proposed there say it'll be better than what they have now. And if I didn't like what Park and Planning is doing to my county, I wouldn't write posts like this. I say bring it on.

Susan said...

I hope they don't re-occupy that elementary school -- Crossway Community does some pretty important work, and it would be hard to find another facility so well-suited to their mix of transitional housing and daycare/preschool.

Casey A said...

I hope the Council has the guts to follow through on the vision embodied in the White Flint and Wheaton sector plans. The CR zone for the Westfield Mall property is especially important -- I think sooner or later the property managers and the people who live in the area are going to realize that the best hope for revitalizing the mall is to encourage mixed use development on and around the site. The mall has been struggling to fill the anchor tenant space vacated by Hecht's since well before the economic meltdown, and the old style of shopping mall retail is not coming back. If we could get some residential and office space at the mall, there would be a much more viable long term base of customers for retail throughout the CBD. We could also put a lot of the excess space currently occupied by acres and acres of surface parking around the mall to better use.

Casey Anderson

dave said...

I second Susan's comment. My daughter goes to the Montessori school at Crossways - it's a great place. But Crossway is much more than just a Montessori school. The Community supports a lot of young families in a location that would be very hard to duplicate. Having this kind of program near metro is hugely important.

The planners would like MCPS to look into the WMATA property between Good Counsel and BB&T. With all the new housing going into those 2 places an elementary school in the middle would make a lot of sense. MCPS always seems to have a lot of money when it comes to the West side of the county - let's hope they could find some to buy this property on the East side.

Robert said...

Who will benefit from all proposed new density in Wheaton? Not the current residents and the current businesses who will be driven out by higher prices in new building. Not current shoppers and visitors to Wheaton who will find it much more difficult to park. Not commuters, who will face even slower traffic. Not surrounding residential neighborhoods, which will face more pressure for cut-through traffic and parking. And not the majority of Montgomery County residents who live here because they want a suburban lifestyle.

Who will benefit? Developers, builders, architects.

In the last election, Montgomery County voters elected a County Executive and County Council they thought would be less pro-development than the previous Council. The voters don't seem to be getting what they voted for. The M-NCPPC seems to proposing ever higher densities and ever lower standards for what is acceptable congestion. The next election may be very interesting.

Dan Reed said...

I'm sorry you feel that way, Robert. People have been pushing for this in Wheaton for twenty years, and I don't think they believe that developers are the only one to benefit from proposed redevelopment. This is about building on Wheaton's strengths, not destroying it. Great bus and Metro access. Strong, attractive neighborhoods. A diverse population and awesome local businesses. And now a downtown to bring it all together. This may be unattractive to you, but more and more people in Montgomery County do not feel the same way.

BTW, home prices go up when you restrict supply, so the more people continue to cling to their single-family American Dreams and ignore anyone who doesn't want or can't afford to live like that, the more expensive the area becomes.

chippy said...

I don't know what everyone is complaining about. Downtown Silver Spring has some great local businesses just like Wheaton:

Marchones-> Pot Belly
Pollo Rico--> Baha Fresh
Royal Mile Pub -> Red Rock Canyon
Nicks Diner-> Eggspectations
Sergio's Place -> Austin Grille
Dejabel Cafe-> Starbucks
Hung Phat, Fillonpenia and La Salvadorenita Grocery Stores --> Whole Foods

Can't you see?? It's exactly alike.

Dan Reed said...

Come now. Y'all are smart, educated people who've been around a lot longer than I am, and you know as well as I do that Local First Wheaton and Buy Local Silver Spring (which are run by the same awesome folks) have nice long directories of local businesses in both Wheaton and Silver Spring. I don't see why we have to discount one or the other.

chippy said...

I am sorry I do discount Wall Street chains over small businesses for numerous reasons.

But let me back up and say why I find bringing in what has been described as a "Silver Spring Esq" development to Wheaton.

Back in the early nineties I sold local advertising to the businesses of Wheaton And Silver Spring.I was involved in both Chambers of Commerce and served on my of the committees set up in the redevelopment of what is now the trademarked Downtown Silver Spring.

In this position I got to sit down and talk with local business and get to know them. Many of these businesses were immigrants who had been working menial jobs and saving their money to open a small business. Pursuing the American Dream.

When a small underfunded business wants to risk it all with nothing but a few bucks and desire to work hard they CANNOT go to Federal Realty or the Peterson Companies and rent space. They need to go to a challenged area and find a landlord willing to accept sweat and toil instead of a Dunn and Bradstreet rating. This is their path towards upward mobility.

Each of the successful businesses that I listed in my last post started out that way and each of these businesses brings excellent choices to the area. NONE of these businesses would have a chance and renting a space on Ellsworth Drive.

That being said I will tell you what I find disturbing on the next level is that as a Public Private Partnership the county taxpayer subsidizes these large developers and the Wall Street Chains over the small mom and pop retailers when these developments are built. So who is discounting who here?

When I was involved in the planning stages of Downtown Silver Spring the argument was made that by building DTSS at taxpayers expense it would spur development of the surrounding properties well five or six years into this development we, the taxpayers, have to build a music hall for a billion dollar corporation as well giving them tax abatements and the keys to the planning department in the process. That was not the original intent.

So while the county throws a few bucks to some Buy Local groups and pays them lip service from the stage of the Wheaton Concerts they are really making deals with Campaign Contributing Developers to subsidize Wall Street chains over local businesses. Who is being "discounted" in this process?

After the County and Corporations take over our all of our town centers where will these local business people go to pursue their American Dream? Where will they lift themselves to the middle class?

These local businesses are where myself and many folks who live in Wheaton prefer to shop.(try and get a table at Ruin Thai on Sat night, stand in line for chicken any night) And this why I would like to see Wheaton remain funky.

Chip Py

dave said...

I think we can all agree that nobody wants Eggspectations in Wheaton. (I really don't understand that place.) But, of course, SS has the Tastee Diner too. And, as we know, Wheaton already has a Starbucks and a Baja Fresh at the mall. As Dan points out in a more recent post, SS has Jackies. I'll take Jackies over Umbertos anyday. We could play this game all day.

Only Wheaton has the Toy Exchange - which rocks.

Robert said...

Dan said: "BTW, home prices go up when you restrict supply, so the more people continue to cling to their single-family American Dreams and ignore anyone who doesn't want or can't afford to live like that, the more expensive the area becomes."

Dan is right, of course, that if you restrict supply, the price goes up, but the primary reason prices go up is because people pay more to get what they want. If most Montgomery county residents didn't value single family homes more than condos, you'd be able to buy single family houses for less than condos.

If you want to keep the price of single family homes down, then allow more of them to be built to satisfy the market. Yes, that might be "sprawl," but a lot of people seem to like sprawl. At least most people would pay more to get a sprawl single family home than they would for an apartment or condo. That, of course, is not to say that apartments and condos shouldn't be available for those who want them. The fact is that so many of them have been built and are available that there seems to be a glut on the market in Silver Spring now. We aren't limiting options for people who want condos and apartments. We shouldn't limit them for people who want single family homes either.

It ought to also be noted that today's close in "smart growth" neighborhoods like downtown Silver Spring" were horrible examples of sprawl development in the 1920s through 1940s and even later. There was lots of undeveloped land in DC south of Silver Spring when Silver Spring was being developed. Today's sprawl is tomorrow's smart growth, or at least historically it looks that way.

And one last point, there is plenty of single family housing available in Silver Spring at reasonable prices. I've seen lots of houses priced from $225,000 to $350,000.

[Just keeping the comments frothing along, Dan.]

chippy said...

See here

Even the youth of Blair High School find the Trademarked Downtown Silver Spring to bland.

Chip Py

WashingtonGardener said...

Wheaton vs Silver Spring on # of big corporate chains - wheaton wins hand-down just by irtue of that big behemoth mall - Now can we move on to more constructive debates?
Like DOES this new plan include funds to finally bury those freaking hideous and dangerous utility lines? LOOK at Dan's photos and tell me those aren't scars across Wheaton's aging face! Until those are taken care of, nothing in downtown Wheaton is going to look fresh or new.

rickyr1983 said...

I agree with Washington Gardener. The biggest eyesores in Wheaton aren't the small mom and pops, it's those god-awful power lines running down the street.

And who cares if Downtown Silver Spring has tons of chains, you forget that it IS attached to the mall. But there are loads of great local restaurants on Colesville Road and Georgia surrounding the Downtown area.

Sasha said...

What Chippy said. Every damn word.

Sasha said...

And what's the big whoop about a town square anyway? When one developed spontaneously in Silver Spring it was demolished. Who want's one and why?

Dan Reed said...

"And what's the big whoop about a town square anyway?"

Is that a real question? For starters, "the Turf" didn't happen by accident. The County put it there as a temporary place-holder for Veterans' Plaza, which will be a public square. It wasn't torn out for lack of use, it's being replaced with a permanent open space.

"The Turf" was wildly popular because, among other things, it was a place where you could go and hang out and see people and not have to spend any money. Kids played football on it. Families would have picnics on it. Music festivals and movie screenings would be held there. In effect, "the Turf" and Veterans' Plaza served (will serve) as the center of the community.

What Wheaton has now is a parking lot (Lot 13) where most of those things already happen. Why not finish the job already?

chippy said...

So you want to replace a parking lot where people park and do business with the stores that surround it with a turf area filled with hipsters who want to hang out and not spend any money.

What day of the week do you want to go visit the Joe at Tropical Fish World, Ray at the Picture Frame Store, Phillpe Leo at Marchones and run that idea by them?

There already is green space in this these areas. They tore down the Magoos building on the corner and put in a large green space there. People gather there now and play checkers. And at Readie and Amherst there is Veterans Park. No one uses it.

I don't like this idea of getting rid of the parking with the thinking that you will force me to take a bus from my house off of Dennis drive to pick up a sandwich at Marchones or piece of chicken at Pio Pio (My current favorite).Currently this takes five minutes because there is plenty of parking. If I had to walk out to Georgia and wait for a bus this would take most of the day. Or is future downtown Wheaton only for those young hip urbanite folks?

Dan Reed said...

Chip, who said anything about hipsters? "The Turf" was frequented by people from all walks of life, hip and unhip, black, white and everything in between. Even one Chip Py has been spotted on "the Turf," and I don't know if you self-identify as a hipster.

Veterans' Park isn't used because a) it's very small and b) there isn't a lot of activity happening over there. Lot 13 is already the center of activity in Downtown Wheaton and it makes sense to replace it with a space that can be used by PEOPLE, not by CARS. I don't understand why that sounds so outrageous, especially when we can put cars in a parking garage, which is the plan for Lot 13. There are parking garages in Silver Spring and Bethesda and, as far as I'm aware, I don't see any businesses suffering over there for lack of ugly surface lots.

NO ONE is saying that you can't drive anymore. But wouldn't it be a better drive for you if there were more accommodations for people who chose to walk, bike or use public transit in Wheaton, so they wouldn't be forced to get in their cars as well, causing more congestion?

dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.