Monday, January 18, 2010

do costco and safeway proposals signal start of a wheaton revival? (updated)

The debate over how to fix Wheaton has gone on for twenty years. JUTP has looked at what residents want, what planners' visions are, and how we're going to get to the safe, vibrant, prosperous business district we all say we want. Yet within the past month, two very big proposals have appeared, threatening to get this revitalization started once and for all. Neither of them involved much community input initially. Right now, that might be just what Wheaton needs.

Safeway and MetroPointe Apartments
The now closed Safeway at Georgia and Reedie and the new MetroPointe apartments across the street.

Last month, the Safeway at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive abruptly closed with little notice or reason, other than of their plans to build a new Safeway similar to their store CityVista in the District, as part of a mixed-use complex with apartments and smaller stores. Until then, they've left the store a boarded-up shell. "They didn't want to tear it down, but they didn't want to put the money into it," Gary Stith from the County's Department of General Services, explained to me last month.

Then, Westfield asked the County to kick $4 million their way to lure big-box store Costco and two other, unnamed retailers to their Wheaton Plaza mall. As a staffer to a County Councilmember, I've gotten a front-row seat to the proceedings, and I witnessed some anxiety about whether the community approves of the idea. Over the past few days, Wheaton resident Adam Pagnucco has weighed in on the plans at Maryland Politics Watch, giving up some indication of the local mood.

The two projects seem very different at first glance. One's a tower in the middle of Downtown, aimed at walkers and yuppies eager to live within sight and smell of Wheaton's awesome ethnic restaurants. The other's a warehouse store in a mall, aimed at the minivan-driving masses from Olney and Bethesda who like their toilet paper in bulk. But they've given Wheaton residents and businesspeople alike the opportunity to examine the costs and benefits of two real development proposals.

Taylor Gourmet
The Safeway at Georgia and Reedie will be replaced by a mixed-use complex similar to CityVista in the District.

Filippo Leo, 54-year resident and owner of Marchone's Deli, told the Examiner that spending $4m on a chain retailer that will kill his business is an affront to "Wheaton-loyal people" like him. In the same article, Eddie Velasquez of DeJaBel Cafe expects it to bring more customers. "The more people come here and the more they see what's going on in Wheaton, the better," he says.

Can Costco have a good or bad effect on Downtown Wheaton, so long as Wheaton Plaza is physically and psychologically detached from the rest of the CBD? (In Brian Sloan's novel Tale of Two Summers, set in Wheaton, protagonist and mallrat Hal admits he's never been Downtown before.) Janet Yu of Hollywood East Cafe, one of many locally-owned stores inside Wheaton Plaza, has come out in support of Costco. But Leo and Velasquez stand to benefit more from projects like the Safeway redevelopment, which will put people on the sidewalks in front of their stores.

There is a symbiosis between businesses large and small. That's why shopping malls like Wheaton Plaza seek anchor stores like Costco and Macy's. Steve Silverman, the county's economic director, claims that some 12,000 businesses in Montgomery County have Costco memberships. Richard Layman, who writes Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, warns against mom-and-pops feeling guilty for acknowledging the chain stores around them because they can draw traffic to their shops as well.

School Buses Behind Former Hecht's, Wheaton Plaza
Under Westfield's proposal, Costco and two other retailers would replace the shuttered Hecht's at Wheaton Plaza (pictured) in a newly-built wing.

Back in December, I went to a holiday fiesta thrown by Local First Wheaton, a branch of the Latino Economic Development Corporation. LEDC's been helping small businesses in places like Adams-Morgan, to which Wheaton is often compared, for twenty years. But despite the bad economy and the ever-present fear of redevelopment in Wheaton, the mood was upbeat as people munched on Gambian fish pies, chicken empanadas, and other meat-in-pocket dishes from around the world.

The goal for Wheaton, said LEDC Executive Director Manny Hidalgo, was for "redevelopment without gentrification," as the room nodded in approval. Whether or not you support every development proposal in Wheaton, it's encouraging to see that developers are proposing something here. Each one is an idea about how the CBD can grow and an opportunity to set Wheaton in the right direction. After twenty years of waiting, it looks like Wheaton's time has finally come.

UPDATE: The Gazette finally reports on the story.


Cilla said...

I am very much in favor of Costco in Wheaton! It will bring many shoppers who would otherwise trek to Gaithersburg or Beltsville. Since many, many small businesses buy their supplies at Costco, it will serve our diverse small business operators, who are among those currently traveling to the other two branches. It will be far more easily accessible via public transportation than any Costco within the Metro area, which will be a boon to both shoppers and would-be employees. It will provide some grocery competition to the sky-high prices of the local big chain groceries. It will generate lots of business for other local merchants, just by bringing new shoppers to the area. Except for the super cheap hot dog lunch deal, I really do not see Costco nabbing a lot of Wheaton CBD lunch or dinner traffic. Finally, I get a kick out of the idea of a shopping mall with both costco and Macys. That is such a Wheaton-esque thing that you either "get it," or you don't.

toberead2 said...

I think Costco could co-exist with local businesses. I moved her from upstate NY, where we had a mall that contained a Costco adjacent to local businesses. I would often stop in at local stores, then hit Costco on my way home. Being able to do both in one trip made it worthwhile to visit the local stores. I currently shop at the Costco in Beltsville, but I'd love to have one closer by in Wheaton, and it would make me more likely to visit other stores in Wheaton at the same time. I don't think Costco would be competing with many local businesses - if you're planning to buy a 20 pack of paper towels, you probably aren't shopping at the local deli anyway.

Robert said...

I enthusiastically agree that Costco in Wheaton would be a benefit to the community. I hope the county is successful in getting this done.

Mark said...

Sorry, as a resident, I'm against it. This is bad for Wheaton. Perhaps not so much for neighboring cities for shaving a few minutes from their usual Costco trip time...yippie. And I know county officials are getting ever more creative in trying to bring new jobs to the county (good on them for that). But the key here is that these are low wage job. And at what cost? I know Wheaton is not the most glamorous of places, but this'll not only totally destroy Wheaton's already unique charm, but also obliterate any opportunity of it becoming vibrant, (again) unique public transit destination.

Picturing a Costco on top of a Metro stop is just all kinds of wrong now matter how good your imagination is.

This idea is utterly short-sighted.

Cilla said...

I am also a Wheaton resident of 26 years.

Jacob said...

Safeway supposedly closed because the building has structural issues. The building is company-owned, and with the redevelopment pending, they didn't want to put the money into fixing the problems.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the metro won't do much for Costco, or vice versa. Its hard to carry 20 pounds of dog food on the metro, or a 60 pack of toilet paper. Its definitely a car/ truck oriented business. But Wheaton needs some new business, and COstco will attract people from all over- Wheaton fits nicely into a map of locations that includes Beltsville, Gaithersburg and Arlington. It almost exactly equidistant from all three.

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

The Costco may not benefit local businesses: Ike’s Grand Idea for Wheaton

chippy said...

Well, I have said a lot lately about Wheaton's redevelopment and I have voiced my concern for the County subsidizing national chain stores at the expense of the local flavor that has developed on it's own in Wheaton.

However, one thing that I haven't said is that I don't see why Wheaton Plaza is always tied into this knot.

The needs of a regional shopping mall and those of a community of small immigrant owned businesses are two completely different animals. Either could survive or fail without the other.

If they choose to add a Costco to the mall and can solve the any traffic problems that will result I have no problem with that.

But this is what I have a problem with Costco is $16 Billion dollar Company and Westfield did $336.8 Million dollars in 2008. Montgomery County is facing $608 million dollar budget gap.

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest markets in the country. Why do WE THE TAXPAYERS have to pay either of these Private Companies to do business here??

Since the Downtown Silver Spring "Success" it seems that we have taken the attitude that we have to pay huge corporations millions of dollars to come into Montgomery County so that they can sell us bulk goods and mediocre music. All of this under the guise that we are creating jobs.

The County office of Economic Developement will present us with all kinds of VooDoo Economics to explain their backdoor deal and I can tell you that no matter what the tax payers get raked for in this deal it will not get anyone to walk across the street.

Chip Py
Wheaton, MD

Cilla said...

Families who use public transit to go to Costco will do what they do in other areas: bring suitcases on wheels and backpacks and take home the bulk rice and olive oil and milk that way.

In terms of employment, and jobs close to a Metro station and/or in a well served bus corridor mean more widespread opportunities for work. It is very difficult for modestly paid retail workers to live near jobs in this county.

Big Bubba said...

I'm a Silver Spring resident with only a mild interest in this development.

Concerning lunch crowds and subway riders I can tell you this - my wife works near the Pentagon. About once every two weeks she will stop at the Costco in Pentagon City to pick up a few things. No, she's not spending a lot of money, but these are generally items she could purchase at Safeway.

My wife tells me that many employees like to go there for lunch time. First, they get to do some shopping. Then they grab a lunch. Very convenient for them.

chris @ Podcast said...

I am very much in favor of a Costco.

Costco has great benefits, much better than others

Costco has one of the most competitive benefits packages in the industry.

Hourly employees (full-time) are benefit-eligible on the first of the month after working 90 days.
Hourly employees (part-time)* are benefit-eligible on the first of the month after working 180 days.
Salaried employees are benefit-eligible on the first of the month after date of hire.
Full-time benefit-eligible Costco employees may choose from two different health care options: a Choice Plus plan and a Freedom of Choice plan, in which they may choose their own medical services, physicians and facilities. A similar Choice Plus plan is available for part-time benefit-eligible employees.




401(k) PLAN