Don't get me wrong, the development is Silver Spring is a success in many ways. But other than the restoration of the AFI, the rest of Silver Spring is a pretty generic place that could have been plopped down in just about any town in America. I think Wheaton will be worse in the long run if we lose the unique businesses that define our community.Maybe you should read my "Open Letter to Anyone in Wheaton Who Has Ever Said 'We don't ever want to be 'fake' like Silver Spring,'" because you didn't ask a question, but I have three answers:
1) Jackie's Restaurant, Joe's Record Paradise, Piratz Tavern, two of the winners in our Great Peruvian Taste Test, Veterans' Plaza, Bonifant Street and, of course, the Sushi Girl. Look past the Red Lobster and the Borders and downtown Silver Spring has quite a culture of its own and certainly is not a generic place. Seriously? I know you're smarter than that.
2) What we're talking about in Wheaton now is probably what they said in Silver Spring ten years ago and Bethesda ten years before that. Yet the very first time I ever had Peruvian pollo a la brasa, my most favorite of favorite foods, was buried among the shitty Irish bars and middle-aged-trendy clothing stores of Bethesda. An urban environment has enough people and enough diversity to sustain just about any kind of business, so perhaps it's premature to worry if Wheaton's small businesses will be killed by revitalization.
and 3) no matter what "the community" says they wants, the actual community ("the market") determines what gets built, as a representative from developer B.F. Saul explains:
“If the market doesn’t want to be here, then nothing happens. Nothing,” says Wulff, adamantly. “We can’t build it unless the market’s going to reward us... So it really does come down to what the marketplace wants.”You wonder why there's been such a push to bring Costco to Wheaton Plaza? Because our county officials are convinced that people from Bethesda and Olney and even Kensington would not come to Wheaton otherwise.
Seriously. Businesses need people to survive. Either they have a small, devoted group of customers, like the folks who sing Spanish karaoke while knocking back a few beers at Telvis Restaurant, or they need to appeal to people from a broader area, like Wheaton Plaza reaching out to kids from Potomac. And as long as people in Bethesda and Olney and Kensington find Wheaton "scary and multi-ethnic," nothing will happen. Why? Because big companies and developers are followers, and they'll follow people to places they'll willingly go.
In the past twenty or thirty years, where has stuff (defined as people, jobs and general investment) landed in Montgomery County? In Bethesda, Rockville or Gaithersburg: established places with affluent populations, easy highway (and later on, Metro) access, and available, valuable land.
Even in Silver Spring, it took some extreme arm-twisting to convince investors that this was a place worth sinking their money into, even with the kind of stable neighborhoods and accessibility that lured businesses to other parts of the county. Witness Choice Hotels moving from Silver Spring to Rockville. To them, Silver Spring just wasn't a desirable address for a corporate headquarters anymore. (Though I believe that if Steve Silverman had worked at it a little more, they might've had a change of heart.)
Wheaton is physically and psychologically isolated from the more "prosperous" parts of MoCo - the so-called "favored quarter" - by Rock Creek Park and a lack of good road connections. (Just look at the intersection of Knowles and Connecticut avenues in Kensington at rush hour.) It has a Metro station but, as Good Eatin' pointed out today, Wheaton is a long distance for people commuting into D.C. for work or fun. It has a population that is poorer and more diverse than Silver Spring's was in the 1990's yet, as the City Paper points out, their business district is also much stronger. The downtown lacks any of the historic charm that remains (in spades) in Bethesda or Silver Spring, because Wheaton didn't really develop until the 1950's.
Given these circumstances, you can see why potential investors might see Wheaton as a little risky, which will influence the kind of investment that will come there. Even Silver Spring continues to struggle with a negative perception from people who have yet to make it to the other side of Rock Creek Park. If businesses, retailers, shoppers and homebuyers can be convinced that Wheaton is a legitimate alternative to Bethesda, redevelopment will look one way. If they can't, it'll look a different way. Or it won't happen at all. This is a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.
All that said, I really hate it when people complain that Bethesda or Silver Spring look "fake" or "generic." If that's how you feel, you're really not looking hard enough, which is a shame, because you're missing out on two great places that make Montgomery County great. To me, that's no better than people who are afraid to come to Wheaton. Over the next few years, we'll see who's willing to take a chance on the place - though it's too early to see what they'll do with it.