Friday, December 10, 2010

why wheaton will never be the next bethesda

After The Rain In Wheaton
Of course, the Wheaton blogs have been all over this article from the City Paper on the ongoing discussion over downtown Wheaton's future, which is mainly concerned with the future of its many small businesses. But I'm still smarting from this snark from my homie at Wheaton Calling:
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.

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
Generic? Girl, please.

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.

El Pollo Rico
Good food won't be enough to make Wheaton the next Bethesda.

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.)

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
Rockville Pike isn't pretty, but it's currently more attractive to investment than Wheaton is.

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.


jag2923 said...

The fact that the Wheaton Safeway is being redeveloped to include a 17 story tower is huge, in my mind. It'll give Wheaton a chance to, in a few years, prove that it's a market worth investing in and capable of absorbing new business and life.

Secondly, I can't believe anyone from Wheaton would be as silly as to call DTSS "generic." Yes, Ellsworth is largely generic, but hello - a huge percentage of the dining and (especially) retail options in Wheaton involve a suburban "could be anywhere" mall. I don't judge Wheaton by that so I can't believe someone from Wheaton would be small enough to judge DTSS for a handful of stores on 1 street.

Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much all of this, both Dan's post and jag2923's comment (and thanks to Dan for not letting people like me get lazy in our criticism of SS or other neighborhoods). I would just add, though, that it is not true that a "huge percentage" of Wheaton's dining options are in the mall -- the mall has a food court plus like four other restaurants, most of which aren't particularly good (Hollywood East excepted), compared with twice that many options surrounding the Wheaton Triangle, and more than twice as many in the couple of blocks just east of Georgia and south of University -- not only lots more options there, but non-chain options, and much better quality. The mall is not really the center of Wheaton -- I only ever go there when I need a little Target in my life -- whereas Ellsworth is the center of SS, for better and/or worse.

But that said, your overall point is well taken.

Dan Reed said...

"The mall is not really the center of Wheaton"

Isn't it, though? It's where the bulk of retail and dining options are. It draws considerably more people than the downtown area does. When I was a kid, my family went to Wheaton Plaza - and then to Paul Kee if we happened to want some Chinese food. Again, there's a difference between what "the community" (people who live in the immediate area) and "the community" (the market, or people in the greater area who come to Wheaton) may perceive the area to be.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, seems like perception v. reality to me. The mall has parking and lots of stores so people drive there. But geographically it's kind of off to the side. Assuming the downtown core is successfully redeveloped, more people will drive there, but (I hope) LOTS more people will metro/bus there. It will be more convenient than the mall, with better food and more attractive spaces. The mall will remain popular, of course, especially with Costco moving in. But the idea is that, in ten or so years, when most people think of Wheaton they will not just think of the mall like they do today.

Unknown said...

I live just up the road from downtown Wheaton (near Georgia and Randolph), and I really can't stand Wheaton. The area comes off as dirty and, frankly, poor. And it's not like there's some underlying charm that would make me want to overlook these things, like in some other areas. It's just strip malls, poorly maintained sidewalks, and a mall that holds absolutely no appeal to me.

The area also doesn't have the walkability that downtown Silver Spring has, and it probably never will. Nobody wants to spend a nice night out walking along Georgia Ave., trying to keep their kids out of traffic Maybe with some major work, they could pull off an Ellsworth Drive-type renovation on Price Ave. or Fern Street, but it'll never happen on Georgia Ave.

Let's face facts: Downtown Wheaton is an area that currently exists to serve an immigrant population. It can often be uncomfortable patronizing an area where you're that far out of your element. That's one reason why you won't get people to visit now. To get people to go out of their way to go to Wheaton, it's got to be safe and unique. There's probably a a perception that it's not safe. Frankly, I don't know whether it is or not, but you can't deny that it looks run down, and run down generally doesn't look safe. There's only so many driving schools (Google Maps shows 10) and hair salons (a lot more than 10) that a person needs. Personally, I would love to support small local businesses, but most of what's here has no appeal to me. New Kam Fong Chinese restaurant is a big exception, however.

Frankly, focusing on the businesses first is a dead-wrong strategy. You'll need some, sure, but if the people aren't already there, the businesses won't thrive. Come up with some money and create incentives for younger, creative types to move here, and the right kind of businesses will follow—the kind of businesses that will attract people from outside of Wheaton.

And while they're at it, how about some green space? And I don't mean Wheaton Park, which is nice. I mean a place where you can walk and take your kids or your dog, and not have to get in the car.

If I had to make a prediction, I'd say none of this will ever happen. But it would be nice if it did.

Anonymous said...

To put it another way, ten or so years ago, when people thought of Silver Spring, didn't they think of City (aka Shitty) Place Mall, and probably not much else? So maybe in ten or so years, perception of Wheaton will have changed (and people who used to think only of our crappy mall will instead think of our shiny new Red Lobster!).

Perceptions are slow to change, and for some people will never change, and that ties in to djambi's comment: for example, I agree there is a perception that Wheaton is not safe. I think that's an outdated perception for the most part, but still very commonly held. Wheaton is indeed kind of dingy -- thus the push for revitalization. It will probably never be a place for "younger, creative types" -- not compared to many closer-to-DC neighborhoods -- but it can be a much nicer place than it is. Will the changes happen? I think they will, but it will take some time. Already more people live in central Wheaton than did five years ago, and the Safeway development will bring hundreds more, and that will set the stage for redev west of Georgia. Nobody ever reasonably expected changes to happen all at once, or quickly. But thanks to the Metro station, the possibilities are there, and it's an ideal place for public-transit-centered urban density, and it seems like the county wants to see the redev happen (assuming MoCo doesn't run out of money first...).

So I agree with most of what djambi says (except that NKF is hardly the only good restaurant), but all those things are sort of the whole point of redevelopment. Redev is needed, and I think largely welcomed by residents, and seems like is starting to move forward.

Casey A said...

Dan, this may be one of your best posts ever. I especially like your points about the market and the reference to the favored quarter.

You are probably right that Leggett/Silverman think nobody will come to Wheaton from more affluent areas without something like Costco as a draw. The CE and his staff do not seem capable of fathoming the idea that there is a market for walkable urbanism. They appear to assume that nobody in their right mind (that is, nobody with money) would choose to live and shop in a place that was not built around cars. What makes this such a disastrous decision is not so much that it will increase auto traffic as that it will seriously interfere with the placemaking goals of the Wheaton sector plan revisions. In other words, we are giving up more than just a few million dollars in exchange for a handful of low-paying jobs -- we're also undermining the effort to make Wheaton a place that people (including people with money) would enjoy hanging around (and spending their money). In this case, at least, what's bad for livability is also bad for business.

dave in wheaton said...

Dan - your point about Wheaton being isolated is a huge stretch. (Psychologically maybe, but geographically not at all.)

From my house just outside the CBD I can get to the office in Bethesda in about 20 minutes (many of my co-workers have hour+ commutes). I can get to all the big box shopping on the Pike (not Dan's, the other other Pike) in 10min. My wife can get to her job in downtown SS in 15min. The family can head to the museums via Metro.

Even more importantly, we can get to the grocery, Target, the bank, dance class, Royal Mile, Nava Thai, Kam Fong, etc. in no time at all. This is a huge quality of life plus - which is why we moved to Wheaton. Everyone knows the inner suburbs are the new black.

As to your point about SS and Bethesda, I couldn't agree more. I work in (and grew up near) Woodmont Triangle and there is nothing generic or fake about it. (Bethesda Row is a different story.)

dave in wheaton said...

The City Paper does seem to have a new found interest in Wheaton (or at least one reporter there does). Dec1, A Walk With: Rob Klein.

The article has a rendering with what looks like proposed projects on Viers Mil NW of University. Anyone know what these are?

retgroclk said...

Wheaton needs a whole lot of changes-and the first change is some kind of shuttle service that runs the circumfrence of the mall.
If you take the Metro to Wheaton Mall(plaza for us old people) you have to walk about a 1/2 mile to the Giant--now if Target has somehing you need- you have to carry your groceries to Target, and what if Macy's has something on sale--wow- now you have all those bags to carry around-- if you had a car- you could put the bags in the car and drive to the next stop- Target or Macy's or Penny's.

However if you took the Metro you will be burdened down by all these bags and you have to walk the 1/2 mile back to the Metro.

But if you had a shuttle service that made stops at Macys, Pennys, Food Court, Giant it would make life a little easier.

However-- all that shopping might make you hungry for a sub from Marchones-- so now you have to carry all those bags across Viers Mill Road-- to Marchones and order a sub- now you have your hands full-

Wheaton is not pedestrian friendly .

The car is the best way to visit Wheaton.

There are many people who have mobility problems-- and public transportation is not a viable method of travelling.

As for the restaurants in Wheaton- the majority are very good(although I do miss Ferdinands, and the Anchor Inn) we could us a good steak and seafood place.

Bob Fustero

Dan Reed said...

Mike Diegel asked me to post this comment:

You unfairly malign Steve Silverman, who I worked with on the SS Redevelopment Steering Committee and who put in as many hours or more on DTSS redevelopment as any of the most active citizens prior to being elected to the council. He understands this stuff better than 99.9% of the county. Same with Ike Leggett, who was already on the council in those days and was invaluable to us citizens in the process. Costco is a good option for the mall space. Other options will work in the rest of Wheaton.

I've lived in SS nearly 20 years and for most of those early years, Wheaton was our go-to for restaurants and entertainment. Many places, like Good Fortune, Dusit and Cristina's, are still there, while Hollywood East has undergone several iterations. Others, like the late, lamented Tornado Alley (still one of our favorite venues for live music) are long gone, but not forgotten. We still go there from time to time, even though DTSS has options unforeseen and much welcome, and not just on Ellsworth, as Dan has pointed out.

Wheaton has always had its unique identity and it should keep that. And anyone who feels unsafe there is just paranoid, IMHO. My wife and I never have.

Thayer-D said...

Wheaton is awsome except for the fact that there's no real pedestrian life. The stores are cool, the streetscape is fine grained, and the population deliciously diverse, but they need more housing downtown, and lots of it. Secondly, any car oriented frontage needs to be redesigned to encourage the pedestrian. As for the mall being the center of Wheaton? Not at all. When people think positivley of Wheaton, it isn't because of some anonimous mall.

Unknown said...

I live in Wheaton, and I understand the point that the Wheaton blogs are trying to make. The "redeveloped" part of Silver Spring (i.e. the four blocks or so around Fenton and Ellsworth) is extremely generic (the picture that you showed trying to disprove this included shots of a Noodles and Co. and a Ben and Jerry's for crying out loud). The fact that its success helps some of the non-Ellsworth options to thrive is a subtlety that they miss, but I see the general point. What I like about Wheaton is the fact that my options for a quick bite within five minutes of my house are bahn mi and pupusas and dim sum, not Panera and Chick Fil A and Baja Fresh. If they redevelop the triangle and end up forcing out places like Marchone's and Saigonese, I think we'll be poorer for it.

Dan Reed said...

If redevelopment plans are as gun-shy as they were twenty years ago (in the name of protecting small businesses, no less), I think Wheaton will be poorer for it because people will continue to avoid the area. As Thayer-D pointed out, the sidewalks in Wheaton are generally empty most of the time.

The photo of Silver Spring I included is of people playing soccer in the middle of the street. Yeah, there's a Ben and Jerry's in front of them, but that doesn't make the place "generic." The people make the place.

WheatonCalling said...

Hi Dan. I should have known better than to post that just before flying down to Florida to visit a friend over the weekend. I just want to clarify that the 'generic' area I'm talking about in SS is the specific area developed by the Peterson Company filled with predominantly chain restaurants and that cheesy piped in music that they play. The design of town center feels very 'Disney' to me, and not in a good way. That being said, it's the people that hang out in the town center that keep it unique and help to overcome the chain stores and restaurants that really could be anywhere.

All of those unique restaurants and bars you mention in your post are outside of Peterson's manufactured 'town center', and when I compared Wheaton's future redevelopment to Silver Spring's, that was the specific area I talking about (I should have clearer). I think what Wheaton residents can take from what's happened in Silver Spring is that it is possible for local businesses outside of the shiny new town center to still coexist wiht the chain stores that will inevitably come to this kind of a redevelopment project.

While the county-owned land that B.F. Saul is buying won't immediately displace any businesses, I am concerned about what would happen to some neighborhood institutions (like Marchone's) if B.F. Saul also starts to buy up some of the adjoining properties. That's when I'd like to see the county look at ways to help retain those longtime local businesses.

I don't want to make another long post just in my comment here, so I'll just say that I followed some advice you gave me when met at your happy hour, Dan...I got pissed off about something and blogged about it! I really don't disagree with anything you or the other commenters said. Despite my somewhat angry reaction after reading the City Paper's article, I really am in favor of the redevelopment. I just think it's our job as local residents to voice our desires and concerns as the process moves forward.

Thomas Hardman said...

I have to note here that the 11-unit theaters have re-opened in Wheaton Plaza, and they'd really like some folks to come and watch the movies. They don't have much, if any, web presence, and the last time I was there, I talked with one of the employees who mentioned that sometimes it gets pretty full on the weekends, but othrewise, they could sure use more business.

I think that it's on secret at all that I have the opinion that Wheaton would be better served by a general infrastructure improvement effort than it would be served by any approach that amounts to "tear down the old, make bundles of money replacing it with even more new".

In my humble opinion, if you want to do new development, probably Glenmont is far more overdue for that particular approach. Of course that should wait on the long-awaited upgrade of the intersection of Randolph Road and Georgia Avenue, but Wheaton has a lot going for it already. Glenmont is one of those places where as time goes on, I drive through and think "this place couldn't possibly get more run-down and 'ghetto'", but months later I drive through again and realize "actually I guess it could get more 'ghetto'. It has".

Well, Glenmont will be getting their new parking garage, and the Greater Glenmont Civic Association has been getting a whole lot of assistance from the County, especially in terms of law-enforcement and support for their Neighborhood Watch. As time goes on, the newly-formed "Georgia Avenue Coalition" may help to bring a lot more citizen involvement in the planning process, instead of one community at a time falling under the scrutiny of developers and planners.

Wheaton is already part of a continuum, rather than a center. Everything outside of the Beltway from Wheaton to Norbeck is pretty built up and a lot of it is going to seed, though little of it is as far gone as Glenmont. Wheaton has the reputation of being a "foodie" paradise, not that I'd know. (I am not gregarious and when I feel all "foodie" I cook at home or order take-out.) But what's Glenmont's reputation? I wouldn't exactly call it "blight" but it's been "suffering from benign neglect" for about 50 years.

Sorry to digress all over the place. But my point is that the County shouldn't put all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak, in one place at a time. First it was DTSS, and that worked out okay even if it does look like a mini-Busch-Gardens or a pint-sized Six Flags. But before that, the County wasted decades and millions with Rockville Mall before they struck pay-dirt with the "new downtown". If they were to do the same thing in Wheaton (oops, that's right, they have), then I suppose they can move on to the next place, possibly Glenmont or somesuch. But they haven't yet turned Wheaton into "the next DTSS"; that will take years if not decades.

In the interim between when everyone can pat themselves on the back and say "great job, what's next", what happens to all of the places not yet in the spotlight of the moment?

And in any case, the question that needs to be asked and answered is "when can we get some large-scale employers in the Mid-County?" -to say nothing of the outer reaches of District Four.

Anonymous said...

As a long time resident of Wheaton for more than 37 years and an avocate for revitalilzation since 1997, I am really excited to see so many people who have opinions about what Wheaton should look like in the future. I agree with with some of those opinions and know that it will take time for our vision to become a reality. My only regret is that we can't get some of you folk out to meetings to share valuable views and get the right and up to date information about what is happening in the area.

Some of what I have read in this blog, in my opinion is skirting the truth about what is proposed for Wheaton. I haven't seen any "approved" proposals for the downtown square and I would be aware, because I go to the meetings and serve on the Ad Hoc group working with the developer, and community members and groups.

The ideas that have been placed on the website are to stimulate thinking and planning for proposals that are being developed together with the community for further discussion and planning.

I would hope that those of you who have not been active in the process over the years would strive to get the facts and respect the work of the community and groups who have been involved to get us this far in the process.

We all want responsisble developments in Wheaton, we want our businesses to be successful, we want Wheaton to be a place where we can walk, work, and play in a downtown that is pedestrian friendly, safe and a great place to call home.

So, with that said, I hope to see you all out at the meetings as we continue to plan and move forward to make Wheaton the place we want it to be.

"Who Said we wanted Wheaton to be another Bethesda"!