Monday, March 7, 2011

wheaton town square should belong to the public

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton
It looks like Wheaton's getting a town square after all. Last week, the Gazette wrote about developer B.F. Saul and their plans to turn Parking Lot 13 (above), located at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, into a town square:

A town square will feature community events, much like Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. B.F. Saul prefers to own and program the space, but the task will likely end up in the hands of the county, [representative Robert] Wulff said.

Great urban places need great public spaces, but they can be expensive to build and maintain. Montgomery County can't afford to give every community a space like Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. As a result, the task will have to fall on developers for whom a plaza or square can be an amenity, drawing tenants, shoppers and residents to their projects. One example of a successful privately-owned public space is the Piazza at Schmidt's in Philadelphia, which draws people from all over the region for shows, markets, and just hanging out.

Yet it's important to ensure that the public has a right to these spaces other than as customers. Saying that Montgomery County will "likely" own and program the town square in Wheaton is not an option. Didn't we learn a lesson from Ellsworth Drive, which Montgomery County leased to a private developer who banned photography on the street until the ensuing outcry required the county to defend the people's right to free speech? I find fears that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into Silver Spring complaints irritating, but this is one mistake from Silver Spring we shouldn't repeat.

Montgomery County has essentially handed the keys to downtown Wheaton to B.F. Saul by giving them the right to build on several properties in the area. Nonetheless, the community should be assured that the most significant public space in this revitalized neighborhood will belong to them, even if they don't hold the title. It should be made clear what B.F. Saul's and the county's roles in the town square will be as soon as possible.


D said...

You know more of this history than I do, but I wonder if the Silver Spring comparison might be a bit more complex. It turned out the Ellsworth Drive could not and did not become a true public square. Still, would Veteran's plaza ever have been built if Ellsworth wasn't regularly bringing thousands of people to that location for shopping, concerts, and other events?

Unknown said...

The county should also stay on B.F. Saul to make sure that adequate space is set aside for the square. The plans that I've seen so far look like the "public square" space would be pitifully small, basically just a token strip of land so that the developers can say that they are setting aside public space.

dave in wheaton said...

I thought that quote from the Gazzette was a little unclear:
B.F. Saul prefers to own and program the space, but the task will likely end up in the hands of the county, Wulff said.
The task of programming the space will likely end up with the county? Or the county will likely own the space too? A pretty important distinction. The public space should be public - period. There is no reason for it not to be.

EMW said...

BF Saul's representatives came to speak at our school's PTA meeting. I had the impression that a lot of the Triangle Drive parking lot area will be taken over by a hotel. Someone pointed out that at events like Taste of Wheaton, the whole lot is taken over by restaurants and other vendors. Also, the developers didn't have a comprehensive vision of how Wheaton could be developed. When I asked them about how what they were doing would tie into the mall, they had no answer. Either the county needs to step up, or I'm afraid the result will be a myopic development that may not be the public-friendly.