Friday, September 30, 2011

walmart to replace empty office park in aspen hill

aspen hill walmart
Walmart's proposed store in Aspen Hill. Image courtesy of the Post.

Walmart's push into the D.C. area continues with another proposed store, this one in Aspen Hill. A few days ago, Jonathan O'Connell at the Washington Post's Business Insider blog wrote a brief description of the store, to be located at Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road, a block from Georgia Avenue. According to the article, the store would be 118,000 square feet, roughly the size of the Target on Cherry Hill Road, and sell groceries.

The site's currently a 1960's-era office building owned by Lee Development Group, the folks who brought you the Fillmore. Until recently, the building was home to aerospace and defense company BAE Systems, which moved to Rockville.

I would've liked to see something along the lines of what the Planning Department suggested in their 2008 study of the entire Georgia Avenue corridor from downtown Silver Spring to Brookeville. In Aspen Hill (see page 30), they proposed turning the current commercial area, composed of a few different strip malls, into a sort of "town center" like Rockville Town Square. Walmart could've fit into this vision, instead of being a typical big box in a parking lot. A proposed store a few blocks from Union Station in D.C. will have underground parking and luxury apartments above, while one in Tysons Corner will be closer in size to a Giant supermarket, drawing customers only from the immediate area.

aspen hill bing aerial
Aerial of Aspen Hill's commercial area with Walmart site highlighted. Image courtesy of Bing Maps.

Of course, this kind of development is much more expensive than dropping a one-story box in a parking lot. That's why Walmart's three other stores in D.C., on East Capitol Street, New York Avenue and in Brightwood, just ten miles down Georgia Avenue from Aspen Hill, look exactly like that. In addition, most of Aspen Hill already looks like that and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

So if there's anywhere in East County where a store like Walmart would be fitting, it would be Aspen Hill, which is served by two large state highways and will be about two miles from both the Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road exits on the InterCounty Connector. It's an easy place to reach by car, and a complement to other big-box stores in the area, like Kmart and Home Depot.

It's unfortunate that the Lees didn't try to lure Costco away from their future home in Westfield Wheaton Wheaton Plaza. Downtown Wheaton has a Metro station and several bus routes and, unlike Aspen Hill, will soon see a lot of high-density redevelopment. This won't be the easiest place to reach by car (is it now?) and thus may not be the best location for a big-box store dependent on car access. 

I'm less upset about Walmart's awful labor and manufacturing policies than I am to see another company with real, well-paying jobs move from the east side to Rockville. It doesn't make a difference to the County Executive whether a business is in Rockville or Silver Spring, because the taxes all go to the same place. But for employees who now have to commute across the county, it's more time spent in traffic. What good are having access discount underpants if you don't have any time to buy them?


Gary said...

Complement the Aspen Hill K-Mart? More likely put the K-Mart out of business.

That commercial zone is horrible in so many ways; i do wish it could be torn down and redone, with or without Walmart.

Bruce Lee said...

We have talked with many folks and the consensus is that Aspen Hill is a retail destination not an office center. We agree. My Grandfather built the first retail in Aspen Hill and we look forward to rehabilitating our retail properties along with the BAE/Vitro office building as soon as we can. Ironically, several years ago we did negotiate with Costco for the BAE/Vitro site. We got very close to a final deal and three things happened. 1) The site was too small for what Costco needed. 2) We did not want another gas station added to Aspen Hill. 3) The Wheaton location suddenly presented itself as an alternative location. We lost out which happens in our business. Our biggest challenge with our old BAE/Vitro property is the zoning. We are only zoned for office. Without a zoning change, we cannot do any retail. We have asked the Council to direct Park and Planning to look at the Aspen Hill Master Plan. The Council meets this Tuesday with Park and Planning to discuss their future work schedule. We would love to revitalize our property bringing much needed jobs and shopping vitality to Aspen Hill but we can’t without a zoning change. Many of your points are on target.
Bruce H. Lee

Dan Reed said...


Thanks for your comments. This definitely clarifies the issue at hand. I agree that Walmart is better than an empty building.

Patrick said...

Bruce, hope the design keeps in mind that many people will walk and take the bus to this Walmart.

Perhaps you can also get Metrobus/Rideon to enter the shopping center northbound and not send shoppers dashing back and forth across Connecticut Avenue in a real-life game of Frogger.

retgroclk said...

Dan- Get off the unfair labor practices of Walmart routine- that is so yesterday.
Walmart pays comparable wages to the other major chain stores, they offer benefits, and they hire just about anyone.
If anything ask yourself why the starting wage of some of these chain stores is not too different than what it was 30 years ago.

C. P. Zilliacus said...

I've no problem with Wal-Mart moving in to any new location, including Aspen Hill. I don't see much difference between the employment practices of Wal-Mart and some other large national chains (some of which are franchised and some are not, but are found all around Montgomery County), except that Wal-Mart is the target of organized scorn by certain unions.

Kudos to the Lees for getting a taxpaying entity to take over the old Vitro site.

C. P. Zilliacus said...

Dan, I share your unhappiness about Quality Inns (and friends) moving away from their longtime location on U.S. 29 in White Oak. We can hope that a maybe a business related to the FDA will perhaps move in there?

Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, as I live right around the corner from the proposed Walmart site, all I can say is that whether this becomes a Walmart or some other comparably-sized retail entity, this site does need to be re-zoned commercial rather than for office space.

Remember, when this building was constructed, the plans for the "Rockville Facility" were still on the table and frankly it was expected that it would go forward. Had that occurred, traffic exiting that highway at the infamous "cloverleaf to nowhere" on Connecticut Avenue (at the current Matthew Henson State Park) would have had to drive barely a mile north to get to that building.

As it is, for those concerned about Walmart driving the K-Mart out of business, K-Mart is so packed with customers at almost all times of day and night that K-Mart would probably welcome any store that would relieve some of the pressure. Stop in there around 6:00PM some night and you'll see what I mean, it's being run over capacity and even with all checkout lanes staffed, you can wait half an hour to get through the lines.

As to re-design, I have had a little discussion with Mr Lee of Lee Development Group, speaking to the matter of a redesign of their huge block of properties comprising both the proposed Walmart site and the nearby Northgate Plaza Shopping Center. It would certainly be nice to see that grand vision develop there, which was contained in the Georgia Avenue Corridor Study. However, many of the tenants in Northgate have rather long leases, and Mr Lee expresses the concern that it would be hard on everyone involved to buy out the lease-holders and evict them, to embark on a project probably requiring most of a decade or more. In the meanwhile, there's simply no need to add any more vacant Commercial Real Estate to the market, and even less need to build any new high-density high-price residences. Let's see what happens with the economy, with rezoning the proposed Walmart site, and mass-transit along the lines of Bus Rapid Transit, first.