In yesterday's Gazette, County Executive Ike Leggett says the only way to revitalize downtown Wheaton is by giving $40 million in public funds to developer B.F. Saul, which already has the rights to build on several county-owned parcels in the area:
“Don't bemoan the fact that we're going to make an investment,” Leggett said. “You have to make an investment, otherwise it would have worked already and it has not.”
Maybe I misread this statement, but it sounds like Leggett's saying that Wheaton is so awful we have to pay people to build here. This isn't the first time we've heard this line. But it raises a few questions:
- Is the kind of development Montgomery County wants to see in Wheaton, like high-end offices, the kind of stuff the market wants in Wheaton? (Check out this draft plan from B.F. Saul, shown above.) Are there other kinds of development (I don't know what) that may be more economically feasible, but haven't been considered?
- Are developers actually scared to build in Wheaton? And if so, is it because of financing, or because of other factors? For instance, are they worried about access to existing activity centers like Bethesda or Rockville, or the area's reputation (real or perceived) for crime? Or the difficulty of obtaining a liquor license in Montgomery County, which makes it difficult restaurants to open?
- And if we really need to "invest" public funds in Wheaton, should it go to a large developer, or to local businesses? This is the question raised by the Coalition for the Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton
I'm not totally sure if I'm down with the Coalition's list of priorities, but I agree that the solution or "fix" for downtown Wheaton is a little more complicated than the County Executive allows. Clearly, private development is already happening in Wheaton, albeit with some county help: the Leesborough project on the former site of Good Counsel High School, the Exchange, which will include a new Safeway, and the renovation of the 1960's-era Wheaton Place apartments on Amherst Avenue, now called the Encore. All of these projects suggest that Wheaton isn't really a lost cause, and that even without $40 million, the downtown would probably continue to grow and improve on its own.
Of course, one developer who's been investing in Wheaton without much help from the county has been Leonard Greenberg, who I wrote about last week for his claim (though it wasn't the first time I've heard it) that Wheaton could be "the next Adams Morgan." Earlier this week, I had a lengthy phone conversation with Greenberg, who asked to give his side of the story.
Come back tomorrow for a detailed look at Greenberg's work, his ideas for Wheaton, and one possible reason why developers have shied away from the area.