Monday, April 9, 2012

third proposal emerges for downtown wheaton redevelopment

Conceptual rendering of offices along Georgia Avenue from a 2004 design charrette.

Last Thursday, I wrote about the dueling proposals for the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton. For two years, County Executive Ike Leggett has been in talks with developer B.F. Saul to build a new town square on Lot 13 and a platform over the Metro to accommodate several office buildings and a hotel. Meanwhile, the County Council proposes a smaller plan, with just one or two office buildings and a new town square on Lot 13.

Wheaton Patch wrote on Friday that a third proposal emerged. This plan would basically carry out the County Council's proposal while providing an additional $1.7 million in funding to study building a platform in 2017 and 2018. The County Council will vote on one of the three proposals tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Leggett's office wasn't happy with my post. Over at GGW, my post received two angry comments from Jonathan Fink and Chelsea Johnson, both of whom are members of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee, which endorsed County Executive Ike Leggett's proposal. I also received an e-mail from Donna Bigler, assistant director to the county's Office of Public Information, demanding that I make corrections. It's printed at the end of this post.

I stand by my research for this post, including included two phone interviews, several e-mails, reading the County Council's staff report that's available online, and many articles from the Gazette and Wheaton Patch. I admit that I did not reach out to anyone in the County Executive's office about their proposal, foolishly assuming that any information I needed would be available online. It wasn't. Neither the WRAC homepage, the county's page on Wheaton redevelopment, or B.F. Saul's page have any recent information about the current proposal.

It seems that if Leggett wants to make his side of the story, he needs to make his story readily available to the public.

Anyway, I've previously stated my misgivings about the size of Leggett's proposal, but my bigger issue is his timing. The Metro station, located at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road, is potentially the most valuable property in downtown Wheaton and a logical place to put a lot of development. At the same time, you have to spend nearly $40 million to make it buildable. Why do it now, when we're still coming out of a recession and when Wheaton has not yet established itself as a high-value location for office development?

We should start with other publicly-owned properties in downtown Wheaton, like Lot 13 and other parking lots, if only because they're already on solid ground. Building there would draw people to the area and turn Wheaton into a more desirable place to live and do business. Then, we could come back to the Metro station in several years and make a killing.

Of course, Ike Leggett won't be County Executive in several years, so he won't be able to take credit for whatever happens then. Elected officials are often averse to thinking beyond the next election, but that's the only way you can make a large, complicated redevelopment project happen.

The following is the e-mail I received from Donna Bigler:

Upon review of the article in GGW, Montgomery County Department of General Services and other Executive branch staff offer the following comments and clarifications:

The article states that $42M would only cover the cost of the platform.

This is inaccurate. The $42M covers the cost of the platform, the relocation or interim bus operations, the construction of a new public town square on Lot 13, new bus bays that comport with future RTV facility needs, lease costs associated with the relocation of the Regional Services Center as well as other miscellaneous expenses like staff resources and public art.

The article states the County Council’s alternate proposal would cost $55M -- $2.5M for the town square and $5.6M for an underground garage.

This is grossly underestimated. While the town square construction is estimated to cost $2.5M, the underground garage would exceed $19M. The Lot 13 is a Parking Lot District facility and the PLD is required to be made whole on their property. In other words, the new underground garage would need to replace all of the existing surface parking spaces. The PLD would require 205 (an entire level) to replace the surface spaces. Add the future development on Lot 13 and the garage would need to be at least three levels at 205 spaces per level. Executive staff estimates the cost to be approximately $31,000 per space or $19M for 615 spaces (3 levels). Further, a new office building on Lot 13 to be constructed by Montgomery County would exceed $46M by nearly $30M. Other published estimates grossly misjudge the public costs of constructing an office building on Lot 13.

The article notes that 1,600 workers would come to downtown Wheaton’s 415,000 square feet of County office buildings.

This is inaccurate. The Council’s PHED Committee proposal only suggests funding for one office building – an either/or scenario. As such, the required space would only amount to 150,000 square feet for a new building -- not 415,000. If the building were to be a new MNCPPC headquarters, they have 400 employees. If it were an office building for DEP and DPS, they have 100 and 200 employees respectively.

The article states that the County is positioned to subsidize rents for a GSA tenant.

This is inaccurate. BF Saul and the County Executive’s staff have not entered into any agreement to subsidize rents for a GSA tenant nor is the County Executive staff considering any such arrangement. That said, it has been a long practice in Montgomery County to incentive economic development initiatives by subsidizing rents, i.e. Silver Spring and NOAA. It is important to note however, that those incentives are County Council actions and not those of the Executive.

The article states that the County has not performed a cost benefit analysis as part of the Executive proposal.

This is inaccurate. In fact, there have been several iterations of fiscal impacts and analysis completed throughout the public process. The fiscal impact was provided to the County Council and it was evident that the impacts are positive over the long term. Further, the fiscal impact simply evaluated the Executive CIP proposal’s effect and did not include the greater positive benefits from development that is generated as a result of fostering a new market.

Regarding the Urban Land Institute recommendation:

The 2009 ULI recommendation was made before the Safeway/Patriot high-rise, mixed-use project became a reality and before County resources were considered to build a platform over the Metro site. The ULI recommendation, in fact, differs from a 2008 International Downtown Association study, which recommended that development on the Metro site and Parking Lot 13 be major element of Phase I redevelopment. (We wrote about their findings, namely their proposal to move the Wheaton library downtown -ed.)

That study recognized the need and importance of such County support. “Panelists believe that the CBD could support more {Office development}, though perhaps not on the scale of Bethesda or Silver Spring. Because the CBD is an untested market for Class A commercial office space, the County will have to play a key role in attracting commercial office development to the CBD. It may need to be a pioneer by locating a significant department in Wheaton’s CBD, either as a tenant in a private sector development or as a county facility that could anchor additional private sector development.”


retgroclk said...

I would hate to see Lot 13 change- the parking lot is a great benefit to those of us who do not ride the Metro because of mobility problems.When I drive to the Giant in the Plaza, and decide to go to Target- I must drive over to Target to due medical problems. I can not walk that distance.
If I wanted to go to Marchones, or Moby Dick I would have to drive- it is too strenous to walk that distance-
All of this talk of a Town Center and office buildings sounds nice, but if you eliminate parking, you eliminate the chance for a number of disabled people to enjoy the shops and restaurants. The world does not revolve around those who are pedestrians, there are quite a few of us who still need to drive to get around.

Dan Reed said...

All three proposals would replace Lot 13 with an underground parking garage. Street parking would also remain. I don't know how those spaces would be used, but I would think many of them would be given over to those with disabled parking permits.