Thursday, April 26, 2012

can a parking deck be "green"? new glenmont garage isn't

County Executive Ike Leggett calls the new garage at the Glenmont Metro a "boon to transit and a boon to the environment." A truly "green" garage at a transit station would make room for people, not just cars.

Glenmont Parking Garage
The new Glenmont parking garage. Photo by Ben Schumin.

Last week, Montgomery County officials cut the ribbon on the new parking facility, located on the west side of Georgia Avenue at Glenallan Avenue. A press release notes that the garage, which earned LEED certification, was built from recycled materials and has energy-efficient light fixtures. Meanwhile, WMATA cut down an acre of trees to build the 1,200 space, 80-foot high garage while violating the county's own plans for transit-oriented development.

Is there such a thing as a "green" parking garage? Maybe if it's covered in plants, like this one in Miami Beach, Florida. While there's nothing wrong with accommodating drivers who'd otherwise drive all the way to work, just building more parking spaces won't help the environment - or Glenmont, for that matter.

How did this happen?

"Green" Glenmont Parking Garage
Site plan of new garage overlaid on the 1998 Glenmont Sector Plan, which proposed townhouses and retail along Georgia Avenue.

In 2006, WMATA proposed building a new parking garage on 10 acres of land they own along the west side of Georgia Avenue. The existing 1,700-space garage fills up often, they claimed. Neighbors didn't want a garage in their backyards, and county planners agreed, suggesting that it be built on the east side next to the old one.

However, WMATA staff estimated that it would cost nearly $23,000 a space to build a garage on the east side, compared to about $16,000 on the west. Seeing the potential for savings, the County Council voted to fund the construction of a garage on the west side of Georgia in 2007.

WMATA's design required tearing down an acre of forest the county wanted to preserve, but the Planning Board reluctantly approved it, arguing that sending them back to the drawing board would be a waste of time and public funds. Nonetheless, then-Chairman Royce Hanson called the garage "both an injury and an insult to the neighborhood."

The county and state of Maryland spent $24.7 million building this garage, or $20,312 a space. Not only did they spend more than originally planned, but they've wasted an opportunity to do the "green" thing: create revenue-generating, neighborhood-compatible development along Georgia Avenue.

What should they have done instead?

Hidden Parking Garage, Elm Street, Bethesda
This parking garage in Bethesda Row is partially hidden by other buildings.

In a presentation at Rail~Volution last fall, Jason Schrieber, principal at planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, noted that transit stations in town centers often have more riders than those served only by park-and-rides. In addition, placing other uses around transit creates both economic and public safety benefits for the surrounding community.

With about 5,800 riders each weekday in 2010, the Glenmont Metro station actually has more customers than neighboring Wheaton, which is in a town center. But it still pales in comparison to other Red Line stations in downtowns, like Bethesda (10,600) or Silver Spring (13,400). Meanwhile, just 17% of people living within a half-mile of Glenmont take the Metro to work, compared to 35% in Silver Spring. These are people who probably wouldn't drive to the station, so a new parking garage won't encourage them to use transit.

To truly increase transit ridership and help the environment, the new parking garage at Glenmont should have been designed to fit into a larger neighborhood scheme, like the one envisioned in the Glenmont Sector Plan nearly 15 years ago.

Parking Garage Over Shops, Clarendon At Fillmore
This parking garage in Clarendon is part of a neighborhood, not just a place to put cars.

For instance, the new garage could have included ground-floor retail, like this one in Clarendon, providing activity along Georgia Avenue and encouraging commuters to spend time and money in Glenmont. Or the garage could have been designed to allow other buildings around it, like at Bethesda Row, where a county parking garage is located in the center of a city block with housing, shops, and offices.

Though Glenmont struggles with disinvestment, it's one of the few Metro station areas in Montgomery County where private development is happening without public subsidiesAfter years of delays, local developer JBG is finally moving forward with Glenmont Metrocenter, which will turn a 1960's-era apartment complex into a mixed-use community with 1500 homes and 90,000 square feet of retail without a single dollar of county funds.

WMATA could have made money by selling the land around their new garage for future development from which the county could receive tax revenue. Meanwhile, the neighborhood would have more amenities, more residents or workers who could walk or bike to the Metro, and more "eyes on the street," making the area safer.

County planners are beginning to revise the 1997 plan for Glenmont, but a large chunk of the neighborhood's potential for revitalization is now be gone. There's only so much land next to Metro stations in Montgomery County and Greater Washington as a whole, and we have to use it wisely.

Hopefully, the mistakes made in Glenmont will serve as an example of what not to do elsewhere.

Friday, April 20, 2012

montgomery county loses out by losing rollin stanley (updated)

UPDATE: The Post reports that Stanley will be heading to Calgary to run their planning department.

Yesterday, Maryland Juice reported that Montgomery County planning director Rollin Stanley has resigned and will take a "much bigger job" in another city. While he was an outspoken and controversial public figure, he had great ideas for the county. And despite claims to the contrary, he created a more open and transparent Planning Department.

Stanley was appointed planning director in 2008, three years after the seat was vacated and the once-vaunted planning department became embroiled in controversy. Having gained a national reputation for his work in Toronto and St. Louis, Stanley was quick to shake things up here. One of his earliest public appearances as planning director was at a breakfast for the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, where he referred to big suburban houses as "the next slums."

In an interview with Bethesda Magazine, Stanley said he'd "never planned on doing suburbs" before coming here. But he took the county's history of progressive planning, going back to the On Wedges & Corridors plan in 1964, and crafted a vision to use its transit corridors and aging commercial centers to accommodate projected population growth.

World Cup Fever On Ellsworth
Stanley celebrated downtown Silver Spring in a way few other public officials in Montgomery County have.

Allow denser development in the right places, he argued, and raise tax revenues that can pay for public amenities while preserving the suburban neighborhoods so many people like. It's an approach that suburbs around the country are taking, from Overland Park, Kansas to Bellevue, Washington, and even right in our own backyard, in Arlington and Tysons Corner.

Over the past four years, I've watched Stanley speak to groups ranging from developers to senior citizens; participated in a blogger panel he organized; and reached out to him personally for advice. His ability to make good planning and design relevant to ordinary, politically uninvolved people is why I want to become a planner myself.

Stanley not only talks about the tax benefits of new development, but the potential to create cool places like downtown Silver Spring, where he and his wife lived. Silver Spring's food carts or the street life on Ellsworth Drive were frequently mentioned on his blog, which along with another blog run by planning staff gave residents an inside look at how the Planning Department worked.

The Planning Department also became more active in the community under Stanley's leadership. His "walkabouts" in various neighborhood allowed him meet with residents in an informal setting. In 2010, the agency held a speaker series where community leaders talked about issues affecting the county. A series of open houses are being held this month to educate residents about a rewrite of the zoning code that'll make it easier for anyone to understand.

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
Under Stanley's leadership, White Flint became a nationally-recognized model for suburban redevelopment.

It's this inclusive approach that has earned Stanley support for his initiatives, namely a plan for the redevelopment of White Flint, where the tallest building in Montgomery County recently opened. People who don't normally write their elected officials or place lawn signs in their yard were receptive to his vision of a dense, walkable town center, and with the help of a solid organizing campaign by the White Flint Partnership, they came out in support for it.

While working for Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, I was responsible for answering correspondence about the White Flint plan. Of the roughly 700 e-mails we received, two-thirds were in support, while at the County Council's public hearings for the plan, supporters outnumbered opponents.

Stanley was a polarizing figure, earning the ire of civic associations and even people within his agency who didn't agree with him. Plans for additional development in the Great Seneca Science Corridor and Kensington were met with significant community opposition before eventually being approved. Detractors claimed that he was "dismissive" of residents' concerns and didn't "value opposing opinions." And he occasionally made inappropriate comments, such as referring to an organization that disagreed with him as "rich, white women" that led to calls for him to resign.

Those who demanded Stanley's ouster may be satisfied to see him go, but the ship has already turned. Montgomery County was well on its way to becoming a taller, denser, more diverse place before he came and will continue to do so after he leaves. The question is whether we can find another planning director with the same passion and vision who can keep us moving forward.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

national labor college move presents development opportunity for hillandale

National Labor College
Are you looking to buy a college? After four decades in Hillandale, the National Labor College announced that they will sell its campus this summer, reports the Gazette.

The college, located at New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway, was previously a Catholic school before the AFL-CIO bought the property in 1974, seeking a permanent place to educate union workers. With just 1,300 students, all of whom can now study online, the college no longer needs a large campus and plans to relocate to an office building somewhere in the area.

The National Labor College leaves behind a 47 acre campus with four residence halls, two classroom buildings, a library, an auditorium and the recently-built Lane Kirkland Conference Center, all of which surround a small quad. There's also what appears to be a basketball court and baseball diamond. (In case you're as unfamiliar with the site as I was, the campus does not include Holly Hall, a retirement community whose red-brick buildings make it look like part of the college.)

What can be done with a former college? Naturally, the campus would lend itself to another school, but we shouldn't be limited by that. The campus might be a nice place for a security-minded government tenant to locate, but judging from the stalled progress at St. Elizabeth's in the District, it's unlikely that any federal agencies will be poking around here.

Besides, we probably don't want that anyway. When the Food and Drug Administration relocated their headquarters to the former Naval Ordnance Laboratory further up New Hampshire Avenue, there was an opportunity to use its 710-acre property for a mix of uses, including retail, housing or parkland. But neighbors in Hillandale "[were] going to have none of that," as one resident told the Washington Post. Instead, we got an isolated office campus whose 7,000 workers barely venture out for lunch, much to the chagrin of local restaurants.

The National Labor College land is far too valuable to make that mistake again. It's next to the Beltway and just one exit away from I-95. It's also part of the White Oak Science Gateway, which is what county planners call the research and development center they'd like to create in the area. There are a lot of possibilities here, and we shouldn't be so quick to shut them off.

It's not every day that 47 acres suddenly appears in the middle of an established community. This is a great opportunity and we'd do well to seize it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

wheaton's limit may be its strength (four uncomfortable truths about east county)

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously turned down a plan by County Executive Ike Leggett to rebuild a portion of downtown Wheaton, favoring an alternate plan instead. Residents who supported Leggett's plan are frustrated at the defeat, but this wasn't the best path for redevelopment in Wheaton.

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton
The County Council voted to turn Lot 13 into a new town square and county offices.

In recent months, Leggett and the council have disagreed on how to begin the redevelopment. Leggett proposed spending $42 million to build a new town square and a platform over the Wheaton Metro station for future development, while the County Council proposed spending $55 million to build the town square and offices for county agencies.

The council ended up voting for a a combination of both proposals, providing funds for a county office building and town square now and to study building the platform later.

The decision ends a long and often acrimonious debate over how to spark the redevelopment of downtown Wheaton. In February, Leggett's administration claimed that there wasn't enough money to pay for a revitalization scheme in Wheaton and a new Metro station entrance in Bethesda, pitting supporters of both projects against each other.

When the council found funding for both projects, the conversation turned to the merits of Leggett's proposal. While County Council analyst Jacob Sesker wasn't opposed to building atop the Metro, he created the alternative proposals because he felt it wasn't feasible in the immediate future. Meanwhile, the Coalition for a Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton has expressed concerns about local businesses, calling for a more substantial town square or a community benefits agreement.

MetroPointe & Wheaton Station
A platform may be built atop the Wheaton Metro station, but not for a while.

These questions led to accusations that the council was being meddlesome and was opposed to making Wheaton better. After the vote on Tuesday, resident Henriot St. Gerard wrote a scathing blog post on Wheaton Patch calling it a "show of disrespect" to the community.

I understand that people in Wheaton are impatient for change. I grew up in East County and started blogging six years ago because I wanted to see the kind of amenities that residents of Rockville or Bethesda enjoy right in my own backyard. But I too have had to grapple with a few uncomfortable truths:

Jobs are concentrated on the west side of the county and will remain there for a long time.

In 2010, there were 506,000 jobs in Montgomery County, 70% of which are located along the I-270 corridor. Bethesda alone has 87,000 jobs, more than Silver Spring, White Oak and Wheaton combined. Plans for additional employment growth in White Flint, the Great Seneca Science Corridor, and Germantown ensures that the west side will continue to remain the county's job center.

Companies located in East County aren't sticking around.

Last year, defense contractor BAE Systems moved a branch office from Aspen Hill to Rockville. The empty building added to an already high vacancy rate in the Kensington-Wheaton area, where nearly a quarter of all office space is empty, compared to just 11 percent countywide. Lee Development Group, which owns the building, will replace it with a Walmart because they concluded that the area was "a retail destination, not an office center."

Companies already located on the west side aren't interested in going east.

The county is planning to create a research and development center in East County called the White Oak Science Gateway around the Food and Drug Administration's new campus. Though the area enjoys the lowest office vacancy rate in the county, with just 6 percent of offices sitting empty, it's unclear who will fill them.

A recent report from planning consultants surveyed research and development firms located at the county's existing Life Sciences Center in Gaithersburg and found that wouldn't move to White Oak because they appreciate the proximity to other R&D firms along the I-270 corridor.

Officials are more concerned about keeping jobs in the county than where they specifically end up.

In addition to planning for future job growth on the west side, the county also gave subsidies to one company in exchange for moving there. Next year, Choice Hotels will move their headquarters from Silver Spring to Rockville with $4.3 million in loans and grants from the county, state and City of Rockville and additional tax credits.

Choice Hotels wanted to be closer to a Metro station, so having them move to Wheaton would've met both their needs and Leggett's goals. But after seeing firms like Hilton Hotels and Northrup Grumman pass up Montgomery County for Northern Virginia, county leaders were surely relieved that they decided to stay here at all.

Concept rendering of downtown Wheaton from a 2004 charrette.

Wheaton has many strengths: stable neighborhoods, diverse population, and a compact downtown well-served by both transit and major roads. But as a potential job center, it competes with larger and more established places like downtown Bethesda, the I-270 corridor, and others throughout Greater Washington. And that's why earlier recommendations for redeveloping Wheaton, both from the public and planning experts focused on housing, retail and entertainment in the short term, with offices coming later if demand warrants it.

Residents are both eager and worried that redevelopment will turn Wheaton into a place like Silver Spring or Bethesda, but we shouldn't be limited to those examples. Skeptics of Leggett's proposal don't lack faith in Wheaton's potential. They recognize that Wheaton's constraints and strengths, if properly harnessed, will let it grow into something else entirely.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

teenage photog completes timelapse of downtown silver spring

Downtown Silver Spring in Motion from Tolu Omokehinde on Vimeo.

Have you ever wondered what the line at Chipotle looks like when sped up? Tolu Omokehinde has the answer for you. Over the past several months, the Blair High School student and his classmate Nick Grossman have spent 80 hours bringing a camera around Silver Spring, taking over 7,000 photos and compiling them into this awesome timelapse video. You can watch it right here, but I encourage to click on the "full-screen" button (bottom right) to get the full experience.

In addition to Chipotle, there are scenes of the ice rink in Veterans Plaza, traffic on Georgia Avenue, and even a scene from inside a car driving down Colesville Road. (It appears that the photographer is not behind the wheel, thankfully.) There's also a preview of another project Omokehinde's working on of Blair High School, which he previously told us include some 23,000 photos.

The transformation of Silver Spring into an urban area is a frequent topic on this blog, but the real proof is in pictures like this.

To see more of Tolu's work, check out his Flickr and Vimeo pages. Following in the footsteps of mentor/friend of JUTP Chip Py, Tolu also photographs Blair High School athletic events, which you can see on his Facebook page.

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.”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

county council to vote on dueling development proposals in wheaton (updated)

Next Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council will choose a development proposal that it hopes will jump-start revitalization in downtown Wheaton.

Two competing proposals have emerged from County Executive Ike Leggett and the council for several publicly-owned properties in the area, both of which include significant office space. Leggett's proposal is larger and enjoys community support, but it may not make economic sense. The council's proposal is smaller, but takes a more deliberate approach to redevelopment.

While residents are impatient to see change in Wheaton, rushing into a redevelopment scheme that could harm existing businesses without quickly creating new value in is not in the community's best interest.

MetroPointe & Wheaton Station
The Metro station bus turnaround today, with the recently-built MetroPointe apartments in the background.

In 2010, Leggett made an agreement with developer B.F. Saul to redevelop several county-owned parcels in the center of downtown Wheaton. On Parking Lot 13, located at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, B.F. Saul would build a six-story, 250-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail and a new town square in a setup comparable to Bethesda Row.

The developer would also build a platform over the Wheaton Metro station's bus turnaround as the base for a hotel and three 14-story office buildings. With approximately 900,000 square feet, nine times the existing amount of Class A office space in downtown Wheaton, these buildings would bring about 3,600 workers to Wheaton's downtown every day.

Those offices would house the county's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), both currently located in Rockville, along with the Park and Planning Commission, currently in Silver Spring.

The county would also like to find a federal government tenant, though the rent cap on government offices will require them to subsidize rent, as they already do for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's headquarters in downtown Silver Spring.

Leggett wants to set aside $42 million for the project, which would only cover the cost of building the platform. It's unclear how much it would cost to build the rest or whether the county or B.F. Saul would pay for it. Nonetheless, the proposal has been endorsed by the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee and Mid-County Citizens Advisory Board, another developer working in Wheaton, and the Gazette.

Draft plan for downtown Wheaton, Winter 2011
A draft of B.F. Saul's plan for downtown Wheaton.

Concerned about the size and cost of Leggett's proposal, the County Council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee offered a counterproposal last month. In their proposal, estimated to cost $55 million, B.F. Saul the county would build a new town square on Lot 13 with an underground parking garage, at a cost of $2.5 million and $5.6 million, respectively, along with a building for DEP and DPS for $46 million.

There's also room for the Park and Planning Commission if another $46 million is found to build another building. Both buildings would contain 415,000 square feet of office space and hold about 1,600 workers.

"It is misleading to say that $42 million will revitalize Wheaton," says Councilmember George Leventhal, who sits on the committee. (Full disclosure: I used to work for Leventhal.) "The only thing that $42 million buys now is a concrete hat over the bus bay, and if you want to relocate county agencies, the cost will go above $100 million."

Though local blogger Wheaton Calling accuses the council of "throwing a wrench" into the redevelopment process with their counterproposal, the benefits of Leggett's proposal remain unclear. The county's Department of Economic Development usually does a cost-benefit analysis of major public investments, like the $4 million big-box retailer Costco received to open a store in Wheaton Plaza, but they haven't done one for this project.

"The 'end' is not to build a platform, to execute a General Development Agreement, or to attract a federal tenant," writes Jacob Sesker, economic analyst for the County Council, in a report for the PHED committee. "Rather, the desired end is to introduce land uses (to wit, office space) . . . that downtown Wheaton currently lacks and which the market will not provide."

Wheaton Lot 13
Lot 13 today.

In a phone call with JUTP, Sesker points out that in large-scale redevelopment projects, the best way to start is with the least challenging or expensive parts, like Lot 13. Those improvements will add value to the rest of the development, which makes the expensive parts more profitable to build later on, meaning B.F. Saul will require fewer subsidies.

The platform also has no direct benefit to the community by itself. "Unlike a school or a train, a platform does not teach any child to read and does not take anyone to work." Without those benefits, Sesker says, "if it is not generating revenue, then it probably is not a good investment."

"The County Council is the steward of public money," adds Leventhal. "If we're going to spend that money, it's reasonable to ask what this will do for taxpayers. We have to be very cautious about our decision, and we need much better analysis than what we've gotten."

Some still say offices just don't make sense in Wheaton. In 2009, a group of real estate and design experts commissioned by the Urban Land Institute to offer recommendations for redevelopment concluded that there is "no inherent reason" for offices to locate there:

The panel heard from a number of stakeholders that there is a desire for more office space in the CBD, in order to bring in greater daytime foot traffic . . . Wheaton is not well-positioned to attract development of, or users for, new large-scale office space. There are simply too many other office centers within the region that possess greater strengths, particularly in the near-term, where so much new office space has recently been built.

Instead, the panel suggests building apartments and townhomes to draw young professionals who are being priced out of Silver Spring, a handful of chain stores and restaurants outside of Wheaton Plaza to "anchor" the downtown, and a small music venue taking advantage of its proximity to the renowned Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center.

On Lot 13, they proposed a town square and a smaller "2-3 story building" with shops and apartments. Like Sesker, they recommend waiting to build over the bus turnaround, as that site is the "most valuable" in downtown Wheaton and has "the potential for the greatest density." This vision, particularly the focus on music and entertainment, fits in with earlier proposals for Wheaton that were well-received by the community.

Alante Financial
Local businesses in downtown Wheaton today.

No matter what the county does, they should heed the ULI panel's warning on any development in Wheaton: "Wheaton's strengths, such as its eclectic retail mix, are also quite fragile, and could be irreparably harmed by any redevelopment projects that are ill-conceived or rushed. Thus, the panel recommends a gradual approach to redevelopment," they write. "An attempt to force a desired result . . . would not only fail, but would also end up undermining the unique identity that Wheaton already possesses."

We've been waiting for a new Wheaton for twenty years, so it's understandable some are impatient. But rushing into any project without a thorough understanding of its potential costs and benefits could destroy what people already like about the old Wheaton while limiting its future potential.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

and now, for a brief message from our sponsor

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth

Today's my birthday, so I hope you'll indulge me in talking a little about myself and my life outside the blog.

Two years ago, I moved to Philadelphia to attend planning school. And next month, I plan to come back to the D.C. area to become an urban designer – for lack of a better term, someone who's responsible for designing the spaces between the buildings. Why do I want to be an urban designer? Because of Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring and the mark it left on me.

A great public space is the backbone of a community, a place where people can come to hang out, to gather, to celebrate and protest. And though I've visited and learned about great public spaces all over the world, I keep returning to Ellsworth.

I'm always blown away by how diverse the crowds are. I've brought my friends from out of town here and tell them about what's takes place on Ellsworth during a normal day: men playing soccer, appearances from Hare Krishnas, even political protests. Ellsworth isn't perfect. The architecture could be better, and micromanagement of the space by both Peterson and the County makes it hard for it to reach its full potential. But this street has become a model for suburban communities around the country. More importantly, it's become the heart of Silver Spring and East County.

I'd like to spend my career creating more places like Ellsworth Drive, in cities, towns and suburbs throughout North America and maybe even the world. But first, I've got to start looking for work. That's why I'm reaching out to the readers of this blog.

Rendering of a new neighborhood over the railyards behind Penn Station in Baltimore.

Site plan for the redevelopment of Roosevelt Mall in Philadelphia.

I've got a passion for placemaking, an educational background in architecture and city planning, and work experience in local government and public outreach. I know how to craft spaces, but also how to craft the story around it and present it to the public. If you or someone you know is looking for someone with those qualities in your organization, I'd love to talk to you. I can be reached by email at reeddbk at gmail dot com.

I write about what I love, and I hope I can turn it into a profession. And hey, it worked once before.

Left: hand sketch, Space 15 Twenty in Los Angeles. Right: Model, proposal for a community green in Alexandria, Virginia.

I invite you to visit my LinkedIn and take a look at my resume and portfolio, which includes work from college and graduate school, along with a couple of freelance projects I've done. As always, thanks for reading. I'll let you know how my search turns out, and I look forward to moving back to the D.C. area in a few months to begin a new chapter of my life.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

egyptian pyramids mysteriously appear in burtonsville

pyramids of burtonsville
It's not the Wegmans he promised, but developer Chris Jones found the destination he was looking for to draw customers to his Burtonsville Town Square shopping center, located at the intersection of Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike.

"Burtonsville has always been known for its history," says Jones, head of the Bethesda-based BMC Property Group. "Now that history includes artifacts from 2540 BC."

Residents say the newly-rechristened Great Pyramid of Burtonsville, along with its smaller counterparts the Pyramid of Paint Branch High School Panthers and Pyramid of the InterCounty Connector, appeared behind the two-year-old shopping center Thursday morning. The ancient burial monuments, originally dedicated to Egyptian pharoahs and meant to resemble the shape of the sun's rays, have quickly become a tourist attraction, drawing confused visitors from as far away as Alexandria, Virginia.

"We've always wanted to see the pyramids," says Jim Jebow of Maple Lawn. "Now we can do it without worrying about civil war breaking out. Or having to eat unfamiliar food."

Street vendors offering rugs and camel rides have already begun to appear along Route 198, while shoppers complain that all of the special parking spaces for hybrid cars that won Burtonsville Town Square an environmental award are constantly filled.

Not everybody's excited, though. "I vaguely remember learning about the pyramids in sixth-grade history," says Burtonsville resident Sandra Spring. "But I was kinda hoping we'd get something fun in Burtonsville, like a bowling alley."

Across the street at Burtonsville Crossing, which lost a Giant and several of their tenants to Burtonsville Town Square, the remaining shopkeepers are fuming.

"I heard our landlord totally had a plan to bring the Great Pyramid of Giza to our shopping center, but once again we got screwed over," says Mac Iato, manager of the Starbucks. "I mean, we've got a drive-thru and that weekly car show in the empty parking lot, but there's no competing with one of the Seven Wonders of the World."

Jones estimates that 10 million people will visit the pyramids this year. However, he won't say how they got to Burtonsville.

"Let's just say that my nephews made me watch the movie Despicable Me," he says, "and I got inspired."

Still from the movie Despicable Me.