Tuesday, December 24, 2013

town square could wake up wheaton's sleepy downtown

Wheaton could get a new town square with an amphitheatre, performance space, and a dramatic ramp connecting it to the Metro station. It's part of Montgomery County's latest plan to revitalize Wheaton's struggling downtown, which officials released earlier this month.

This could be Wheaton's new town square. All images from the Montgomery County Department of General Services.

Representatives from the county and developers StonebridgeCarras and Bozzuto presented the new design December 11 in a public meeting at Wheaton High School. Montgomery picked them in September to build a square and a government office building on the site of a parking lot and the Mid-County Regional Services Center, a sort of "town hall" for Wheaton and surrounding areas, both located on Reedie Drive near Georgia Avenue.

It's hard to create an exciting urban place around an office building, since there isn't a lot of activity after the workers go home. Residents were skeptical of an earlier design for this project in September, but many of the changes the architects made in response will help make the streets and square livelier.

Square connects downtown to the Metro

International design firm Gensler and local landscape architects Oculus designed the square, which is three-fourths of an acre in size. It straddles Reedie Drive, which today has three lanes, but would be rebuilt as a two- or even one-lane street with wider sidewalks and street trees. A special paving pattern would tie the two sides of the square together, and the street could be closed for events.

Site plan showing the square (left), government building (middle) and apartments (right).

On the south side, there would be a space for performances. Next to it, a WMATA-owned grassy lawn at the corner of Georgia and Reedie would become a stepped amphitheatre. WMATA has told the county they're open to this, said Ana van Balen, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.

On the north side would be outdoor seating and dining areas, as well as a fountain or public art. A steel structure dubbed an "armature" would wrap around the square, forming the performance stage and containing a ramp that would descend from the square down to the Metro bus bays and station entrance. Banners, lights, and other decorations could hang from it, allowing it to change in appearance over time.

Designers add ground-floor retail space

Lot 13, which fills an entire block at Reedie and Grandview, would give way to a 12-story building housing Park and Planning, a new Regional Services Center, and offices for other county agencies. Behind it would be a high-rise apartment building, which would be built later. An underground parking garage would fill the block below them.

Originally, the architects placed the Park and Planning auditorium on the ground floor facing the plaza, but it's since been moved upstairs. Now, both buildings have ground-floor shops and restaurants along the length of the square, Triangle Lane, and most of Grandview Avenue. The auditorium still faces the square, meaning people will get to see what's going on in there, but the retail will help make the square more active.

"We don't want this to be a space that empties out after 5pm," said Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the county's Department of Transportation, which owns the parking lot.

Top: Residents felt the Park & Planning headquarters design looked like a "downtown DC office building." 
Bottom: The new design.

The building's glassy façade, which neighbors said looked like a "downtown DC office building," was swapped out for one with a mix of glass, aluminum, and earth-toned fiber cement panels. The architects passed around samples of the panels, which will "break up the façade and make it more interesting and animated," reflecting a "bolder expression of Wheaton's character." The building will also have several environmentally-friendly features, including a green roof and treating grey water and storm water on site, making it eligible for LEED Gold certification.

Rendering of the "jewel box" and retail along Triangle Lane.

They also closed off an alley between Triangle and Grandview, which would have extended the pedestrian passage between Georgia and Triangle. The passage will end at a "glass jewel box"-looking structure containing the entrance to a parking garage. Doug Firstenberg from StonebridgeCarras said it would bring more people, whether coming by foot or car, to Triangle Lane, where most of the new retail will go.

30 years since talk about Wheaton's future started

The team hopes to finish the final design next year, start construction in 2016, and open in 2018. By then, it will have been almost 30 years since Montgomery County began talking about how to revitalize downtown Wheaton in 1989. A deal with developer BF Saul to build a much larger project fell through last year after the County Council balked at the cost.

Not surprisingly, residents are disappointed, and wanted to see more from the new plans. "I like the building about the same as the old one," said neighbor Randall Spadoni, who lamented that the connections to Wheaton Plaza across Veirs Mill Road were "awkward."

Resident Danila Sheveiko wanted more green space. More than a few people compared the new building unfavorably to the newly-opened Exchange tower, which one man called "one of the worst buildings in Wheaton."

There aren't many places in the DC area where people are as hungry and eager for new investment as in Wheaton. Some residents may be underwhelmed by the county's new, smaller proposal. But with an iconic town square and a building that helps activate the street, this design has the right pieces to spark a larger revival.


Robert said...

Redevelopment in Wheaton is great, but it should be pointed out that the county is doing this at the expense of downtown Silver Spring. After the county spent millions revitalizing downtown Silver Spring, it is now pulling the Park and Planning Commission -- the county government's only major employer in Silver Spring -- out and moving it to Wheaton. How much sense does that make?

But that isn't the worst of it. The county folded redevelopment of the current Park and Planning location in downtown Silver Spring into the same package with the redevelopment of its Wheaton property; developers are to use profits from the Silver Spring redevelopment to subsidize the project in Wheaton. So not only does downtown Silver Spring lose a major employer, it also ends up with a less desirable redevelopment project on the current Park and Planning site because money diverted from that site's redevelopment will go to paying redevelopment costs in Wheaton.

Surely the county officials could have come up with some way to spark needed redevelopment in Wheaton without doing it at the expense of Silver Spring. Weakening one part of the county to build up another is highly questionable.

Lane said...


Downtown SS still has large employers such as Discovery and NOAA. Wheaton has nothing but mall employers. It's worth taking a decent employer out of an area thriving to help bolster another. Wheaton needs foot traffic during the day to create retail that both employees and residents can enjoy. Downtown Silver Spring will continue to thrive with or without the PPC and Wheaton needs an employer to continue the redevelopment.

I really don't see DSS weakening because of this. New development will be created on the old PCC site. I don't think I've gone a week without hearing a new project, restaurant, or retail popping up in DSS. It's become the norm. In Wheaton there is a celebration when something new is announced.

Wheatonite said...

It's high time to resurrect the proposal to move the Wheaton Library to downtown Wheaton. The County backed down after a measley 3,000 signatures against moving the library, but far more people stand to benefit from moving the library downtown. I would argue that there has been a significant change of circumstances since this issue was decided - B.F. Saul pulled out of the deal and Wheaton's redevelopment is again very much in question. The demographic in and around downtown Wheaton is underserved - the increasing numbers of children in the area have no parks or playgrounds (the nearest playground is one mile away). The good folks living near the library at its current location have Wheaton Regional Park in their backyard. It's time to share the wealth and bring some amenities to downtown Wheaton. If there is any interest in mobilizing in support of moving the library to downtown Wheaton, I'm happy to volunteer to spearhead the effort.

Unknown said...

Silver Spring already has two major employers in Discovery and United Therapeutics. Wheaton has mostly small businesses without any major employer. Moving MNCPCC, which has far employees than the as the aforementioned businesses, won't harm downtown Silver Spring.

The redevelopment of the current MNCPPC site should help improve the area. Right now, the building is sort of an eye sore.

Mike said...

@ Wheatonite

I agree with you and would be happy to participate in this effort.
Mike Smith (Wheaton Square East resident)