Tuesday, August 5, 2014

wheaton plaza owner successfully blocks pedestrian path, saying it'll "bring crime"

All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.

Dirt Path to Wheaton Plaza
Mall owner Westfield doesn't want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.


The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it's a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it's a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick's Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.

A new new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.

Neighbors disagree. "Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby," wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. "Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us."


Current residents and builder embrace walkability

Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct.

That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.

Rendering of new homes at 39UP. Image from OPaL.

Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood's urban, walkable character. In the development's other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall's entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.

"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising," wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. "Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future." He expects the homes to appeal to "empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location."

Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods

But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn't want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. "Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site," wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.

MacKenzie claimed that the path "might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall," causing "a substantial security concern." He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.

Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.


As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.

"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that," wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. "The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property."

As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away

Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall's previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.

But Westfield hasn't given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.

"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection," wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.

The Base of Mt. McComas
The base of Mt. McComas.

Shopping malls aren't as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.

Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.

4 comments:

Avocado said...

I can't believe the Mall leaves people based overseas in charge of these decisions. They are working against the betterment of Wheaton. They obviously don't know our community. The other alternative is that they are just evil.

Sterling Mehring said...

Dan: Thanks for this article it is encouraging to know others are vocal and concerned about the same issues we are as we resist narrow but vocal opposition. You got it mostly right. "It'll bring crime" is a great headline but does not clearly identify the reason no access is being placed here at 39UP:McComas.
Access and walkable are good words, and planning virtues in my opinion. But make no mistake there needs to be a wholehearted commitment to make it part of a safe well executed plan.
I would love to spend the pittance needed for us to build a sidewalk to our North property line IF there was:
1) on the Mall property a safe access provided up 19.5' of elevation over a short distance. (ADA makes this exquisitely complicated)
2) a pedestrian system to receive the walkers once they mount the hill
3) and a uniform voice from the surrounding community that they wanted a formal access here.

Our venture is making the oft desired contribution to the community of removing the 975 truck loads of fill dirt deposited on this unsightly parcel by Wheaton Plaza when they built the Hecht company decades ago. Building the infrastructure on the adjoining Mall property to make this access possible is beyond our means.

The reason no access is planned during our project horizon (2014-2016) is the cost and difficulty of construction on the Mall property. Which is why the most recent Sector Plan selected a more efficient location to the West for access and required Westfield to establish a screen of trees at this point.

Keep up the good work Dan.

Robert said...

Google Earth shows a pedestrian path from the neighborhood to marked crosswalks across Wheaton Plaza's perimeter road at Torrence Court, just a block or so east of the site at issue, and and two more paths leading to crosswalks just east of that. What's the big deal here, or have the access points been closed?

dan reed! said...

@Robert

And I quote:

"It's about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood's twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they're not as direct."