Instead of providing the $42 million in funding to construct the platform over the metro bus bays, a key first step in BF Sauls redevelopment plans, they instead voted to pay $55 million to build an office building for the planning department and county services, a garage and a town square. The office, below-grade garage, and town square would all be located on the parking lot 13 site.
The BF Saul project would have injected more evening foot traffic into the area through the opening of a hotel on top of the bus bay platform, mid-rise apartment building in parking lot 13 with ground floor retail and restaurants, and a new town square in parking lot 13. It would have also substantially increased daytime use of the area through the construction of a large, two-tower office building on top of the bus bay platform. In the process of many meetings and discussions about these projects, the planning department expressed interest in building a new headquarters in the bus bay area at the "tip" of the triangle where Viers Mill and Georgia split.
The county council's version that they sprung on everyone Monday would ditch the planned development over the bus bays completely and instead put their building on parking lot 13 and their own version of a town square in the parking 13. No funding would be provided for the bus bay platform.
George Levanthal, Nancy Floreen, and Marc Elrich all went on the record in a recent Gazette article saying that they believed the $42 million platform was too big of a risk and they worried about the planned office building sitting vacant. I can appreciate their concerns, but the center of all of BF Saul's decisions on the location and design of their office building towers was the goal of attracting a large federal tenant through a GSA lease. They have been quoted as working closely with people at GSA to ensure that their building met as many major "checklist" items for GSA tenants as possible. With that kind of focus, I think that BF Saul was putting themselves in a strong position to lease to a government tenant. So I don't see this proposal as being that risky of an endeavor for the county, especially since the building of that deck would allow not only the office building project, but also the hotel to move forward, spurring far more development than a county office building.
Hans Riemer wrote an article for the Greater Greater Washington blog and essentially says that a public gathering space is what Wheaton needs. He uses downtown Silver Spring as a successful example of this, in addition to Rockville and Bethesda.
I think that is completely faulty logic. If you took away all of the redevelopment in downtown Silver Spring that was created by the public-private partnership between the county and Peterson Company, you would have the Silver Spring Civic Center and the associated plaza/ice rink in front of it. Essentially, that is what the council is proposing - fill in parking lot 13 with a county building and a county-owned plaza or town square. I say that's putting the cart before the horse. Sticking a plaza in parking lot 13 will not create a vibrant downtown Wheaton. I think that the BF Saul, proposal, which would provide an influx of new residents and a large number of daytime office works, creates the increased "people density" that would help fill a town square. Keeping everything in Wheaton the same but adding a town square with a county office building isn't going to do squat. In addition to that, the county would be totally responsible for the programming and upkeep of that town square. While I would expect BF Saul to be fairly movtivated to keep that town square as active and attractive as possible, I have little faith in the county being equally motivated.
A lot of time was invested by local residents through public workshops and meetings, and committees such as WRAC and WUDAC (made up of residents and business owners volunteering their own time) put alot of work into studying the BF Saul plans and working with them to address and resolve concerns that they had. Rather than building on this effort, the council went behind everyone's backs and put together a totally different plan that, if executed, will essentially destroy the BF Saul deal. As someone who has personally invested alot of my time and energy into meeting with county officials and BF Saul, I am disappointed and angry that the council so easily disregarded this previous effort and instead have put forward a plan that has had no vetting and no feedback from the community.
With the council planning to vote on this measure on March 20th, there is very little time for the public to even understand the county's proposal in more detail let alone engage in any meaningful dialogue about it with the council members themselves.
If the council had simply voted to postpone funding for this project to a future date, I could almost understand and appreciate that. Instead, the council is proposing to spend money that would basically prevent the BF Saul redevelopment effort from moving forward at all.
I encourage you to contact county council members to express your opinion on this. Use this link to get contact info for