Wednesday, March 14, 2012

County Council throws wrench into Wheaton redevelopement

In a decision that was expected by many to pit funding for a Bethesda elevator against funding for the Wheaton bus bay platform (an essential element to redevelopment plans by BF Saul), the county council on Monday instead decided to throw out months (maybe even years?) of planning by the county and extensive input from local residents and business owners by recommending a totally different vision of redevelopment for Wheaton.

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 Valerie Ervin Nancy Navarro (correction), who represents Wheaton on the council and I also encourage you to contact the follow at-large council members - Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Levanthal, and Hans Riemer. 


  1. Ervin no longer represents Wheaton, thank god! Her constituent services SUCKED.

  2. I've made that correction. Thanks!

  3. Also, the reason this happend is the council has an interest in keeping Wheaton poor and down at the heels. By doing so, no one questions the dumping of all the counties public housing projects into Wheaton (and keeps the county's rent low). BF Saul was going to bring in the yuppies who wont tolerate the low level public nusiances that are currently here....hence BF Saul is out and a county office tower that will be a ghost town after 5pm is in.

    Underground parking garage? Really, I bet 70% of those people will never walk out of the building over the course of the day

  4. I don't think public housing projects are an issue here in Wheaton. I do, however, totally agree that the county council thinking they can single-handed turn Wheaton into a downtown Silver Spring but WITHOUT a public-private partnership is delusional. And I also agree just putting in a county-owned building that will be empty on nights and weekends will help to create an equally empty town square. Comparing this approach to BF Sauls plan to have apartments and ground floor restaurants adjacent to the town square, I think there's no question that the BF Saul plan is far superior and would provide much more of a benefit to the neighborhood.

  5. I just tried calling Navarro's office, and they seemed pretty clueless about the entire thing, so be prepared to be screwed again Wheaton!

  6. While public housing is not the explicit driving factor, if you start doing research you discover the underlying entrenched groups that support the current model.

    The bleeding hearts on the council and west of the park want to make sure the county is "affordable" so they can justify their cosy suburban lifestyle. However, they dont want the problem next door. For the low income/latino advocates, having a concentrated community means they have the pull to fund their non-profit services (CASA, LEDC, several church outreach groups)and hence their jobs.

    Thus the county has one (and elder-only at that) HOC or MHP apartment building in Bethesda. On the other hand, here in Wheaton we have 4 public housing apartments (Georgian Forest, Pembridge Sq. Amherst Sq, Ambassador) plus the vouchers at Archstone and MetroPointe. If we were to go up-market, the county would have to find new places to house those renters or at the very least pay more to the 4th District and Clean & Safe Teams to make sure the place looks nice. The county doesnt want to spend the money, and the advocates dont want to see their consituency "harrased"

    So the easy solution is support the status-quo, keep Wheaton downscale, full of check cashing places and some government offices and no one rocks the boat over quality of life issues.

  7. I just made my phone calls to everyone too. Basically, I just said I'm pro-bus bay platform in Wheaton and against the council's plans for parking lot 13.

    And I don't want to turn this into a debate on public house, so I'm just going to say a few more things then leave this issue alone for now...I live very close to a number of the public housing/public voucher apartments you mention. I can honestly say that I don't believe they have had any negative impact on my experience in Wheaton. I got harrassed more when I lived in downtown Silver Spring than I do in Wheaton.

    Also, even if all this redevelopment happens, not a single project will be displacing any of those projects you mention. So there won't be anything forcing the county to close or relocate any of those apartment buildings. I view the redevelopment as adding alot to Wheaton while not taking away any of the current options that exist for lower income residents. To me, that's a win-win.

  8. Let me say Im all in favor of Wheaton, and I love it here....but as the former president of a condo complex that adjoins some of that public housing I can point to tens of thousands of dollars we have had to spend on fencing, lighting, and other security improvements to deal with--vandalism, petty theft, loitering, littering, public drunkenness & urination, broken locks, vagrancy, passed out drunks on our front lawn, burglary, damage to cars, breaking and entering, etc.

    And then people wonder why the housing costs in Wheaton are so much lower. When people are paying $200k for a single family house and $100k for a condo, they dont ask to may questions about the neighborhood. When those prices move up signifiganlty (as they would with BF Sauls plan) then they start demanding better services and ammenities. This is why Bethesda has no low income housing and nice clean streets. The county is running out of places to dump the poor, and between us and Montgomery Village we have better public transportation access.

  9. FYI, I'm hearing that sending emails to council members will make it easier for them to collect and organize feedback on a specific issue (such as this one). I've also heard that people who have sent emails have received brief responses acknowledging their comment shortly after sending.

  10. I'd like to share with you an excellent email that a Wheaton resident send to Nancy Navarro today. Please continue to contact them!

    Dear Councilmember Navarro,

    I would like to write to express support for the long-developed plan for the bus bay platform and against this sudden new idea on county-led development of parking lot 13.

    My wife and I just bought a house and moved to Wheaton in December and one factor that attracted us to the area was the partnership between the county and BF Saul to redevelop downtown Wheaton. We moved from a basement apartment in Columbia Heights and had witnessed the transformation of that area over the last seven years from a town center with empty lots and a few small stores that I would hurry past on my way home to a thriving, family-friendly town center that we would visit almost every day (and especially on summer evenings). The Columbia Heights transformation was anchored by new apartments around the metro, a great urban mall, and a coordinated approach to public-private investments that gave the town center a pleasing, integrated feel.

    Although we enjoy the small-town feel of Wheaton, we were looking forward to the vision laid out by BF Saul and the county for a residential-focused downtown that would provide enough density and attractions to bring together a vibrant community and attract families like ourselves to the town center. All of a sudden, however, it seems like all of this work has been overturned in a minute with the county council considering a new plan for redevelopment of Wheaton that seems to spurn BF Saul and impose its plans that favor office space and a county-operated public space. Is this going to create a vibrant town center? How does this incorporate all of the work, analysis, and thought that went into the previous plan? We need a plan that we can stick with and all work towards together.

  11. From this article, it looks like it was Navarrro's staff who threw us under the bus.

    Worst part
    "He also said elements of the original plan could be re-introduced and that the new CIP allowed for as much potential growth in the future as the original plan."

    So we're fucked

  12. I posted on Patch but thought I'd re-post here:
    It seems that Wheaton homeowner-residents are not part of the discussion. An influx of daytime workers is repeatedly claimed as the main benefit of the new proposal. Without more, some businesses (restaurants primarily) may benefit, but it won't help property values. Newark, NJ, has thriving offices, but few professional workers stay, and property values remain low.

    Yes, I care about my property value. What homeowner doesn't? Here, property values dropped 35%-40% from their highs and have never come close to returning while wealthier areas had either no drop or only a slight one. Wheaton has loads of available small office space now, which isn't good. We also now have at least three check-cashing establishments, four if you count the laundromat with the "Check Cashing" banner out front. The laundromat is 1 of 2 located in former restaurants. We also have a porn shop. These businesses do not benefit homeowner residents.

    We don't have Silver Stars kids' gymnastics center, Sabang Indonesian restautrant, bike store (now New Kam Fong), Baskin-Robbins, Barnaby's, Asian Foods (store/carryout near Max's), Island Hut, Boqueron, an independent coffee shop, Long & Foster/Weichert, or Kosher Pastry Oven.

    Do I need to move (as several neighbors have done over the past 10 years) for my main investment--my home--to appreciate? Does the County Council want Wheaton to be a lower-income center for the County? I think the answer to both questions is a disheartening and resounding "Yes."