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My colleague, Lydia DePillis, in her Housing Complex column this week, examines the what-ifs related to downtown Wheaton, the unincorporated Montgomery County crossroads full of small businesses—including many ethnic restaurants. It’s also slated for redevelopment. “The tricky thing is, in a few very important ways, [many] want Wheaton to change as little as possible,” DePillis writes.

She met up with Robert Wulff of developer B.F. Saul, the firm overseeing Wheaton’s redevelopment, at Saigonese and talked about lessons learned from Silver Spring‘s downtown redevelopment of the past decade:

He contends there are now more small businesses than before, since those that could adapt thrived, and the office development provided a customer base for more to start up.

The same will happen in Wheaton, he says, digging into a plate of chicken and rice at a Vietnamese place on Grandview Avenue. Even with top-notch bánh mì sandwiches at $2.50 a pop, the restaurant doesn’t do much lunch traffic, which is typical of Wheaton eateries. Adding a few thousand office workers would change all that—for restaurants that can market themselves to a new clientele.

“Small businesses have to think big. They can’t think about who their current customer base is and what their current products are,” Wulff says. “They have to think about who’s coming, what are they going to buy, what are they going to eat. Do they want to roll, or not?”

Easier said than done for Julio Cruz, owner of Sergio’s Place on Fern Street. He has expanded his businesses, offering karaoke and starting a pupusa-making operation, but business is still slow—his bread-and-butter clientele, day laborers on area construction jobs, haven’t had as much disposable income lately. And he doesn’t think he can serve his food fast enough to attract office workers at lunchtime.

“Even though I have some Americans that come, they like the food, but it’s not always enough,” he says.

While local neighborhood redevelopment narratives have been dominated by tensions and fights inside the District line, more suburban areas, where plenty of ethnic communities—some with distinct food cultures—have found a home and in the process, have created dining destinations.

How do you think the Columbia Pike corridor in Arlington County‘s food identity might change with a streetcar line planned? How has the food identity of Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor evolved over the past two decades as more dense development filled in along the Orange Line? What would happen to the Eden Center if Seven Corners became more transit accessible and Clarendon-style dense development started to take root?

Ethnic food geographic identity is something that’s intertwined with urban evolution. And we’ve seen—and will continue to see—how it plays out, for better or worse.

Photo of Hollywood East‘s Janet Wu by Darrow Montgomery