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One evening this November, about 200 people packed into a room at the offices of a non-profit in Wheaton to tell a team of men in suits how the unincorporated Montogmery County crossroads ought to be transformed. Bethesda-based B.F. Saul Company won a contract to build on government-owned land parcels back in July, and now it has to ask the public what kind of changes they want to see.
Just the idea that something might happen is almost hard to believe for many long-term residents, who started participating in these community dialogues a decade ago. In contrast to a 1990 plan—when the town demanded a restrictive zoning scheme to stave off the densifying effects of a new Metrorail station—they would now welcome a major infusion of office workers during the day and apartment-dwellers at night, creating a walkable town center on a patchwork of parking lots.
The tricky thing is, in a few very important ways, they want Wheaton to change as little as possible.
While residents at the workshop were mostly happy to see more office space, retail, and housing to be built in this little triangle at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard, they don’t want to lose the wealth of small, independent businesses that sometimes surprises first-time visitors. “Keep Wheaton funky,” read a typical bullet point on lists compiled by workshop participants. “We don’t want to become Silver Spring, Bethesda, or Rockville!”
That’s going to be a hard one for the developers to comply with—because to some extent, it’s beyond their control. Unique shops and little ethnic restaurants have thrived in Wheaton’s dingy, 1950s-era single-level strip malls because rents were consistently 10 to 15 percent below the Montgomery County average. But that business ecosystem is fragile: Some of those with landlords who were unwilling to lower rents when the recession hit went under, leaving dark storefronts in their wake. And if the new development brings in tenants who can pay more, the retail landscape could change, whether residents like it or not.
Wheaton’s planned renaissance looks a lot like what happened to Silver Spring in the early 2000s (or “Silver Sprung,” as Doug Duncan, then Montgomery County’s executive, liked to call it). A master developer was picked to orchestrate the town’s turnaround all at once, and Wheaton will be looking for a major office tenant—like Discovery Communications in Silver Spring—to anchor the new additions. But in at least one crucial regard, Wheaton is different. In Silver Spring, the county consolidated 25 acres of private land through eminent domain, knocking buildings down and starting fresh. There wasn’t as much business there to preserve, and the Peterson Companies essentially had a blank slate to work with.
Few people know that better than Robert Wulff, who’s heading up the Wheaton redevelopment for B.F. Saul, and was an executive with Peterson when the firm worked on downtown Silver Spring. 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.
Local groups and county staffers are trying to change that mentality. But it’s challenging. First of all, the pure density of similar shops, like chicken places and nail salons, puts them all at a competitive disadvantage. Many opened with little market research, says the Wheaton Redevelopment Program’s business development manager, Peter McGinnity; they saw their countrymen being successful and figured they could do the same. Being “lifestyle” businesses, run by family members, they scrape by, but hardly thrive.
Second, some restaurants—both Latino and Asian—have been known to earn money off the books in less legal ways. Prostitution rings have been busted in the area; drunken rowdiness persists in some local bars, which may make them less interested in redevelopment—and also brings in a police presence that new businesses might not think their customers want to see.
Most fundamentally, the ethnic businesses—like Sergio’s—tend to serve their own communities, and worry they might lose their client base if they start catering to another. Changes like turning down the television, revising the menu, speeding up service, and hiring staff who speak English—or investing in physical improvements that might require raising prices—could make their customers feel comfortable somewhere else, and still not bring in the gringos.
Even those who are excited about new development would like to see a little more help for small businesses. Janet Yu, owner of the dim sum restaurant Hollywood East, heads up a business alliance called Local First Wheaton, which has been helping to promote even the smallest restaurants and shops to a wider audience. Some of them, she says, would love the chance to get out of their dingy old spaces—which many landlords operate under “triple net” leases, meaning the tenants are responsible for upkeep—and into the ground floor of new buildings.
But if they want to do that, they’re going to have to pay. B.F. Saul isn’t planning to set aside lower-rent spaces for small businesses—like the District government did for retail spaces in Columbia Heights’ DCUSA complex, and will again at the Southwest Waterfront—or build more affordable housing than the 12.5 percent required by law. Since Montgomery County isn’t putting much money into the project, the community has little leverage to ask the company to do more for existing small businesses, or bring in more of them, or house an economically diverse population that might patronize them.
That’s frustrating to Manny Hidalgo, director of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, which has offices in Adams Morgan and Wheaton. Lacking much else, he appeals to the developer’s social conscience.
“They would tell you that, in the development world, to not maximize profit for every square foot of space is to not do well by the investors,” says Hidalgo, a bear-like Cuban who overwhelms LEDC’s small office. “But this is B.F. Saul. This is a local, family-owned corporation. From what I understand, they’re not hurting for money. So, if Mr. Saul wants a legacy project to hang his hat on and say, ‘I did great by the people in the D.C. area,’ why not make this your crowning achievement of a sustainable project that didn’t follow the old, tired model of development?”
No can do, says Wulff. Although he’s willing to listen to residents, B.F. Saul will build and lease what tenants are looking for. “If the market doesn’t want to be here, then nothing happens. Nothing,” says Wulff, adamantly. “We can’t build it unless the market’s going to reward us… So it really does come down to what the marketplace wants.”
Some businesses—those that occupy strong niches—are better set up to weather the changes. The specialty Italian deli Marchone’s, for example, has been around for half a century, and enjoys the loyalty of the locals. Little Bitts Cake Shop draws business from all over the region, as does Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center.
Perry Mohney’s Toy Exchange is stuffed to the rafters with model trains, action figures, and other assorted paraphernalia. On a Saturday afternoon, one enthusiast is browsing for Transformers; the staff calls him when a new one comes in. Mohney isn’t worried about the 15-story office buildings that will, within a few years, dwarf his shop. If rent goes up, he can always find someplace else, and already trades online as well.
“When you go, the collector’s going to follow you,” he says, with a shrug.
But a few of these older businesses are already suffering, and they blame the ways Wheaton has already changed. The ethnic businesses that fear adaptation to a new normal might take a look at those that didn’t embrace that shifting reality early on.
Bert Walker bought Ray Picture Frame on Triangle Lane 30 years ago, and did a brisk business, taking in 25 to 27 frame jobs on any given weekend with the help of one full-time employee and two part-timers. Now, he says, he’s lucky to get seven frames a day, employs one friend on a contract basis, and is looking to sell the business before his lease runs out in three years. Partly it’s the economy, like anything else—but Walker thinks the Latino influx has more to do with his trouble.
“The Salvadoran community is not as comfortable monetarily as the previous citizens of the town who have moved on,” he says. “They just don’t have the disposable income to patronize a custom picture framer.”
Moreover, Walker thinks Wheaton has taken on an “undesirable cachet,” and his friends worry whether the town is safe after dark (he closes at 4 p.m.). If he were starting a new business, he says he’d go further out to Ashton, or even back into the District. The redevelopment project could go either way, he thinks—but turning parking in the back of his shop into offices or green space certainly won’t help.
Those who speak for the business community as a whole are—in public at least—much more optimistic. Kathleen Guinan, the co-chair of the Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce, has nothing but praise for B.F. Saul. She thinks the redevelopment team will “put the focus back on Wheaton,” and wants to market its unique business scene as an asset rather than destroy it. Stasis, not development, is what kills.
“Change does provoke some anxiety,” Guinan says. “But also, if we don’t change, we will go extinct.”