Welcome to another installment of an occasional feature in which I take a walk with somebody interesting in a place they know well. This time: Venturing outside the District! If you’ve got walking partner nominations, pass them on: email@example.com.
Wheaton is the ugly duckling of southern Montgomery County. While Bethesda has filled up with high-end restaurants and retail, and Silver Spring has grown into a vibrant urban oasis, this little burg at the crossing of Georgia and University Boulevard has little that would draw a crowd on a Friday night or weekend afternoon.
That’s all supposed to change in the next few years—rapidly, dramatically, and with a conscious plan to transform Wheaton into a walkable town center in the Silver Spring mold. B.F. Saul—the same company that did the eminently urban Bethesda Row development—was chosen as the master developer back in July. They’re currently working on a plan to consolidate land in the core business district on which to build several mixed-use buildings, with the biggest right on top of the bus bays and metro station.
The man charged with orchestrating all of this has been around MoCo for long enough to see the evolution of all of its urban centers. Rob Klein, Wheaton’s redevelopment manager, began his urban planning career in 1980, started at the county executive’s office in 1990, and came to Wheaton about three years ago to oversee its transformation. By then, there had already been a “visioning” process with the National Historic Trust and a study by the Rocky Mountain Urban Land Institute—Wheaton residents have been giving their input for a while now.
“Everyone wanted to have a ‘there’ there,” Klein summarized the emerging consensus.
Downtown Wheaton is really a small triangle bounded by Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard, spilling over onto the east side of Georgia. The buildings are low, due in part to the town’s first sector plan in 1990, which set limits on growth to counterbalance the effects of the incoming subway stop (transit-oriented development wasn’t as much of a buzz phrase then). “There was lots of fear that metro would create radical change,” Klein says. That’s a big reason why the town has changed so little since.
We began at the Regional Services Center, a large concrete building on Reedie Drive that houses the town’s administration (for those unfamiliar with MoCo governance, many of its population centers lack a traditional mayor, and instead are basically run by branches of the County Executive). Directly across the street is a small green with some picnic tables, which takes up only a fraction of the large open space surrounded by shops. In an old New England town, it would have been an open common, with trees and crisscrossing paths. Instead, most of it is covered with a parking lot, which is almost never full.
That’s one thing Wheaton has in abundance—parking. And while developers have in recent years put up several large apartment complexes, what the town doesn’t have is office space, which would bring daytime traffic to the small businesses ringing this not-a-town-center. The Discovery Channel building, after all, was a catalyst that helped Silver Spring come alive. “We have the opposite of the Crystal City problem,” Klein explains.
That’s too bad, because Wheaton has more funky and unique retailers than your average bedroom community. North of the Dunkin Donuts—which occupies prime real estate on the corner of Reedie and Georgia—a string of shops on Triangle Lane survives by drawing a specialty clientele. There’s Marchone’s, the most Italian deli you’ll find in the Metro area. There’s a tropical fish store, Barbarian Comics, and Little Bitts Cake Shop, from which a woman in chef’s whites emerges as we stand peering in the windows.
It helps that rents here are 10 to 15 percent lower than the county average. Before the economy soured, Klein says, Wheaton had a vacancy rate that would be the envy of any urban area. But that’s also because most of the landlords—there are more than 20 on Triangle Lane alone—demand “triple net” leases, where the tenant is responsible for all build-out and upkeep. Therefore, the landlord has no incentive to make improvements, and the business may not have the means, which leaves the County in the position of funding storefront facelifts.
Walking north, we pass a gap in the row of stores, which used to be Barry’s Magic Shop before the county demolished the building to create a pass-through to Georgia. Otherwise, you have to walk a bit further north to get around the solid block of buildings; redevelopment plans call for the realignment of Ennalls Avenue to create more of a street grid.
After the quiet of Triangle Lane, rounding the corner onto the six-lane Georgia Avenue feels like reemerging into the modern world, with one of the 1980-style retail complexes that typifies the area. But despite their suburban form, these aren’t your average strip malls. Instead of chains, they’ve got quirky businesses like Abe’s Jewish Book and Gift Store. That’s the kind of funk that planners hope to retain, even as they bring in more people and investment.
Georgia has little in the way of pedestrian crossing points, so we scuttle across to Price Avenue in the face of oncoming traffic. Royal Mile Pub, the local Scottish watering hole, is there to greet us (though it’s not yet open at 10:00 in the morning). Further on is the Wheaton outpost of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, which for the last few years has helped stabilize the town’s wealth of Hispanic-owned businesses. Then there’s a new pub opening on the corner, the Limerick—all in accordance with the stated need of developing more night-time hangouts for people moving into apartment buildings springing up around the metro.
Turning south, we cut through yet another mostly empty parking lot, which Klein hopes will be redeveloped as green space. But it’s hard to take away easy access for cars, even though there’s a parking garage nearby. “You get a lot of business owners petrified,” Klein says. “Nobody’s willing to park in there and walk.” To help win people over, he’s thinking about ways to put a temporary “plop-down park” on part of it, as “one way to transition.”
The next parking lot we reach, however, is not long for this world. A concrete expanse in front of the dilapidated Safeway—recently occupied by a flea market on the weekends—is slated for a 17-story residential complex built right out to the sidewalk, with the Safeway on the ground level. It’ll be a big piece of Wheaton’s revitalization, and an example of what’s to follow.
Crossing back over to Reedie Drive, Klein surveys one of the town’s biggest draws, the Westfield Wheaton Mall. While malls often sap the life of independent businesses, Klein says this one—which inspires quite a bit of nostalgia among the locals—has been a “good neighbor.” In keeping with the new mixed-use spirit of the age, they’re even planning to build a residential addition.
I’m thinking of writing more about the small business aspects of Wheaton’s redevelopment. If you’ve got particular insight or information, let me know!