Recent work by developers and politicians to bring a Walmart to Aspen Hill is not entirely in conflict with the long-term vision for the neighborhood, but the efforts so far have raised notable questions.
Last week, The Gazette reported that Silver Spring’s Lee Development Group (Gazette of Politics and Business columnist Blair Lee is the group’s chief executive) had a deal in place with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to open, by 2013, a 118,000-square-foot store at the former BAE Systems site at 13900 Connecticut Ave.
There are a number of hurdles the Lee group has to clear before the deal can go through, including a master plan amendment — no small undertaking considering that the workload for the county’s Planning Board is already booked for the next two years and the Aspen Hill plan is nowhere on that schedule.
Of greater concern to County Council member Nancy Navarro, in whose district the building sits, is the impact a Walmart would have on neighborhood businesses (the only Walmart in Montgomery County is in Germantown).
“Aspen Hill has a unique character that could be irreparably damaged by the introduction of Walmart,” Navarro wrote in a Sept. 29 letter to Bruce Lee, president of the development group. “The community needs mixed-use, sustainable development that promotes synergy and helps the entire community’s economy. Any new retail in Aspen Hill should complement, not cannibalize, the existing businesses in the community.”
Navarro’s point makes sense, particularly given the proximity of another big-box headed to the area. Costco is prepared to open a store in Wheaton, about 4 miles from the proposed Walmart. Residents and businesses that had opposed Costco did so in part because of its potential to draw customers from mom-and-pop stores. Walmart is no different.
The current master plan for Aspen Hill, approved in the mid-1990s, supports Navarro’s position, but offers a critical qualifier.
“Office is still the preferred long-term use for the portion of the area previously used by [BAE Systems],” the plan states. “However, with sufficient conditions and limitations, retail on a portion of the ... site could be a beneficial neighbor.”
Even with that qualifier, the plan makes clear that retail is not the goal: “It is not the vision of this plan for Aspen Hill to become a regional shopping district. Retail expansion should be limited to those uses which reinforce the community-serving nature of existing retailers.”
The Lees disagree and believe the master plan has failed.
“We've proven that there is not an office market in Aspen Hill,” said Bruce Lee. “It is an [Interstate]-270 office building that is obviously not on I-270. The point is that the master plan is not working.”
It may be difficult for the Lees to find a tenant that wants office space in that area, but the location itself is not the only factor. The country is still working through a recession and may be on the verge of a double-dip, and there is a glut of available space in Montgomery County, making that site less attractive. The county has a roughly 14 percent office vacancy rate (a 1 percent drop from a year ago, but nowhere near the low of 8 percent in 2006).
The 265,000-square-foot BAE Systems building has been vacant since July 2010 and is the second-largest vacant site in the county, according to the Department of Economic Development.
County Council President Valerie Ervin has proposed a bill that could ameliorate any negative impact a Walmart might bring. Introduced Friday, it would require community-benefits agreements for retailers locating in Montgomery County that have indoor retail space of 75,000 square feet or larger. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the median size of a grocery store in 2010 was 46,000 square feet.
The agreements function as contracts that establish benefits communities receive from the development, such as provisions covering living wages, local hiring and training programs, affordable housing, environmental remediation, open space designations, operating hours, security, deliveries and traffic mitigation, among other things.
Those benefits are clear (the first community benefits agreements were negotiated in California in the early 2000s), and similar laws have proven effective for residential expansion, but legislators must be cautious to avoid overburdening businesses with prohibitive costs that would deter commercial growth.
While the bill is a good step toward ensuring the vision for Aspen Hill remains intact and that development conforms with the long-term planning process, it could put too many restrictions in the path of future retailers.