Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Urban planners trying to bring future into focus for Wheaton

Recommendations include new library site as town center; other options may yet be considered

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Efforts to revitalize Wheaton moved forward last week with the release of urban planners’ preliminary recommendations for the central business district and a proposed zoning change for another key parcel just north of the district.

Officials and stakeholders eying plans for Wheaton say those developments, coinciding with the process of updating the business district sector plan and studies involving the Georgia Avenue corridor, signal a renewed focus on the area and an opportunity to create a functional and economically viable downtown based on new zoning and past visions for Wheaton.

‘‘It’s Wheaton’s turn and I think it’s time,” said Marian Fryer, a longtime resident and member of the Wheaton Citizens Coalition. ‘‘It’s going to happen.”

Last week, an advisory panel of urban planning experts commissioned by the Wheaton Redevelopment Program presented a draft of its findings. The presentation followed a process in which officials toured the area and interviewed residents, business owners, nonprofits and property owners.

The panel of experts, who have helped direct urban renewal efforts in Detroit, Burlington, Vt., Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, N.C., recommended a phased redevelopment of the Wheaton commercial district around the Wheaton Metro station over the next 10 to 20 years.

Recommendations call for a ‘‘town center” concept that would include Metro Plaza at Wheaton Square, Bozzuto Development Corp.’s large-scale mixed-use property planned for the Metro station at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road. Other town center components would include the Mid-County Regional Services Center on Reedie Drive and Parking Lot 13 at Grandview Avenue.

The panel also calls for the relocation of the Wheaton Regional Library from Georgia and Arcola avenues to the site to serve as a ‘‘key element of the community’s new identity.” A green space would occupy a portion of Parking Lot 13 and other public parking would be included.

Robert Klein, the program’s director, said the recommendations, specifically the town center concept, are compatible with visions for Wheaton that came out of public processes in 2000 and 2005, and the idea, creating a ‘‘signature building that relates to the downtown,” has worked in other communities.

The draft, he added, needs to be reviewed by the redevelopment office and county planners and will be subject to more public discussion.

Klein said his office asked if the recommendation of the library as the focus of the town center excluded consideration of bringing a large corporate or commercial entity in that role, and was told either could be considered.

Currently, Greenbelt-based Bozzuto is looking for a commercial lead tenant for Metro Plaza at Wheaton Square, a planned two-building project that could be as large as 575,000 square feet with office and possible residential or hotel space.

Klein said the redevelopment office is considering the library as an add-on to that project but would consider other options.

David Fraser-Hidalgo, chairman of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, said a library and government offices, as part of a well-balanced approach to redevelopment that would include commercial, residential and office space, would ensure activity in the downtown area on evenings and weekends.

‘‘That would help provide Wheaton with a more balanced economy,” he said.

Fryer, however, would favor a corporate or commercial entity as the focal point, something that would ‘‘jump start” development activity in and ‘‘be a real asset to the commercial district.”

‘‘The library should be close but not in the urban center,” she said.

Richard Kauffunger, a Layhill resident who has served on citizens associations and advisory boards, said the problem with redevelopment projects is they add to traffic in already congested areas.

‘‘We approve development in areas where it should never be allowed,” he said. ‘‘If you want to create economic activity, yeah, it does that. But what are the prices you pay?”

Klein noted that the town center plan is just a component of the larger redevelopment efforts.

If the library moves, that would open its current site for development. Farther south on Georgia Avenue, Dallas-based Centex Homes is building about 140 townhouses, 45 condominiums and six single-family homes at the former site of Good Counsel High School. A gymnasium on the grounds will be renovated and owned by the county for use as a recreation center.

And planners are continuing the process of extending the central business district zoning to include a project at the corner of Georgia and Blueridge avenues that would allow a developer to build housing units and a Safeway grocery store (see related story).

If that project moves forward, it also will leave the current Safeway site at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive open for other development. On the other side of Reedie, MetroPointe, a mixed-use development with first-floor retail is being constructed.

Klein said a planner has begun doing research to update the sector plan, a county document that serves as a guide for the Planning Board and county government in programming public works, adopting zoning and other development tools, and ‘‘would better signal to developers what the county wants and what will go through planning and zoning more smoothly,” he said.

The next step, he added, is developing a structure for public involvement.

‘‘For Wheaton, we feel our time is now,” Klein said. ‘‘We’ve waited long enough.”

Planners’ recommendations

Key findings of the panel

Wheaton benefits from a core of diverse businesses, a citizenry that is both informed and active, and a team of knowledgeable county staff who are working to make sustainable development a reality.

One of the urban district’s strengths is its small, locally owned businesses, which can and should be preserved and must be an integral part of any new development that takes place.

Public transportation, including Metrorail, Metrobus and Ride On, and the parking to support them is critical to attracting additional office and residential development.

Sustainable redevelopment, while inevitably increasing density, should blend with the character of existing neighborhoods.

The first phase recommendations

Emphasis on the combined development of a ‘‘town center” that would include the Metro Air Rights⁄Bozzuto property, Mid-County regional Services Center and Parking Lot 13. A portion of the parking area would become green space with amenities to support both formal and informal uses. Additional parking would be provided as part of the development program.

Relocation of the Wheaton Library to the town center site to be combined with facilities for visual arts and cultural programming. The panel emphasized that this facility needs to be part of a larger public-private development project, and should serve as a key element to the community’s new visual identity.

Increase services that are provided to the urban district’s small and locally owned businesses.

Improve pedestrian safety and access, as well as public parking.