Smart Site' to spur revitalization
Wheaton picked as one of 15 locations in Maryland for state program intended to cut down on regulation, lure developers
Under a new state smart growth program, state agencies say they are going to make it as easy as possible to attract private investment to Wheaton and other areas on the verge of revitalization.
State government designated downtown Wheaton as one of 15 Smart Sites across the state, the only such designation in the county, in an initiative that is supposed to spur mixed-use growth and encourage public and private investment in areas near public transit or job centers.
Within each Smart Site, staff from state departments such as planning, environment, transportation, natural resources and business and economic development will sit on committees that look for ways to cut down on unnecessary regulation, said Carol Gilbert, the assistant secretary for neighborhood revitalization at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
Gilbert said the committees will attempt to alleviate the bureaucracy that comes with working with multiple state agencies and discourages developers from building in smart growth areas.
"If it's too much red tape to build where we'd like to see growth, it might be easier [for developers] to build in a cornfield," she said.
In Wheaton, cutting down on regulation may make it easier to attract a major anchor to downtown, said Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist 5.) of Silver Spring.
Ervin said private developers may be more inclined to invest in Wheaton because the Smart Site designation puts Wheaton on the short list for any state grants for smart growth projects, such as revitalizing the area near Wheaton's Metro station.
"Things are moving in a really good direction for Wheaton," she said.
Wheaton was chosen as a Smart Site because of its proximity to two Metro stops, Wheaton and Glenmont, and three state highways – Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard - which make it an ideal candidate for mixed-use transit-oriented development, according to a state memo.
With its transit-oriented focus, Wheaton is one of the larger projects designated as a Smart Site, Gilbert said. Larger, transit-oriented Smart Site projects are all in the concept phases and thus are going to require more coordination among government agencies than the projects already in construction phases, Gilbert said.
County planners in Wheaton are hoping to have a proposal ready by the fall to solicit a master development team that could develop a plan to revitalize downtown.
Other transit-oriented Smart Sites include a mixed-use project planned for land adjacent to a Laurel commuter rail station in Prince George's County and a Howard County town center planned for 10 acres near a commuter rail station.
The Smart Sites were nominated by staff within the various stage agencies. Wheaton's designation marks the first time the town was recognized by the state without any push from local officials as a promising area for revitalization, said Natalie Cantor, the director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.
"The governor recognized and reached out to us and said, Hey, this is a perfect place to get this program launched,'" Cantor said.
Smart Sites is a branch of Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) Smart Green and Growing initiative, which encourages environmentally-friendly growth and revitalization in existing urban areas. Gilbert said the Smart Site program should expand in September to allow local officials to apply for the designation.