Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

With redevelopment looming, merchants unsure of the future

Officials, shop owners say small businesses must remain a priority in downtown Wheaton

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Bob Schilke takes pride in owning the Little Bitts Shop, a cake decorating business that has been in Wheaton for 32 years. But as Wheaton's long-discussed redevelopment creeps closer, Schilke isn't sure if his small business can survive large-scale development downtown.

"If it came down to redevelopment, I see us moving out of the Wheaton area," said Schilke of the effects on his store at 11244 Triangle Lane.

For now, Schilke can enjoy his loyal customer base and prime location, where he continues to fill his specialized niche in the local marketplace. But with work on the central business district's sector plan, the first update since 1990, ready to resume in September, some small business owners in Wheaton are already looking to the future.

The sector plan will serve as a guide for the government in programming public works, development and zoning.

"I don't think I can stay viable with redevelopment," said Joe Myers, owner of Showcase Aquarium, located a couple doors down from the Little Bitts Shop on Triangle Lane. Myers said his rent has increased about 5 percent a year since the store opened in 1968. "There are downtown, big city rents but Wheaton is not downtown, big city."

After seeing some of the problems that faced Silver Spring business owners after its redevelopment, Rob Klein, director of the Wheaton Redevelopment Committee, said preserving Wheaton's eclectic, diverse businesses is a top priority.

He said the focus will be more on training efforts for business owners and creating more business through redevelopment than putting controls on rent or stringent limits to development options.

"If they can visualize 10 times more people on the sidewalk, then maybe then they can think in terms of having more business here," Klein said.

Manuel Hidalgo, executive director of the Wheaton-based Latino Economic Development Corporation, said one of his organization's main goals is to help the Latino-owned businesses adapt to a changing Wheaton.

Hidalgo said LEDC is looking into ideas like graduated rent increases, where rent only increases as sales revenue does. Also, he plans to travel to San Jose, Calif., to learn about legislation that requires any new development to contain a third locally-owned shops, a third regional businesses and a third national businesses.

"No doubt, redevelopment will affect business," Hidalgo said. "And no way will all of them be able to survive. But we want to keep as many as possible."

Most of Wheaton's redevelopment plans are in the visioning stage, but some projects are already underway.

Nearly 200 housing units are being built by Centex Homes on the former site of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School on Georgia Avenue. A two-phase retail center of 30,000 square feet called Georgia Crossing is nearing completion on University Boulevard between Georgia and Grandview avenues. Also, the Cinema ‘N' Drafthouse, a six-theater restaurant that will offer film and live entertainment will open this fall at the former P&G Wheaton Plaza Theater, 11006 Veirs Mill Road.

In September, the Montgomery County Council will hold a public hearing to discuss the mixed-use Avalon Bay project, a 383,000-square-foot complex planned for the corner of Georgia and Blueridge avenues, which would include a Safeway and 320 housing units.

The most imminent project is the $53 million MetroPointe Apartments complex at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive, which will include 173 residential units above the Wheaton Metro. The complex will be completed at the end of September and is already 39 percent leased, said Jennifer Moore, property manager for MetroPointe.

Both the sector plan update and a study of Wheaton released in July by the International Downtown Association, a worldwide coalition that provides consulting and guidance for urban areas, promote a "town center" option for the Triangle area of Wheaton, where Myers and Schilke's stores are located.

Under those plans, Wheaton Library would move from the corner of Georgia and Arcola avenues to the downtown area, the county-owned Parking Lot 13 would become green space and a town center would include mixed-use development.

"It's fine as long as customers have a place to park, but if Parking Lot 13 is green space, it's not beneficial from a business owner's point of view," Schilke said. "I don't think we can stay here during any construction."

Filippo Leo, owner of Marchone's Italian Deli in the Triangle, said small businesses would have to be a priority during any redevelopment, but many of the longer-standing establishments have survived for a reason.

"Each place that has been here for a long time has its own attitude," said Leo, who has owned Marchone's for more than 20 years. "If a town center comes in and those small businesses can stay, everybody will attract more customers."

Leo said if small-business owners are asked to relocate or scale back their businesses because of larger development or increased rents, it would set a bad precedent for Wheaton.

In 2007, Barry's Magic Shop, a neighbor of Marchone's for 32 years, relocated to Rockville to make way for a pedestrian walkway after the county paid the owners about $260,000 for rent and other costs associated with the move.

Another of the shop's neighboring business owners, Bert Walker of Ray Picture Framing, said similar deals would be tough to turn down in the future.

"I was waiting for someone to make me an offer," said Walker, who has owned the business for 30 years.

But despite any redevelopment projects under way or plans for future development, Walker is skeptical the downtown will change that much.

"I've heard more plans, seen more drawings and seen more money spent on proposals and studies, I could've built my own city by now," he said.