Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Retail coming to site of former garden center

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Instead of flowers and shrubs, customers will soon find burritos, a bank and a drug store at the corner of Quince Orchard and Darnestown roads.

The land, which was home to Johnson’s Flower and Garden Center for 45 years, will now house a Chevy Chase Bank with a drive-up window, a CVS⁄pharmacy with a drive-through, and another retail building which will house three restaurants, including a California Tortilla franchise.

Construction began in January, and the bank is expected to open by late October. The other businesses could open as early as spring 2008.

A CVS spokesman would not comment on the future of the store in the nearby Shops at Potomac Valley shopping center.

The flurry of activity brings a new presence to the bustling corner, which is still owned by the Johnson family.

‘‘We’ve been there since the community was farmland,” said property owner Russell B. Johnson. ‘‘It was very difficult within our family to decide not to rebuild over there. It’s probably the most emotional thing the family has experienced.”

Johnson’s leased the three-acre corner two years ago, planning to expand the 45-year-old family business on a 14-acre plot it owns several hundred yards west.

But, building costs climbed after the proposal was delayed. Neighboring homeowner’s associations did not want the home and garden center to expand. County approval took longer than anticipated.

Now, the Johnson family has no plans to build on the site — despite county approval in 2005.

‘‘The Gaithersburg changes were kind of a heartbreak for the whole family,” even though still have garden centers in Olney, Kensington and Washington, D.C., Johnson said.

The family, who own 23 acres at the corner, has planned a larger garden center and nursery in Gaithersburg since shortly after opening the Quince Orchard store in 1961, Johnson said.

In the late 1990s, they ‘‘started really moving on it.”

The business needed a special exception to build its proposed retail and wholesale nursery next to residential neighborhoods.

For months Johnson’s negotiated with homeowners’ associations from surrounding neighborhoods. The group could not agree, even after the Johnsons shrank their 14-acre plans by about eight acres.

The Montgomery County Board of Appeals approved plans for 5.8 acres in December 2005. The family planned a nearly 25,000 square foot garden center, five greenhouses totaling 31,538 square feet, a 4,500 square-foot storage building, a more than 30,000 square foot outdoor display area and 167 parking spaces.

By then, however, Johnson’s had fallen out of luck.

Prices on metal, concrete and other building materials significantly rose during the planning and approval process.

‘‘We were having it rebid every couple of months to see where we were at and how much it was going up by, and it was shocking us,” Johnson said.

The garden center has not been absolutely ruled out, Johnson said.

The family can afford to wait a little while, he said. In the meantime, developers are approaching ‘‘all the time...I mean, anytime you have 14 acres next to commercial and a residential area, there’s lots of opportunities people see for it,” he said.

One nearby business owner thinks the neighbors may have been hasty.

‘‘The people in the neighborhood put up a lot of opposition about Johnson’s being back there,” said Kathy Hall, who has owned Salon Colour for four years. The salon is on land she leases from the Johnsons between the new construction and the proposed garden center. ‘‘And it’s silly because they had a nursery,” she said. ‘‘Now they could get storage units. Or a gas station...I think it’s shooting yourself in the foot.”

But Johnson said that he’s not thinking in those terms.

‘‘I’d like something that works with the surrounding area,” said Johnson, who lives down the road in Darnestown. Other than that, ‘‘there’s just many people inquiring, let’s put it that way,” he said.