Last year, the Mehring Group submitted a proposal to the Montgomery County Planning Board to develop an empty three acre parcel of land that sits on the 2800 block of University Boulevard between Westfield Wheaton and the Kensington Heights section of single-family houses.  After the Planning Board rejected the proposal, Mehring resubmitted a proposal for 24 townhouses and 3 single-family houses. Some units will be required to be Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDU) under the current zoning).  The Planning Board will decide on the new proposal on Friday.

The Kensington Heights Citizens’ Association vehemently fought the proposal.  Back in the fall of 2007, they cynically submitted a proposal to include the land in the Legacy Open Space program.  This plot of land is an excellent place for Smart Growth.  The property is completely surrounded by human uses and is too small to provide a complete animal habitat.  The environmental benefits of having residents live within walking distance of transit and amenities outweigh the minimal environmental benefits of a three-acre plot of land surrounded by human uses.  Additionally, it will help with housing prices in the area by better balancing supply and demand. The new townhouses would be situated in an extremely transit-rich area, on the outskirts of a legacy walkable urban town. Two major bus lines stop there, and the Red Line is a ten-minute walk away.

Since the original proposal and rejection, Wheaton has only continued getting more urban and vibrant.  New townhouses on Georgia Avenue between Blueridge and Arcola Avenues are almost finished.  The Planning Board has since approved the Avalon Bay mixed-use development ten minutes north of the Metro, which will house a new modern Safeway (minus the wasteful parking lot in front).  New local, small businesses like

Dejabel Cafe along with chain stores like Cricket Wireless have opened up and continued bringing in a greater mix of people and dollars.

A new Wheaton Sector Plan is currently in the pre-preliminary stages of drafting.  While the Sector Plan is being drafted, the old 1990 Sector Plan is still in use.  It would be unwise to delay this proposal until after the new Sector Plan is finished and approved.  The current timeline calls for the plan to finish in 2010.  However, with the upcoming 2010 election cycle, it is not at all inconceivable that the new Sector Plan won’t take effect until after the County Executive is sworn in in 2011.  Under such a scenario, the developer would not be able to break ground on these new housing units until 2012 at the earliest.  That is quite a long wait for something that is so sorely needed in downtown Wheaton.

In addition to the long-term economic benefits of this proposal, there are many potential short-term benefits.  There was much debate in the beginning of the year about a national economic stimulus package that eventually got passed.  Some, like Princeton Professor of Economics and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman are still debating it.  The construction dollars from this project would provide a super-local stimulus portion.  Building car-dependent sprawl was a major piece of our national economy between 1946 and 2008.  In this case, the construction dollars would go towards a more sustainable living arrangement.  There are contractors and sub-contractors who would find work constructing 27 units in Wheaton.  The sooner those construction dollars can start flowing, the better off our town, county, and region will be.

Most likely, under the new Sector Plan, a proposal for 27 housing units with MPDUs would be approved.  Therefore, it makes little sense to delay a project with so many benefits. The original proposal with more housing and more MPDUs would have been even better, but at this juncture, Montgomery County should move ahead with this project now.

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Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.