The Fortress of Planning today. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Downtown Silver Spring is anchored by the Civic Building. Rockville Town Center has its library.  Wheaton, meanwhile, will have the Montgomery County Planning Department. If the revitalization of Wheaton is going to succeed, it’ll need much more than a government office building.

Last month, the Park and Planning Commission made a nonbinding agreement with Montgomery County to build their new headquarters and a town square on Parking Lot 13 at the corner of Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue, for which the Montgomery County Council set aside $55 million last year.

A new headquarters would be a big improvement for the Planning Department and Department of Parks, whose current home in downtown Silver Spring is a aging, cobbled-together building I jokingly call the “Fortress of Planning.” But the county’s decision to locate it at the core of downtown Wheaton gives these agencies some pretty big shoes to fill.

Done well, the headquarters could be a catalyst, drawing people and investment to the area while serving as an example of everything Montgomery County stands for. Done poorly, it’ll be a black hole, sucking the life out of Wheaton and hampering its redevelopment. How can we Montgomery County get this right? Here are a few suggestions:

Farmers’ market at Arlington Courthouse Plaza. Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.

Mix it up.

The current concept is to build a 150,000-square-foot building that would contain the two departments’ headquarters, a credit union, a day care center and an underground parking garage. A second building could later be built behind it with apartments and ground-floor shops.

That seems a little backwards. After all, the headquarters would directly face the new town square, which would be a more desirable location for retail than farther up the block as proposed. Restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating could help add life to the square, while putting offices there that close at 5 pm would just create a dead spot.

Montgomery County should follow Arlington’s lead. Its located its Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development and other government agencies in Courthouse Plaza, a complex with ground-floor shops, restaurants, a movie theatre and a farmers’ market surrounding a pedestrian mall. While the space isn’t as robust or lively as Clarendon next door, it’s active throughout the day and the week and serves as an anchor for the larger neighborhood.

The House of Sweden. Photo by afagen on Flickr.

Engage the public.

Planning isn’t the sexiest government agency. Little kids don’t idolize zoning clerks the way they do fire fighters and police officers, and with one exception you won’t find many television shows about planners. Nonetheless, planners play an important role in shaping our communities, and the new headquarters provides an opportunity to tell that story.

One example of how to do that is the House of Sweden in Georgetown, which houses the embassies of both Sweden and Iceland, plus offices and a conference center. Designed to reflect the Swedish ideals of openness, transparency and democracy, the building is open to the public and hosts exhibitions, talks, and concerts showcasing the nation’s arts and culture.

The Planning Department already holds public events like last fall’s open house or their annual speaker series. These events, usually on weekends or during the evening, could help activate the building outside of the Planning Board‘s twice-weekly meetings.

It would be cool if the building’s design could make those activities visible from the street, the same way that the House of Sweden’s lobby opens to the Georgetown Waterfront. It could include a small gallery to showcase the latest projects, allowing residents to find out what’s happening in their community while, say, going out for dinner.

Waterfront Station, housing the DC Office of Planning and other agencies. Photo by the author.

Design for a statement.

Most modern public buildings are unremarkable and undistinguished. For every gorgeous, inspiring edifice like the Civic Building, there’s a Transit Center whose design prioritizes utility and little else. That’s not acceptable for an agency committed to improving the the county’s built and natural environment.

In 2011, the District of Columbia moved its Office of Planning and other agencies into Waterfront Station, a mixed-use project on the site of the former Waterside Mall in Southwest. Designed by renowned local architects Shalom Baranes Associates, Waterfront Station earned LEED Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council due to the use of energy-conserving features like a green roof and shading devices to reduce heat gain from sunlight.

Like in Arlington, there are shops and restaurants on the ground floor, including a Safeway. The Office of Planning itself doesn’t necessarily engage the public, as it’s located on the 6th floor and you have to go through security to reach it. However, placing this agency and others in this complex still makes a meaningful statement about the District’s commitment to urban revitalization and environmentally-sensitive development.

I’ve been skeptical in the past about the merits of relocating the Planning Department and Department of Parks to Wheaton, but now that it’s basically a done deal, let’s make this the best project we can. For decades, Montgomery County has been a leader in innovative planning, and now it’s time for county officials to put their money where their mouths are.