Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It’s one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There’s also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county’s plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown’s one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building’s mass by making each wing look like a separate “tower.” From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange’s “towers” pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that’s being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000’s, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it’s warm out.
But the building’s structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The “towers” sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County’s zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they’re literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it’s one of the world’s deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark “windows” meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building’s on a steep hill, so you’re walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn’t so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there’s basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it’s set into the hill, so you can’t see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide “eyes on the street” that make it safer. There’s already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it’s disappointing that the designers and developers didn’t take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn’t make them.
It’s likely that many residents won’t bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building’s mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County’s working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it’s too late for this building. It’s unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It’s also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.