All over the region, malls are opening up to their surroundings, whether by redeveloping in a more urban format or simply creating more street connections. But in Wheaton, neighbors are fighting mall owners who want to close off a popular footpath.
Mall owner Westfield doesn’t want this desire path to become a sidewalk. All photos by the author unless noted.
The neighbors call it Mt. McComas. Rising above McComas Avenue, it’s a giant mound of backfill from the construction of Wheaton Plaza in 1959. Today, it’s a meadow where deer roam and a well-worn dirt path delivers shoppers to Costco and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Commuters use it as a shortcut to the Wheaton Metro station.
A new residential development on the property was originally going to include a paved sidewalk, but mall owners Westfield successfully blocked it due to concerns that it would bring crime into Kensington Heights, the neighborhood south and west of the mall.
Neighbors disagree. “Walking is a MUCH preferable way of getting there for the new home residents and everyone nearby,” wrote neighbor Karen Cordry in a letter to the Planning Board. “Cutting off this access point is a big concern for us.”
Current residents and builder embrace walkability
Neighbors originally fought the proposed development, but embraced the chance to get a new path, which saves people walking to downtown Wheaton and the Metro a lot of time. It’s about a half-mile walk from McComas Avenue to the Metro using the path, compared to nearly a mile using the neighborhood’s twisting, disconnected streets. There are a couple of other paths between the neighborhood and the mall, but they’re not as direct.
That connection would presumably be an asset to 39UP, a new development of 40 townhomes and single-family homes on Mt. McComas and another property adjacent to the mall. The original plans, approved in 2009, included a new, dead-end street branching off of McComas Avenue, with a sidewalk connecting it to the mall.
Local builder OPaL, which is building 39UP, emphasizes the neighborhood’s urban, walkable character. In the development’s other portion, on University Boulevard facing Wheaton Plaza, townhomes will face the mall’s entrance road, with sidewalks running along it.
"There is a plethora of things going on in Wheaton that are incredibly promising,” wrote owner Sean Ruppert in an email. “Our home owners can expect Wheaton to continue to become a more urban core with more and more things to do every year for the foreseeable future.” He expects the homes to appeal to “empty nesters, young couples, and singles…all of whom are looking for a Metro-oriented location.”
Mall owners say a path would bring crime to surrounding neighborhoods
But Westfield, the Australian company that owns the mall, doesn’t want a sidewalk on Mt. McComas. “Westfield…remains opposed to any condition which encourages and in fact authorizes pedestrian from the general public to cross the Kensington Heights-McComas Avenue development and then enter the mall site,” wrote vice president of development Clive MacKenzie, Sr., who appears to be based in New Zealand.
MacKenzie claimed that the path “might encourage [people] to enter the neighboring communities from the mall,” causing “a substantial security concern.” He added that drivers in the parking lot could hit people trying to walk to the mall.
Site plan showing 39UP (in color) and originally proposed connections to Wheaton Plaza (in brown). Image from OPaL.
As a result, developer Sterling Mehring of Kensington Heights, LLC asked the Planning Board for permission to swap the path for a public access easement, which would allow a path to be built some time in the future. The board approved the change, under the condition that they would revisit the path if Wheaton Plaza were ever redeveloped. In the meantime, Mehring worried that people would still be able to use the property as a shortcut.
"I want to be involved in walk able [sic] communities, its [sic] smart growth and it is smart marketing. The market wants that,” wrote Mehring to the Planning Board. “The wording would make it the right of any citizen to ignore the established access and sidewalks, and to walk to the end of the public sidewalk easement in our community, cross our community property and walk up the hill to the mall creating a new volunteer path…and the new community would not be entitled to fence or restrict access on their property.”
As malls open up to the neighborhood, Wheaton Plaza turns away
Montgomery County has given Westfield $10 million in subsidies over the past decade to build a parking garage and a Costco, which have drawn more customers to a mall that was struggling. Before that, the mall’s previous owner received a grant for mall improvements that required them to improve and preserve pedestrian circulation.
But Westfield hasn’t given much in return. Their new parking garage at the end of Reedie Drive blocked pedestrian connections to the mall from downtown Wheaton. And neighbors have been fighting a gas station Costco wants to build, on the basis that it would further weaken walkability.
"The least (and I do mean least!) they could do is to make this connection,” wrote Donna Savage, land use chair for the Kensington Heights Civic Association, in a letter to the Planning Board.
Shopping malls aren’t as popular as they used to be, and as a result, many area malls are taking on a more urban character. Ballston Common is opening up to the street to attract more foot traffic. Tysons Corner Center will get a new plaza connecting it to a new Metro station. And White Flint Mall, a few miles from Wheaton Plaza, will be torn down and rebuilt as an urban neighborhood. Those mall owners understand that encouraging pedestrian traffic, rather than increasing crime, would actually draw more customers, creating more business.
Unlike Tysons or White Flint, Wheaton Plaza is already part of a walkable and growing downtown. Yet rather than improving connections that could strengthen the mall and the surrounding community, Westfield is severing them.