I’m pleased to welcome Cavan to the ranks of GGW contributors! Cavan will occasionally be reporting on exciting developments in suburban Maryland and any other topics that strike his fancy. — David
The Post’s headline reads, “Residents Envision a Denser Wheaton”; the Gazette says residents are “warming up to increased density.” As a Wheaton resident, the most positive surprise about the outcome of the recent community meeting was neighbors’ acceptance of greater residential density.
Most zoning/land use meetings I’ve ever attended have gone along okay until planners broach the subject of increasing residential density by building townhouses and condos/apartments. As many of you know, this subject tends to raise the hackles of the NIMBY faction like no other. To increase the density and diversity of commercial activity, Wheaton needs more residences in the walkable town grid.
Currently, restaurants are by far the most common type of small business. There are few places that sell durable goods and few offices. Admittedly, the thriving of the Westfield Wheaton suburban mall in the walkable downtown area has something to do with this.
A big real benefit of more density will be “eyes on the street”. While I am often confused when people tell me they feel uncomfortable walking around downtown Wheaton, a place where I walk to and from transit, grocery stores, the mall, and other locations, I embrace the fact that more street life will contribute positively to alleviating such concerns.
Finally, the big piece of the meeting was agreement about a town square, like the now extinct “turf” (except hopefully prettier) in neighboring Silver Spring. Actually, we already have one. The problem is that it is currently Lot 13: much like 1985 Hill Valley in the movie “Back to the Future”, the space that feels like it should be a town square is currently a parking lot. Thankfully, I’m hardly alone in my sentiment.
To me, it is quite noteworthy that the tone of the meeting went differently that those in neighboring Brookland and Takoma Park. While I don’t live in those communities, I don’t quite understand why they haven’t seen the success in Bethesda, Silver Spring, downtown Rockville, Friendship Heights, Arlington and so on and said, “I want some of that.”
Wheaton’s tone was not always so good. The old 1990 Sector Plan didn’t allow for anything beyond the existing (and still current) single story commercial development, and allowed no new housing. It was quite NIMBY and confined most everything to CBD-2 zoning. (In Montgomery County, CBD-2 means single use single story commercial. The only thing urban about it is the lack of parking minimums, so storefronts open to the sidewalk.) Since then, there have been new townhouses built on University Boulevard and on Grandview Avenue. More recently, a new apartment building was built above the Metro on the eastern side of Georgia Avenue. All this happened and the sky did not fall.
I like to think that the big news here is that the times are a-changing with respect to public views on walkability and urbanism. Rather than trying to make an urban place more suburban, as was the unfortunate trend since about 1946, more of the general public is looking at existing urbanism and wanting to see it work better.
Thank you to David for letting me write this guest post. I look forward to reading the comments, rather than just commenting myself.