Parking Lot 13 in Wheaton. Photo by the author.

A parking lot in downtown Wheaton will soon be transformed into a town square. Not only will it make the area more walkable and vibrant, but Montgomery County officials say it will belong to the public and emulate many elements of the successful Bethesda Row.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about concerns that the new square on what’s now Parking Lot 13 would not be owned by Montgomery County, which raises some serious issues about the public’s right to public space.

In contrast, Montgomery County leased downtown Silver Spring’s Ellsworth Drive to a private developer. After private guards hassled photographers taking pictures on Ellsworth, County Executive Ike Leggett clarified that it is a “public forum” allowing free expression and photography.

I reached out to my former employer, Councilmember George Leventhal, who in turn asked David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services. Dise is responsible for managing property within the county, from new libraries to public open spaces like Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. He sent this response:

There are no plans for private ownership of the Wheaton town square similar to that in Silver Spring. Plans will include active public space including a Bethesda Row type setting as well as lawn and plaza space. The intent is to plan for continued use of this area for highly successful events like Taste of Wheaton but also permit more programming as this becomes a more planned and versatile space.

Though the county has given local developer B.F. Saul the rights to redevelop much of downtown Wheaton, it’s a relief to know that they will own and maintain the area’s most significant public space.

Elm Street in Bethesda Row. Photo by the author.

Nonetheless, those who fear that revitalization will threaten Wheaton’s character might jump at seeing a county official say they want to create a “Bethesda Row type setting” there.

Does that mean East County will get its very first Apple Store? Probably not. It’s more likely that Dise is interested in the urbanism of Bethesda Row: buildings close to the street, wide sidewalks with benches and dining tables, lots of activity throughout the day, and a mix of homes, offices and shops. That’s a precedent worth repeating in Wheaton.

Ten years of discussion on revitalizing Wheaton has revealed a consensus for building up in the downtown while making the area more attractive. Residents are unhappy with the quality of recent development in the town center, but equally nervous about what redevelopment has done to Silver Spring or Bethesda.

By ensuring that Wheaton’s town square is a public space, it appears that Montgomery County officials are listening to what the community wants. But it won’t be until B.F. Saul presents their plans for the area that we know we’ve avoided past mistakes.

Between Silver Spring’s Veterans Plaza, and a new square for Wheaton, you wonder if people in Bethesda are green with envy. After all, the closest thing they have to a town square is the fountain outside Barnes & Noble.