Safeway may build complex in downtown Wheaton
Large project could spur revitalization, planners say
About 500 new Wheaton residents could live, park and fill their pantries all in the same downtown building if plans for a massive apartment complex and grocery store near the metro are approved.
The proposed 14-story apartment complex and Safeway grocery store on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive would also play a significant role in Wheaton's redevelopment because of its massive scale and key location downtown, urban planners said.
"The Safeway project is going to be critical," said Gary Stith, the deputy director for planning and special projects with the county's Department of General Services. "It's going to change people's perception of what Wheaton can be and what Wheaton can handle."
If approved by the Montgomery County planning Board next year, the project would be a modern mixed-use apartment complex with a renovated "state-of-the-art" Safeway on top of the two-acre old Safeway and parking lot at 11201 Georgia Ave., architects, lawyers and planners from Rockville-based Patriot Realty told about 30 residents in a Sept. 24 public meeting at Crossway Community Center in Kensington.
An underground parking garage would provide about 140 spaces for shoppers, while above the Safeway residents could park in a 400-space garage before entering 14 levels of apartments, including efficiency, one-and two-bedroom sizes. Much of the building would be encased in windows, and an outdoor courtyard above the residential garage would break up the monotony of a nearly 200-foot-tall building, said Steven Robins, an attorney for Patriot Realty from Bethesda-based Lerch Early & Brewer.
Robins said it would resemble Safeway's City Vista project, which consists of a revamped Safeway below a high-rise of about 500 apartments on the corner of 5th and K streets Northwest in Washington, D.C.
The Wheaton project, which would take up the entire footprint of the current Safeway site, would be significantly taller than anything else in Wheaton's downtown. And if the high-rise, mixed-use concept proves viable, it may make Wheaton more attractive to other major developers, Stith said.
"Right now, we're an unproven market," Stith said.
The only other mixed-use project slated for Wheaton is a four-story, 310-unit apartment and grocery store complex on the corner of Georgia and Blueridge avenues. The store was slated to be a relocated Safeway, but the Patriot Realty project has likely thrown those plans for a loop. Virginia-based developers Avalon Bay, who are building the 7.6-acre project, could not be reached for comment on the Safeway renovation and how it would affect their project.
While Safeway is still in the planning stages and probably won't be presented to the Montgomery County Planning Board for another year, Avalon Bay has received the go-ahead from the County Council but has not yet started construction. Avalon Bay officials could not be reached for comment on when construction will begin.
Another difference between the two projects is the manner in which they are being built. Patriot Realty would be one of the first developers to employ the optional-method development process in Wheaton, which allows greater densities in exchange for a project plan that provides significant public amenities.
While not yet set in stone, the Safeway project could offer the public an outdoor café on Georgia Avenue, a beautified streetscape on Georgia and Reedie and improved sidewalks.
Increasing density near Wheaton's Metro station is one of the key goals of the town's redevelopment and the county's smart-growth policy, said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.
"This is something Wheaton's been asking for for a long time," she said.
But nearby residents aren't so sure it's a good idea.
For one thing, it's huge. The first few floors alone will be as tall as its Wheaton peers, said Wheaton resident Michael Thomas-Kaonohi. The tallest building in Wheaton right now is the 10-story north office of Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center at University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road. But very few other buildings in Wheaton come close to its height.
"It seems kind of like dropping the Eiffel Tower in the middle of Silver Spring," he said at Thursday's community meeting.
And with the recently finished MetroPointe apartments next door to Safeway, an awful lot of residential buildings are stacking up in Wheaton in a short amount of time, said Wheaton Forest Civic Association president Diane Lynne.
"What happens when they're not filling up?" she asked developers.
Other residents expressed concern that there won't be enough parking for 500 residents, who will likely all want a car in Montgomery County. And the open streetscape cafe will face a buzzing six-lane Georgia Avenue. And will Reedie Drive be a dead wall?
While they didn't have answers for every single concern, Robins and Patriot Realty acknowledged the criticism.
"I think this is a tough project to look at, because it's taking all the heat," Robins said.
No one knows what the future will bring to Wheaton, but the Safeway project is taking an educated guess, he said.
"I think this will be the catalyst for good things to happen in Wheaton," he said.