Wheaton residents get chance to present redevelopment wish lists
B.F. Saul will incorporate community input into downtown design
Wheaton residents can share their wish lists for downtown redevelopment tonight at a community meeting hosted by the developer.
B.F. Saul Company, the Bethesda-based development firm selected to tackle the redevelopment project, invites community members to voice their visions for a new downtown. So far, some residents have suggested a pedestrian-friendly downtown with more affordable restaurants and a wider variety of shops.
"When you redevelop an area, you want to go with its strengths," said Robert Wulff, senior vice president of acquisition and development for B.F. Saul. "And so the strength of Wheaton is its diversity and its small businesses and mom and pop restaurants. We don't want to do anything that changes or damages that. ... We think we will benefit the existing businesses by bringing more traffic, more development that will serve as clients for the restaurants and retailers who are already there."
B.F. Saul and the development team will bring in new restaurants and retailers to the area as competition, Wulff said, but such competition will likely benefit existing businesses.
"I would say that this isn't a zero-sum game," Wulff said. "The pie can get larger. If you bring in competition, it doesn't mean that everybody's piece of the pie gets smaller. You expand the pie so that everybody gets more, not less."
The meeting will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at Crossway Community Inc. at 3015 Upton Drive in Kensington.
The team will rely on input from the community as well as from county and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials as well as its own real estate market expertise to design a new downtown, Wulff said. Much of what is eventually built will rely on market conditions.
"It will be like a listening tour, where we will go out and meet with groups and get more individual feedback about what their expectations are," Wulff said.
The development team plans to work with about eight acres of downtown land. This includes parcels from Metro sites, county-owned properties and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission-owned sites. The team consists of B.F. Saul as well as Torti Gallas and Partners Inc., an architectural design firm that has offices in Silver Spring; Loiederman Soltesz Associates Inc., a civil engineering firm; and Chesapeake Public Strategies, a local public affairs firm.
If everything goes perfectly according to schedule, the earliest Wheaton residents can expect to see a shovel in the ground is about 2015, Wulff said. Large-scale, multi-million dollar projects do not move quickly, he said.
"We understand that the citizens of Wheaton are probably impatient," Wulff said. "They've been listening and they've been told for a decade that redevelopment is coming, and it hasn't, and I would be a little skeptical if I were them. ... There's a good foundation out there for development. We need to push the right levers, and we have a mix of skills on our team to do that, but it will take a long time."
The B.F. Saul team values transparency through the planning process, Wulff said. Though it's all but guaranteed that the team cannot meet every single one of the community's expectations, B.F. Saul will provide explanations as to why any particular expectations cannot be met, Wulff said. B.F. Saul values transparency during the redevelopment planning process, he said.
"Whatever the reasons, we will not simply dismiss ideas," he said. "We will explain [to the community] why we can't do them."
Zoe Lefkowitz, who has lived in Wheaton since 1958, said she hopes to see new restaurants and shops that meet the needs of the diverse population. Most of these places, she said, should not be too expensive for residents.
"I think that if we get a lot of people [at the meeting], they will be expressing their hopes for a revitalization of that whole area down there and for what people need," Lefkowitz said. "There will be some people that will be looking out for the welfare of all of Wheaton. I guess that's what I'm looking for."
Leslie McDermott, a Wheaton resident who lives within walking distance from downtown, said she's hoping to hear more details about the redevelopment from B.F. Saul at the meeting. McDermott, who serves on the board of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee, added that her views are personal, not those of the committee.
After viewing examples of other redevelopment projects B.F. Saul has completed, McDermott said she likes the developer's inclusion of pedestrians in its designs.
"It looks like a very inviting, pedestrian-friendly place that I'm hoping will attract more businesses and more families to the downtown area," she said. "Because I think it's a community that's really on the threshold of becoming something so much nicer, which is why my family lives in Wheaton."
McDermott also said she agrees with B.F. Saul's plans to include mixed-use developments. One concern, she said, is that the redevelopment will harm small businesses.
"I certainly hope that it does not swallow up the individual owners, because so many of them have been there for years," she said. "And I think B.F. Saul is doing everything they can ... to incorporate smaller businesses in the plan. I would hate to see them lose out in the mix."
B.F. Saul now has access to vacant land, so it will not remove local businesses, Wulff said. But the team will also start contacting individual property owners to see if they would be willing to sell in order to create larger parcels of land to redevelop.
The meeting between B.F. Saul Company officials and Wheaton residents will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. today at Crossway Community Inc. at 3015 Upton Drive in Kensington. Workshop participants will be able to share their ideas for redevelopment of downtown Wheaton in small breakout sessions on topics such as small-business retention, uses of public space and sustainable development.