On April 10, 2008, 28 members of our community met at Arcola Elementary to discuss proposed by-laws for the new civic association and to hear presentations about the Wheaton redevelopment process. Donna Calacone discussed the by-laws which the governance committee had proposed. The by-laws cover membership, dues, and election of officers. We need to vote on the by-laws at the next meeting and set up a nominating committee so we can get officers elected quickly.
Natalie Cantor, Director, Mid-County Regional Services Center, explained her duties and said, It is a work of passion for me because I live here. It is my neighborhood. She reviewed the growth, or stagnation, of Wheaton through the past years and noted that there had been some change in fits and starts during the past 20 years. She said that in the past, residents had been wary of development, fearing that the metro would lead to so much development that land would become too expensive and rents too high. That feeling was institutionalized in the 1990 Sector Plan, and stagnation became status quo. Through the years there have been several studies dealing with Wheaton, the first of which pointed out that maintaining the small town character could only work up to a point. A Visual Preference Study resulted in a lot of residents realizing that we could have some tall, high density buildings and still maintain a small town feel. Another report showed that people have a negative perception of Wheaton as a high crime area even though statistically violent crime is no higher here than in other areas of Montgomery County. However, Wheaton does have a higher incidence of nuisance crime, and additional resources were needed to deal with those. As a result, some steps were taken to address this issue including monitoring of the Wheaton Central Business District (CBD) by the then newly created Red Shirt Wheaton staff.
Recently, the International Downtown Association did a study and recommended that we step back and look at the whole picture, rather than thinking of county assets individually. This group recommended that we build on our assets and stressed the importance of getting people to downtown Wheaton and getting business people to view Wheaton as a positive place. The report also validated the idea of a center square and recommended that we make use of Parking Lot 13 (the large public parking lot in the middle of the Wheaton CBD). Another recommendation was that we move the library downtown so it can become almost a civic center for the community.
Ms. Cantor pointed out that after the public figures out what it wants and the government decides what it can do, the private sector must get involved. Developers who attended a forum pointed out that increased density does bring the attributes that people want a feeling of safety, outdoor cafes, etc. They also said that there must be economic value if they are to become involved. The developers noted that, Wheaton is not a destination. We need to change that. The developers said that we are putting too much emphasis on the retention of mom and pop stores. They said that in most successful developments 80% of the existing businesses leave. She said that we want to keep as many as possible, but most of these businesses are here because rents are low and they haven t grown their business sufficiently to keep up with development.
In addressing the issue of nuisance crime , she pointed out that public drunkenness is not actually a crime, but it is something that adds to the perception that Wheaton is not safe. The Latino Business Alliance is working to teach nightclubs and restaurants about responsibly handling customers who are drinking too much. Additional police are conducting stings to identify establishments that do not follow the laws. She stated, Wheaton is not an unsafe place. If you walk at night in Wheaton, you are no more likely to be a victim of a crime than if you were in Bethesda, but you are more likely to see something that you don t like. As various people commented on the crime issue, including tents in the park, she emphasized the need to Report it , report it, report it.
In answer to the question of how we can get involved with the redevelopment process and other issues, Rob Klein, Director, Wheaton Redevelopment said the Redevelopment Committee meets the third Thursday of each month (this needs to be confirmed), and there is always time for citizen input. The Sector Plan is being revised and they are looking for citizen input. Natalie Cantor asked for the e mail addresses of anyone interested in getting information and updates from her office.
Mr. Klein showed a picture schematic of the proposed pedestrian walkway in the alley where Barry s Magic Shop used to be. He said a public meeting was held six weeks ago and six renderings were considered.
After these presentations, the two addressed questions. People were interested in how we could make our downtown more like Tacoma Park or Bethesda. There were some specific questions. One was about holding a farmers market. The answer was that we actually already have one, which started about ten years ago with six or seven farmers. It was located at Parking Lot 13, and the merchants didn t want the space used on Saturday, so the only available time was Sunday afternoon. Very few people actually came to buy , and now only one farmer participates. Ms Cantor would like to revive the farmers market in a different location on Saturday. She said we would need a major publicity event. In answer to the question of live outdoor entertainment, she said that we do offer some of those events, and it is a matter of resources to offer more. There was much interest in Safeway situation. The Safeway is much smaller than most modern grocery stores, and the parking garage is unusable. It has signed a letter on intent with Avalon to relocate the BB&T building site (at Blueridge Ave. & Georgia Ave.) with Safeway on the ground level with other businesses and residential units above. This proposal did not make it past the zoning board, and there was opposition from the abutting property owner. The Planning Board is going to consider an amendment to the Sector Plan to allow this development. If this amendment passes, she said we would get a modern supermarket and Safeway could sell its current property to someone who would use it more appropriately for downtown. Another was about Westfield Mall s use of some of its property for a Wendy s, not the best use of the space. According to Ms. Cantor, zoning laws would not allow anything higher, bigger, better there, so Westfield opted for something as opposed to nothing. She said the zoning laws need to be changed. In regard to the question of the appearance of the buildings in Wheaton, we were informed that no laws regulate how the businesses look, and the County Council finally stepped in and did upgrades in the Triangle, including cleaning, canopies, and streetscapes because the landlords and owners would not pay for the improvements. When asked if we could bring in more upscale businesses, she said that we would probably have to create density more people living and working in the area-- to get the foot traffic necessary to support those kinds of restaurants and businesses. Mr. Klein said that we have the lowest vacancy rates in the area and we don t have much office space, although we do have some spaces that could be developed in the next five years. He emphasized that office space in the downtown area is important.
Leah Haygood wrapped up this part of the meeting by saying that Natalie and Rob are accessible, and although we as a community have been absent, this is a beginning for us to be more involved in the development and future of Wheaton.
Erol Miller, an Environmental Science teacher at Northwood High School, then gave a presentation on The Greening of Wheaton. He explained that teams of students had audited sections of Wheaton, counting and recording the location of things such as pavement, sidewalks, buildings, bike racks, public dumpsters, garbage cans, downspouts, etc. Why? The students are studying rainwater and how it can be more effectively managed in a town that is covered with pavement. They are learning about pervious pavement, green roofs, rain gardens, storm water planters, vegetated swales, and other methods of controlling storm water. They were asked to redesign Parking Lot 13 as a green lot, incorporating some of the strategies. They submitted green designs for the new Safeway site. The students will formally present their findings on the evening of May 2. Our community is invited to attend.