Office buildings, rather than a bus bay platform should take center stage in Wheaton’s Redevelopment plans, according to the recommendation of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee.
On Monday, the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee (PHED) gave Wheaton Redevelopment plans their approval, but not the plans centered on the proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett (D) in his 2013 fiscal budget.
Instead the committee backed a plan put forth by senior legislative analyst Jacob Sesker which would still include a public space, but would make office buildings on Lot 13 the cornerstone of the redevelopment project.
Following a brief discussion of the economic development for the Universities at Shady Grove project, PHED committee chair Nancy Floreen (D) stated “We are absolutely committed to doing what it takes to redevelop Wheaton – that is a given in this conversation.”
Sesker began by expressing that the goal of Wheaton redevelopment was “not to build a platform or be the public partner of a public-private partnership, rather “introducing office users and daytime population and creating a centrally located public plaza or gathering space.”
He acknowledged the value of the platform to GSA tenants and long-term opportunities beyond the capacity of parking Lot 13, as well as the plan’s consistency with the overall Master Plan for Wheaton, but presented a recommendation that is “different from the Executive Branch’s for a number of reasons.”
Sesker also recognized the communication from the Wheaton community, in the form of emails, testimony at CIP meetings and attendance at the recent forum on Bill 6-12, expressing concerns about redevelopment’s affect on small businesses.
He went on to propose a “simpler version of redevelopment” that involves building a county office building on the site of Lot 13, next to the town square that would “allow the county to meet its real estate needs and also increase the daytime population.” Sesker believes that one advantage is of his proposal is that the “development of an office building can happen in a much shorter timeframe, rather than serving as a staging ground for the bus bay to be built.” He reiterated that the “Executive’s plans” would cause disruption from fiscal year 2014 to 2020.
Sesker estimated that Lot 13’s capacity for an office building would be as much as 415,000 square feet “plenty of room for an MNCCP building and a county office building.”
He felt that his recommendation would “put boots on the ground faster, cause minimal disruption and continue to build a town square – creating a publicly accessible, centrally located public place, a civic presence in the heart of downtown Wheaton, and also provide additional lunch crowd and daytime population.
Montgomery County General Services Director David Dise and other General Services staff members countered Sesker’s recommendation by pointing out that the platform plan included a significant amount of office space, and that it was crucial to have the infrastructure built in anticipation of the office market’s eventual rebound, when long-term, major office tenants could help turn downtown Wheaton into a destination. Director of Economic Services Steve Silverman supported those assertions.
The discussion was contentious at times, with Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal (D) continuing to seek answers as to why his own commitment to the project has continually come into question, and describing the Executive’s plans for “two and a half office buildings a hotel that “maybe, might be constructed” being contingent upon a “substantial change in the market.” Leventhal’s concerns were echoed by committee members Floreen and Marc Elrich (D).
Councilman Hans Reimer (D) and Chair Floreen also expressed opinions about the importance of the size and scope of the public space no matter which plan is ultimately approved.
The entire Montgomery County Council is slated to discuss the issue of Wheaton Redevelopment during its March 20 work session.