A new headquarters for Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission on Parking Lot 13 will be the centerpiece of public investment in Wheaton’s new downtown, as the Montgomery County Council voted this morning to push the public-private partnership with developer B.F. Saul and County Executive Isiah Leggett’s plans for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus bay site into the background.
“The council is not discounting that particular component of the revitalization process, simply changing the phasing of it so that we can have a bit more certainty in a market that right now, obviously, is quite tight and uncertain,” Council Vice President Nancy Navarro said.
Over the past few weeks, Montgomery County Council staff have worked to reconcile these two plans for the sequencing of Wheaton redevelopment in the county budget, and Tuesday morning it became clear that the council would not see eye to eye with Leggett.
With a unanimous straw vote, the council acted on the recommendation of council staff and the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee. PHED Chairperson Nancy Floreen called the proposal a “very inclusive approach” that “keeps the door open” for Leggett’s plans in the future.
“The bus bays are a significant site, but they are the most challenging and expensive redevelopment site in downtown Wheaton,” Senior Legislative Analyst Jacob Sesker said. “The redevelopment of Parking Lot 13 and the town center, with an office building headquarters for Park and Planning, along with what is going on with the Safeway project, the Lowes building...will change the market downtown, and it may make getting a platform cheaper for us at some point in the future. It may not.”
Building the M-NCPPC headquarters would be a more predictable and controllable investment in Wheaton, he added. “There are far fewer unknowns when it comes to the public sector building a building that the public sector will occupy (occupy alone and presumably own) than there are with a complex public-private partnership that involves WMATA and involves several pieces of property and several different conveyances,” Sesker said.
Although Sesker told the council repeatedly that his proposal does not preclude development of the WMATA site or partnership with B.F. Saul, Department of General Services Director David Dise said that “without the platform, there will be no possibility of enticing a private sector tenant or a federal tenant” because of the timeframe.
But the council would rather see “feet on the ground” in Wheaton sooner than later, and perhaps wait for market conditions to improve before working with a private developer on the WMATA site.
“One of my concerns about the existing proposal [Leggett’s] is that the weaker the market is for private investment in Wheaton, the more the county has to pay to get this development, and it is feasible to imagine a bus bay project in the future that will cost the county a lot less money because there will be more money to be made in Wheaton for the private investor,” Councilmember Hans Riemer said.
“And all the money that we spend on that is money we can’t spend on things that the private sector will never do. And that is why my fundamental concern is that we should try to focus our investment on things that only the public sector can do,” Riemer added.