Monday, January 7, 2008

Where is the Love for Wheaton?

Part Two of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson. (View Part One here.)

While serving on the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee for three years, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of residents and business owners about redevelopment issues. A typical conversation would usually begin with me relaying the recent news about redevelopment and discussing some of the options we saw for the future.

It was at this point, that if I happened to be talking with someone who was a long-time resident, the following would inevitably happen. Their eyes would kind of take on this soft, pitying look that seemed to say, you seem like a nice girl, and we appreciate you telling us this, but we’ve been around for awhile. And then they would say, “Yes, but they have been telling us Wheaton would redevelop for the last 10+ years, and it hasn’t happened yet.” It was never said with meanness, simply resignation.

This reaction was so prevalent that I took to calling it the F squared factor: fatigue and frustration. Fatigue comes from having been told for many years that redevelopment is right around the corner. “Just be patient,” the community is told. “Redevelopment is coming. Things will get better.” They have heard this for so long and seen so few results that it no longer means anything to them. It is simply an empty promise. Frustration comes from the fact that they are seeing millions of dollars being pumped into the revitalization efforts of other communities in the County, while Wheaton considers itself lucky to get a few crumbs.

In many ways, Wheaton is an oxymoron. It is an urban center located on a metro stop. It is a diverse community with tremendous spirit. By all accounts Wheaton should be serving as a national model for redevelopment — incorporating the principles of smart growth, economic and environmental sustainability, and demographic diversity. And yet it doesn’t. Instead it just sits.

Ok, you say — but it hasn’t been all gloom and doom. There has been some progress. True enough. But given the economy over the last 10 years, the demand for housing, and the increased energy directed towards revitalizing older urban centers, the pace of redevelopment has been snail-like. Wheaton has faced an uphill battle in many ways including an outdated sector plan, and up until recently, zoning within the urban core that was less than conducive for development.

Development hang-ups due to technical issues such as zoning and sector plans are important and should not be underestimated. However, one of the major factors I see in the lack of redevelopment is that Wheaton is simply not a priority for many of our politicians. In particular, Wheaton seems to have gotten little play with our County Executive. On occasion, I hear statements indicating that the County Executive is committed to Wheaton. But I don’t see that in his actions. Instead, what I see is that he continues to pump millions of dollars into Silver Spring (most recently evident in his deal to bring in Live Nation) while Wheaton continues to receive very little.

As the County faces a looming budget crisis, it is naïve to think that Wheaton will be getting any deals of its own this year. But what I do hope is that the County Executive will make some concrete and tangible efforts towards helping the Wheaton redevelopment effort. Perhaps even that is too much to ask in this environment. But the community needs hope. They need to know that their County Council and the County Executive care about them and are committed to the future of Wheaton.

So, I ask you, County Executive Leggett, “Do you have love for Wheaton?”

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

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