A Guest Blog by Holly Olson.
On June 30th, the International Downtown Association (IDA) presented its study findings on redevelopment in Wheaton. IDA is a membership association for professionals in the field of downtown revitalization, commercial district management, and economic development. In addition to conference events, IDA provides consulting and information services to downtowns worldwide.
In the case of Wheaton, IDA evaluated redevelopment opportunities within the Wheaton area, with a special emphasis on how County property and facilities could serve as the impetus for revitalization. A panel of experts was convened, focus groups and one-on-one interviews were held with various community stakeholders, and a report was delivered with their findings.
As those that have been involved in the Wheaton redevelopment effort know, studies in Wheaton are nothing new. In fact, we’ve actually had lots of studies (some of which I list below).
• Wheaton Business Survey, 2005
• Wheaton Metro Station Area Pedestrian Safety Evaluation, 2004
• Wheaton Public Safety Audit, 2004
• National Main Street Visioning Study, 2000 (PP presentation)
• MTA Sponsored Study by Nelessen Associates, Wheaton MD Options for Redevelopment, (PP presentation)
So, does the IDA report offer new enlightenment? Is it the Holy Grail for Wheaton redevelopment? The short answer is that we’ll have to wait and see. Most of the report’s findings have been noted in earlier studies, discussed extensively among Wheaton’s two advisory committees, or brought up by the community at large—yet very little progress has actually been made. The true measure of success will be whether the County actually acts on the recommendations.
With that said, let’s take a few moments to review the findings, which are divided into three main sections: strengths, weaknesses, recommendations. (Please note that this is not a comprehensive summary of IDA’s findings. The full report can be read on-line here and Dan Reed’s take can be found here.)
Among the strengths listed by IDA were Wheaton’s strategic location, the stable mix of housing, the unique mix of restaurants and shops, and the involvement of citizen groups and advisory committees.
New findings: Prime county assets include Mid-County Service center, Wheaton library, and Wheaton Regional Park.
Weaknesses noted by the report included poor communication within the government and to residents, inadequate marketing of the downtown, property owners that are unresponsive to tenants needs, niche businesses that are not maximizing their potential, a high level of frustration in the community about the lack of redevelopment progress, a downtown that is not pedestrian friendly, and a perception that the CBD is too restrictive when it comes to development.
New findings: Current use of County facilities does not represent the "best and highest use," connectivity, linkages, and wayfinding between CBD and Wheaton regional park could be improved.
IDA recommendations include creating a quality town center on "Lot 13" that would be unique to the region, developing an aggressive marketing campaign that includes branding Wheaton’s civic identify, developing a comprehensive economic development plan for the entire CBD, and creating the most pedestrian-friendly urban environment in the County.
New recommendations: Parking Lot "13" and Mid-County Regional service center should serve as "ground zero" for the first phases of redevelopment. Library should be relocated to downtown and housed in a signature building that includes an arts and cultural center along with retail, office, residential, and parking.
So, what does this report actually do? First, it does an accurate job of summarizing the issues facing Wheaton. This is particularly helpful for those that may be new to Wheaton or unfamiliar with the redevelopment effort. Second, it independently validates much of what the community and advisory committees have been saying for years. Third, it lays out a plan of action that is divided into three phases for the next ten years, something the county has been unwilling or unable to do thus far. Finally, it points out the real potential of Wheaton — that Wheaton can go beyond being the forgotten step-sister of Silver Spring and Bethesda, and become the beautiful princess that the locals know she can be.
With that said, there is still the question of whether this is yet one more study that ends up languishing in the bowels of the County’s website. In County Executive Ike Leggett’s introduction, he encouraged patience with the redevelopment process, and emphasized that it is more important to proceed wisely than to rush forth. This sentiment was later echoed by Betsy Jackson, (an advisory panel member and presenter of the findings), when she likened the planning and redevelopment process to one of, "Ready, Aim, and Fire." She said that many central business districts often commit one of two mistakes: They are forever in the aim (planning) mode, or they don’t spend enough time planning and head directly into "Fire" (development). Now that we are going on our second redevelopment study in the last 10 years and updating our sector plan this fall, I know that I am ready to FIRE!
Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.