Wheaton woos government offices, seeks infrastructure funding

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Cassidy Turley commercial real estate firm. This version has been corrected.

The redevelopment of Wheaton has a lot going for it. The neighborhood boasts a Red Line Metro station, making it attractive to commuters. There is a supportive citizens advisory group, along with an engaged county planning department and a development partner, B.F. Saul, that has been working in the Washington area since 1892.

And yet, the project’s success will likely depend on further government support, including money for infrastructure and a decision by a major public employer to move to the area.

Last July, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Montgomery County selected Bethesda-based B.F. Saul to develop the bus bay above the Wheaton Metro station and a county-owned parking lot into an urban town center featuring two towering office buildings and about 200 apartments as well as a hotel, shopping and a public square.

“I think everyone has pretty much been on the same page in terms of Wheaton redevelopment plans,” said David Dise, director of the Montgomery County Department of General Services.

The economics are not so easy. Plans might have been accelerated had Metro found a place to relocate the buses, but after an analysis the transit agency said the vehicles needed to remain on the site, at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive. That will require B.F. Saul to build a deck above the bus bay similar to the one above the Metro station in Bethesda, an expense to which Montgomery County will have to contribute. B.F. Saul executives and county officials have not begun negotiating a land deal.

“The economics have not been laid out yet, except we know that there will be some type of public support for Wheaton redevelopment; the question is at what scale and how,” said Steve Silverman, county director of economic development.

Atop the platform, B.F. Saul plans two office buildings totaling between 550,000 and 600,000 square feet. To get either of them financed and built, Robert Wulff, senior vice president of B.F. Saul, said the company will need to pre-lease about 150,000 square feet, and for that to happen in the next few years, the government will likely need to step in. “What’s really happening here is you’re trying to kick-start development five, 10, 15 years sooner than the market will develop it,” Wulff said.

Known for small, locally owned businesses and strip malls, Wheaton has almost no high-end office space. “We don’t think the private sector is going to be the first mover into Wheaton,” Wulff said.

Wulff said it’s likely he could secure financing much sooner for the apartments, planned for the parking lot between Triangle Lane and Grandview Avenue, except that the bus bay will need to be relocated to the parking lot when the platform is built. The result is that for anything to start, Saul probably needs to land a government tenant, something that is in high demand.

“What we’re doing right now is marketing the positive aspects of Wheaton,” said Darian A. LeBlanc of Cassidy Turley, which is leasing the project for B.F. Saul.

Support for the project is broad enough, however, that Dise said the county government is also considering leasing space in its project. The Park and Planning Department, for one, is presently in Silver Spring and in need of more space. “We are considering various potential county tenants in that space, and at this point are not really prepared to make public commitments or statements along those lines,” Dise said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.

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