Council, Leggett spar over Wheaton’s future

April 9, 2012

The Montgomery County Council is expected Tuesday to choose from competing visions on a plan to jump-start the revitalization of downtown Wheaton.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is pushing for an ambitious plan to build as much as 800,000 square feet of office space, a hotel and a mixed-used development with a town square that would capi­tal­ize on Wheaton’s location as a transit hub.

Under Leggett’s proposal — a public-private partnership with developer B.F. Saul — the county would pay $39.5 million to build a platform above the bus turnaround in Wheaton to accommodate the hotel and office buildings. The mixed-use development, which would be a mix of either residential space and retail or offices and retail, would be built on a parking lot at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue. According to preliminary estimates, Leggett’s plan would cost about $42 million, including $2.5 million to build the town square. The cost for the proposal, however, could increase to $89 million if the county were to purchase office space in the platform development rather than leasing it, according to David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services.

In March, however, the County Council’s planning, housing and economic development committee endorsed a more modest proposal after staff members raised questions about whether the county would be able to find enough tenants to fill the amount of office space proposed under Leggett’s plan. Instead, committee members voted for a plan to build a 150,000-square-foot office building with underground parking and a town square on the Reedie Drive parking lot. The building would be occupied by various county departments. The plan did not call for the construction of a platform above the Metrobus bays.

Since then, the county council’s staff has worked with council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), whose district includes Wheaton, on refinements to the committee’s recommendation to create an alternative plan. That revised proposal specifies that the office building would be occupied by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Funds would also be set aside for planning and design of the platform as outlined in Leggett’s plan. According to a rough estimate, construction of the office building would be about $61.6 million.

The county’s executive staff argues that Leggett’s proposal is better because it presents a long-term strategy for Wheaton.

“The strategy is that this prepares Wheaton for future development,” Dise said. “When the market returns, Wheaton will be poised to respond.”

But in a report to the council, senior legislative analyst Jacob Sesker said that it made more sense to build the smaller project first because its presence has the potential to boost the economic value of the larger project. The county would not have to worry about leasing office space because county departments would occupy the building.

He wrote that because the plan endorsed by the council committee would take less time to complete — three years versus five to six for Leggett’s plan — the area’s small businesses would benefit sooner from the uptick in daytime foot traffic. The platform, hotel and additional office space could be built in the future.

“The last thing we want for Wheaton residents is to spend 20-plus million dollars in taxpayer funds for a big hunk of concrete and no predictable presence on top of that,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the planning, housing and economic development committee.

Dise, however, said if the county council opts to delay building the platform, it will make Wheaton less competitive in the future. While there is competition from other areas for tenants, Dise said few have Wheaton’s ready access to rail and bus transit.

This is not the first time Leggett and the council have been at odds over a plan to revitalize downtown Wheaton. In 2011, Leggett lobbied to give shopping-mall giant Westfield a $4 million subsidy over two years to pay for construction expenses related to bringing a Costco and another tenant to the mall. The subsidy raised eyebrows in some quarters because it came at a time when the county was facing a $300 million budget shortfall for its next fiscal year and was cutting a variety of programs. Leggett eventually won that fight. The Costco is expected to open this year.

Floreen said the council and county executive may disagree from time to time on the best strategy for revitalizing Wheaton but agree on the ultimate goal.

“Elements of this can change over time,” Floreen said. “This is the first shot out of the box to set some general parameters to invest some significant dollars in Wheaton.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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