Montgomery council approves Wheaton redevelopment plan

April 10, 2012

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted unanimously for a plan to build a new headquarters for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) in downtown Wheaton — part of a broader effort to jump-start the revitalization of a diverse community that has long sought an economic boost.

The vote came despite efforts by County Executive Isiah Leggett and his staff to lobby the council to support a more ambitious plan to build as many as three office buildings and a hotel on top of a platform to be built above the Metro bus bays. Council members said they thought the plan to build new offices for the park and planning commission at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue would be the fastest — and least risky — way to bring more people to Wheaton’s downtown.

“We are going to make something happen faster that is real, that is boots on the ground, that is not speculative,” Council president Roger Berliner said. “This is a good day for Wheaton.”

The $66.1 million plan the council approved, however, does leave room for Leggett’s plan to be pursued in the future by setting aside more than $1 million for planning, design and consulting services related to the bus bay construction project. It also includes $2.5 million to build a town square to give residents in Wheaton a place to gather.

“This is a fairly inclusive approach that gets action jump-started, but keeps the door open for great opportunities that the county executive staff has for Wheaton,” said Council member Nancy Navarro, (D-Eastern County), who represents the area.

The council and Leggett have been at odds over the best strategy for revitalizing Wheaton’s aging downtown.

Leggett’s staff argued that his plan was more cost effective. Under Leggett’s plan, the county would spend about $42 million — $39.5 million to build a platform above the Metro bus bays to accommodate the offices and hotel and $2.5 million to pay for a town square to be built on a parking lot at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue. However, developer B.F. Saul might contribute as much as $250 million to build other elements of the project, said David Dise, director of the county’s office of general services. The price tag might increase to $89 million if the county opted to buy rather than lease office space, he added.

The county executive’s plan keeps “capital costs at a minimum by leveraging private development interests,” Dise said.

By contrast, Dise said, the plan proposed by county council staff and approved in March by the planning, housing and economic development committee would cost more and would have to be paid for with county dollars. According to council staff estimates, it would cost the county about $61.6 million to build the new M-NCPPC headquarters. Dise said he believes the price tag might even be higher.

County council staff and some council members, however, said they had doubts about the accuracy of cost estimates offered by the county executive’s staff for Leggett’s plan. Council member George Leventhal (At Large) noted that the county executive’s plan did not include the costs to build a new headquarters for M-NCPPC at Reedie Drive and Grandview Avenue.

Council members said they were concerned that the county would have difficulty finding tenants to fill the amount of office space created under Leggett’s plan. In a report, Jacob Sesker, a senior legislative analyst for the council, said 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 finding outside tenants to lease space because county departments would occupy the building.

Steve Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, warned that if the council passed on Leggett’s plan, it might be more difficult to attract private investment in Wheaton’s redevelopment.

Council members, however, were not persuaded.

“We’re aware of the grand future of Wheaton,’’ said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). “I have no reason to believe that the private sector won’t continue to be very interested in this.”

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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