Wheaton — home to Montgomery County’s first shopping mall — has lagged behind the pace of redevelopment in other areas of the county in recent years.
Now, residents say, the community has the potential to become a version of downtown Bethesda, with new mixed-use developments built around easy access to Metro. But residents don’t want to lose Wheaton’s focus on family-owned small businesses.
Small retail strips with bakeries, international markets and rotisserie chicken restaurants now line the crossroads of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard.
The area has Scottish, Vietnamese and Peruvian restaurants and a population as diverse as its businesses, said Henry S. Ostapiej, who has lived in a townhouse community a block from downtown Wheaton for 27 years.
“It should have the best maximum usage of residential and commercial right above the Metro, kind of like in Bethesda,” the retired Army officer said. “But it will be nice to have all those mom-and-pop shops that have been here for a long time and have a loyal customer base.”
Montgomery’s proposed sector plan for Wheaton, which the County Council is scheduled to vote on Tuesday, envisions a walkable downtown with taller buildings and more people using public transportation.
In the past decade, Wheaton has begun a slow transformation with the construction of nearly 700 residential units in the Central Business District surrounding its Metro station. Before 2004, there were virtually no residential units there, county officials say.
More residential, commercial and office spaces are in the pipeline.
This month, construction began on a 17-story apartment complex at Georgia and Reedie Drive, across from the rail stop. There will be a Safeway grocery store on the first level.
The Exchange at Wheaton Station will offer nearly 500 rental units and, when completed in about two years, will be the tallest building downtown.
A couple of blocks away, on Georgia just south of Veirs Mill Road, Washington Property Co. plans to build 221 apartments at the site of First Baptist Church of Wheaton, which is moving to Olney after more than 60 years on Georgia.
And then there’s the plan for the Triangle area bounded by Georgia, University and Veirs Mill. A public-private partnership with Montgomery, Metro and developer B.F. Saul plans nearly 1 million square feet of office, retail, hotel and residential space.
The proposal includes more than 250 apartments atop retail stores on the site of a county-owned parking lot. There would also be three office buildings over the Metro bus bays at the intersection of Veirs Mill and Georgia, and a hotel and restaurant and retail next door.
“The Metro is a tremendous asset,” said Rob Klein of the county’s Department of General Services. “We can’t build enough roads to get us out of this congestion problem, and younger people want to see active urban sites with public amenities, and that is what we want to do.”
Activity is also picking up at the Westfield Wheaton mall, which opened in the late 1950s as Wheaton Plaza and has undergone several additions. Mall officials said a Costco is expected to open in late 2012 at the old Hecht’s; a Sears outlet opened earlier this year; the dual-language Ana G. Mendez University has opened its first Washington area campus at the former Circuit City building (classes start in January); and H&M and Elevation Burger plan to open there in December.
“The more we can make [redevelopment in Wheaton] comprehensive, the better it will be,” Klein said.
Although some say change is overdue, small businesses are worried about what redevelopment means for their future.
In the long run, it could bring new customers, but it could also create challenges, said Ash Kosiewicz, advocacy director of the Latino Economic Development Corp. The group is part of the newly formed Coalition for Fair Redevelopment of Wheaton, which has more than 50 businesses and seven nonprofit groups as members.
The coalition is concerned about a lack of parking during construction, slow business during the redevelopment process and the possibility of rent increases. It wants the county to address the need for facade improvements on the old buildings, financial support during construction and training to serve a new demographic lured by redevelopment, Kosiewicz said.
Herbert Quinonez, who owns General Insurance Agency of Wheaton on Ennalls Avenue, said he worries about displacement, which happened to several small businesses when downtown Silver Spring was redeveloped.
A study of the Silver Spring redevelopment’s effect on small businesses by the University of Maryland found that some merchants lost business during construction, struggled to adjust to the change in the market and could not compete with national chains.
“Aware of that precedent, we are trying to get organized,” Quinones said. “We are not afraid of change, but we also know that we don’t have the economic capabilities to survive without help.”
Council member Nancy Navarro, who represents part of Wheaton and will represent the entire area after redistricting, said she expects that the county will provide support to the local merchants through technical assistance and financial incentives.
“I do agree that we need to enhance and definitely redevelop the area,” she said. “But we need to make sure we support the viability of the small businesses. . . . For me, this notion of preserving the character of Wheaton is important.”
Greg Ossont, deputy director of the Department of General Services, said the county is working to address the concerns.
“These shops on Georgia and the Triangle, you don’t want to push them out,” he said. “The idea is to keep them there, make sure that they persevere, give them more customer base, whether it’s residential or commercial construction, so those businesses ultimately thrive.”
Residents welcome the attention Wheaton is receiving, but they also want to retain the community’s character.
“It is like a small-town downtown with the convenience of the mall,” said Beth Chaisson, a resident of Plaza Gardens at Moonrise, a townhouse subdivision off Georgia. “But let’s admit it: It doesn’t look nice now. So one would hope that it will look better. It is kind of junky-looking now.”
Chaisson, an urban planner, said she and her husband and two children moved to Wheaton 13 years ago because it offered a racially diverse community and affordable housing near a Metro station. Chaisson is white; her husband is Indian.
“It is comfortable for us” here, she said.
Ostapiej says that the area has always been diverse and that it has been reflected in its businesses. According to the 2010 Census, about 42 percent of Wheaton’s population is Hispanic, 25 percent white non-Hispanic, 18 percent black and 12 percent Asian.
“It’s always been a mixed population,” he said. “I like the ethnic foods, being able to go to the ethnic stores to get something that you can’t get at the Giant or the Safeway.”
Chaisson, who shops at the Asian markets, said redevelopment is also an opportunity to give Wheaton a distinctive look that reflects its diversity.
“If you get more buildings that are more unique, then that would be more reflective of the character of the community,” she said. “We have some very boring buildings with interesting businesses in them.”