As development sprouts in Wheaton, residents strive to preserve its character

Wheaton is known for its myriad culinary and ethnic offerings, among them authentic Korean, Chinese and Ethiopian spots. Ask someone from Wheaton where their favorite place to grab a bite is and be prepared to hear about a locally or family-owned neighborhood eatery rather than the latest flashy concept from a “Top Chef” contestant.

The trouble is that for all Wheaton has to offer, including reasonably priced single-family homes and Montgomery County schools, very little of it is walkable.

Located two miles north of the Beltway, Wheaton has three major roads that run through its center: University Boulevard, Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road. The area around Wheaton’s Red Line Metro station experienced very little of the push for a more urban streetscape that turned downtown Silver Spring, two stops south, into one of the county’s most popular neighborhoods in recent years.

Part of that is by design: Having seen downtown Silver Spring populated with the likes of Red Lobster, Fuddruckers and Chik-fil-A, many Wheaton residents do not want to see development that portends an invasion of chain retail stores in their community of independent, if quirky, retailers.

Those concerns were heightened when mammoth retailer Costco announced plans to open a store in the area’s largest shopping destination, the Westfield Wheaton Plaza Mall on Veirs Mill Road. An H&M clothing store opened at Westfield in 2011, and a Dick’s Sporting Goods will open in October.

“We’ve got a lot of ethnic businesses in Silver Spring but not to the same degree as in Wheaton,” said Rollin Stanley, Montgomery County’s planning director. When he visited a Wheaton laundromat recently, Stanley said he heard more languages than he could identify. He said he wants to make sure that the area’s longtime small-business owners won’t be shut out as bigger projects begin sprouting near Wheaton’s Metro station.

“You’re seeing it — within a few years [development] will move several stops up the line” in Wheaton, he said. “And it is happening in a very positive way.”

The median price for homes sold in Wheaton in 2011 was $284,988, much lower than in nearby Rockville and Bethesda, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. Detached, rambler-style homes are common in many of the area’s neighborhoods, with some bigger, more expensive homes prevalent in the western end, near Kensington and North Bethesda.

There are few condominiums in Wheaton, but apartments have begun to spring up close enough to Metro that they could enable a car-free lifestyle. One of the newest examples is the MetroPointe Apartments at 11175 Georgia Ave. Featuring funky, colorful facades, they are steps from the Metro station.

Wheaton was also home to one of the region’s oldest Safeway stores, but that is being replaced and upgraded, accompanied by new apartments. Last November, construction crews began to demolish the outdated facility and are building a 58,000-square-foot store expected to open in late 2013. Unlike the old store, the new Safeway will feature a bakery and a delicatessen and an array of prepared foods. It will also have 17 stories of apartments, 486 in all, on top.

The centerpiece of development planned for Wheaton is further off but much more dynamic. The county has proposed a $40 million structure over the 14 bus bays that swamp the Metro station’s western entrance. Officials have selected a developer to build two office buildings, a hotel and 250 high-rise housing units there and on a parking lot next door by late 2015 or 2016. If the project moves ahead, it would give the neighborhood a much denser core.

Wheaton isn’t home to as many jobs as hubs such as Silver Spring or Bethesda are, but it still offers Red Line access and high-quality schools and parks, making it a popular option for families. With the apartments under construction, it may also become a more intriguing option for 20- and 30-somethings with commutes to downtown D.C. As the apartments are completed, more restaurants and shops are likely to pop up around the Metro station as well.

“Wheaton is kind of this mini version of Silver Spring,” said Bob Wulff, an executive with the project’s development company, B.F. Saul. Wulff said his company was attracted to Wheaton for many of the same reasons its residents are: its uniqueness and diversity.

“It started out as sort of a bedroom community for sort of mid-range government workers, and that’s still a big part of the demographic there, but it’s getting more diverse, and we see that as a positive for the long term,” Wulff said.

The earliest the project could start is 2014, as county officials work out details with the developers, but it already has elicited strong opinions from those looking for Wheaton to add more amenities and become more walkable, and those who worry about the possible effects on the older parts of the community.

Wulff said he, too, is trying to make sure he builds something that fits with Wheaton. He said the area was ready for development because it has a “Red Line Metro station that has not been developed for over 20 years.” One of the concerns, he said, is that when construction starts, it could disrupt many of the small, local businesses that Wheaton residents love. “But in the end it will be a much, much better place,” he said.

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