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Costco gas station at issue in Wheaton

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

Costco has announced it is coming to Wheaton, but a debate over whether the mega-discounter can add another gas station to the area is likely to continue.

News that Costco and Westfield Wheaton mall reached an agreement late last month for Costco to open by early 2012 has sparked hope in some local business owners that the big box store will lure thousands of new shoppers to the older, struggling area.

County officials say rebuilding the former Hecht's department store space to accommodate Costco and other retailers will bring up to 300 construction jobs and 475 retail jobs to the area during tight economic times. And Costco fans in southern Montgomery County are rejoicing that soon they won't have to drive to Gaithersburg or Beltsville to buy whopper packs of paper towels and peanut butter.

But some residents say they will continue to fight the retailer's bid to add a 16-pump gas station near their community pool and homes in the Kensington Heights community.

Most residents welcome a Costco close to home, but many remain concerned about dirty rainwater running off the massive parking lot into their community and about new traffic swamping local roads, said Danila Sheveiko, who is spearheading the gas station opposition for the Kensington Heights Citizens Association. The gas station would bring idling vehicles -- and their exhaust -- within 80 yards of homes and the outdoor pool, he said.

"We're not opposed to the store, but we sure hope someone will talk to us soon about our concerns," Sheveiko said.

Montgomery Executive Isiah Leggett (D) had backed legislation to allow Costco to bypass the potentially lengthy zoning review process and build the gas station without public hearings to determine if it was needed or compatible with the area. However, Costco agreed last month to build a Wheaton store while seeking a special exception for a gas station separately, said Steven A. Silverman, Montgomery's economic development director. That process could take another year, he said.

A spokesman for Costco could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Costco will move into the upstairs level of a new two-story space that will be built where the former Hecht's has stood vacant since 2006. The county has agreed to contribute $4 million toward the mall's $39 million construction costs to build the first level for another major retailer, Silverman said. He said the county's contribution is akin to the $6 million in public funding allocated to build a parking garage to lure Macy's to Wheaton mall in 2005.

He said Westfield officials have spoken publicly about approaching Dick's Sporting Goods and Kohl's about the first-floor space. Construction could begin by the end of this year, he said.

Silverman said the mall has agreed to provide kiosk space where local businesses can market themselves to Costco customers.

"The hope is they'll say, 'Next time I come, I'll go to such-and-such restaurant,' " Silverman said. "You've got a captive audience of thousands of people who will come to Wheaton because of Costco."

Bob Schilke, co-owner of the Little Bitts Shop in Wheaton Triangle just east of the mall, said he and other small-business owners welcome the new customers Costco will attract from far beyond Wheaton. He said he's not concerned a big box store will gobble up business from local mom-and-pop shops because most near him sell specialty items that Costco doesn't, such as the cake decorations and candy-making supplies his store has sold for 34 years.

"Most business owners are glad to see it come," Schilke said. "It will mean more jobs for the Wheaton area and will bring people in. I think we'll all get a piece of the action."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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