The decision by Wheaton Plaza management to ban buses from the Montgomery County shopping center has fueled a growing uproar this week among local officials and citizens groups who criticized the action as a veiled attempt to drive away low-income people.
Resource Realty Inc., the company that manages the shopping complex, told Metro and Ride-On officials two weeks ago that they could no longer drive onto or stop on Wheaton Plaza property, which is privately owned by a partnership of real estate investors.
Since last Saturday, the buses that once stopped directly outside the Woodward & Lothrop store at Wheaton Plaza have been stopping several hundred yards away on Viers Mill Road or Reedie Drive.
Officials of the management firm were not available for comment on their decision to keep buses out of the complex. The company told Metro that its buses caused too much wear and tear on the road, according to Metro spokeswoman Beverly Silverberg. County officials said they were told the Ride-On buses interfered with construction at the complex.
Metro and county officials also said they were not consulted about the possibility of finding an alternative site on the property, or of resolving the issue of roadway maintenance costs.
The conflict is the latest in a series between local transit agencies and several shopping centers that have complained about bus service.
"They feel, 'We don't want to be the mall people ride the bus to, we want to be the place people drive to,' " said Montgomery County transportation director Robert McGarry, referring to Wheaton Plaza, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar expansion and face lift designed to increase its appeal to a more affluent market.
About 5,000 riders a day arrive and depart from Wheaton Plaza, where the Hot Shoppes serves as a lunchtime meeting place for senior citizens, the Maryland state employment office serves the jobless, and a Social Security Administration office helps people joining and retiring from the work force.
"They'll no longer be catering to the middle and lower economic classes. They'll be catering to the elite and wealthy," said Rudy Arredondo, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Montgomery County. The league and the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and of the Gray Panthers have asked to meet with Resource Realty management to discuss the issue.
Montgomery Mall management has recently complained to the county about bus riders using the bathroom there, littering and "hanging around," McGarry said.
Lakeforest Mall cut off Ride-On service in 1985 "for similar reasons," and because of damage by the heavy buses to the pavement there, said Gordon Aoyagi, the county's chief of transit services. Metro never served the mall.
Metro has stopped service to two other shopping centers -- Plaza del Mercado, near Silver Spring, and Greenway Shopping Center, in Greenbelt -- because they were small and the roads could not easily accommodate Metrobuses, said Metro spokeswoman Silverberg.
Metro stops on the grounds of all the other major shopping centers in the region except White Flint, in Montgomery County, which was not designed with the road space for Metrobuses, Silverberg said.
Critics of the Wheaton Plaza decision contend that the longer hike from the new bus stops will prevent some riders, particularly the elderly and disabled from shopping there.
To reach the new bus stops from the plaza stores, a rider must cross the parking lot and hike down a steep, grassy embankment with no sidwalk to either an unpaved spot on one side of Viers Mill or a spot across seven lanes of traffic to the other side of the highway.
"I'm not shopping there anymore," said Jo Anne Gordon of Silver Spring as she waited for a bus on Reedie Drive. "How dare they do this . . . . It's my money in there."
"I'm seething," said Edna Wolfe, a Takoma Park senior citizen, after making her way down the grass hill to her new bus stop on Viers Mill. "It's very treacherous."
Woodward & Lothrop, Giant Food Inc. and Montgomery Ward are among the tenants at Wheaton Plaza that said they oppose the decision to kick the buses out.
Woodies had asked that the old bus stops be moved to another site on the property because the buses blocked the entrance to the store, said general manager Thomas Eitt. "We support bringing the buses back," he said.
Eitt denied that the bus decision was motivated by a desire to drive away low-income visitors. "My employes ride the bus, and I don't consider them 'undesirables.' "
"We would be cutting our own throats" to discourage low-income patrons, Eitt said.
Giant, which serves many elderly customers at Wheaton Plaza, wrote the complex management to "express our displeasure" with its decision, said spokesman Barry Scher.
McGarry said that he and County Executive Sidney Kramer plan to meet Wednesday with Wheaton Plaza lawyers and managers. "We are going to do everything in our power to get the buses back in there where they should be," McGarry said.