The Elrich administration is setting aside about $40.3 million in its capital budget to build an arts and cultural center and affordable housing complex in Wheaton—with about $35.2 million allocated toward construction.
For years, Montgomery County officials and community leaders in Wheaton have envisioned an arts and cultural center in or near the community’s urban core to provide a space for artists to work and collaborate and for visitors to enjoy. Many also see such a center as part of growing activity in the downtown area and a natural extension of the annual Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival, which began in 2017.
The county is planning to build the center and housing on just under 4 acres of county-owned land at 11507 Georgia Ave. on the northern edge of the Wheaton Arts and Entertainment District. Robert Goldman, president of Montgomery Housing Partnership—a nonprofit affordable housing developer—said in an interview that the housing partnership aims to build 280 units alongside 40 townhomes as part of the project. He added that affordability details between the units and townhouses still need to be determined.
The proposed arts and cultural center will be located on the ground floor of the housing complex and will “include two performance spaces, classrooms, gallery space, back of house support space, and administrative offices,” according to a project description.
While supportive of the arts and cultural center concept, some longtime community leaders in Wheaton say the selected site is not an adequate location. They say the center should be built on a site more centrally located in the arts and entertainment district and closer to the Wheaton Metro station.
Here’s a look at the proposal and where the process stands.
A history of the site
The property was formerly owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) before the county bought it in 2019 for $8.76 million, Montgomery County Planning Board documents show. The county initially planned to build a park on the site, but Goldman said the land’s topography made it more suitable for construction of an affordable housing complex and for other uses.
David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services, said county officials have explored the idea of building an arts and cultural center in Wheaton for years. Former County Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), who left the council in December after serving more than three terms and whose district included Wheaton, was a longtime champion of the project, he said.
The county considered but ultimately rejected six or seven other sites, including public parking lots more centrally located in the arts and entertainment district, Dise said. According to county planning documents, Wheaton’s arts and entertainment district extends north and wraps around the Georgia Avenue site, ending at Arcola Avenue. Its boundaries, roughly speaking, extend from Veirs Mill Road on the western side, Amherst Avenue to the east, and Rampart Lane and Georgia Avenue to the south.
Opponents of the current proposal also said that the center would be better placed in Wheaton’s central business district, which has tighter boundaries than the arts and entertainment district. Its borders, roughly speaking, are Prichard Road to the south, Veirs Mill Road to the west, Amherst Avenue to the east and Blueridge Avenue at the northernmost border.
Using the site on Georgia Avenue for the project would provide an opportunity for the county to partner with Montgomery Housing Partnership to build needed affordable housing, while also creating enough room for classrooms, performance space and other programming needs of the arts and cultural center on the ground floor, Dise said.
The location, as proposed on the county’s webpage, is also less than half a mile from the Wheaton Library and Recreation Center on Georgia Avenue, and roughly half a mile from the Wheaton Metro station.
Community leaders criticize location
Artist Dan Thompson, executive director and founder of the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival, knows the importance of arts and culture to Wheaton’s downtown. The annual festival, held in downtown Wheaton every fall, draws thousands of people to the area’s urban center and many elected officials and public figures participate.
There is great community support for an arts and culture center, Thompson said. But he said he’s concerned about the proposed location for the project, emphasizing that he and other artists are not against affordable housing as many people in the arts need places where they can afford to live.
He said county officials should reconsider locations that are more centrally located to downtown Wheaton and also near the Metro station, such as the county-owned parking lots 13 and 17, which are both closer to the Metro station than 11507 Georgia Ave.
Lot 13 is located off Grandview Avenue, next to a county building housing park and planning offices and other departments. Lot 17, known as the Price-Fern lot, is located off Price Avenue and Fern Street, east of Georgia Avenue and south of University Boulevard.
“The Wheaton arts community has been looking forward to having an arts and cultural center. We see it as the cornerstone for the arts and entertainment district … but this is the wrong location,” Thompson said. “The public needs to know why the county rejected the sites in the central business district, and we need to know what type of facility is possible close to the Metro.”
Dise said some of the parking lots under consideration were rejected because building on them would have increased the project’s cost by millions of dollars. Costs would increase partly because the arts center would need to be built with multiple floors instead of just occupying the ground floor, he said. The location on Georgia Avenue provides more ground-level area for building than other sites, Dise said.
Providing parking for a center built on one of the lots would also increase costs—on Lot 17, for example, it would have cost about $40,000 per each space to locate parking underground at that site, Dise said.
“When we site a building, we look at all of the factors from constructability, programmatic requirements, and the ability for it to be an arts and cultural center … this meets all of those requirements,” Dise said of the Georgia Avenue location.
Leonard Greenberg, a longtime real estate investor in Wheaton, disagreed. He’s not convinced that people who take the Metro will want to walk the half-mile or so to visit the arts and cultural center. Instead, they’ll drive to the center, eliminating the potential for businesses in the downtown core to see more foot traffic and activity from the center’s patrons, he said.
The arts and cultural center should be the “economic engine” of downtown Wheaton, he said.
Tom Stanton, owner of the Limerick Pub, at 11301 Elkin St., agrees the Georgia Avenue site is not the best option for the center, but isn’t sure what location would be.
Major roads that run through Wheaton—Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road—divide the downtown and can make it tricky for pedestrians to navigate, even with the sidewalk network, Stanton said.
Stanton and Greenberg said difficulty in navigating the area on foot would be an issue for center patrons who want to walk downtown from the Georgia Avenue site. The proposed project is another example of how the planning of downtown Wheaton has been piecemeal and without a cohesive plan, Stanton said.
Other local communities have shown how planning can be done better, he added.
“If you go into another more thriving business district, like Bethesda or Pike & Rose, you’re not talking about walking half a mile or hundreds of yards. You‘re talking about walking half a block [from place to place],” Stanton said. “Wheaton just doesn’t have anything like that.”
Dise and his colleagues are scheduled to present the project to Wheaton Urban District Citizens Advisory Committee when it meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Goldman said that if the project moves forward, a groundbreaking at the site would take place in roughly two years.
Despite the disagreement over where the arts and cultural center should be built, there is agreement that more affordable housing is needed in the area.
Montgomery Housing Partnership’s Goldman said the nonprofit has owned Amherst Square Apartments, a 125-unit complex near the proposed arts and cultural center site, for more than two decades. In that time, multiple luxury apartment complexes have been built nearby, including, directly south of the proposed site, and Arrive, north of the Metro Station, he said.
“Over the years that we’ve owned Amherst, we’ve seen a lot of market-rate development spring up through the community,” Goldman said. “I think there’s a need to have a certain amount of affordable housing so that we don’t push out people who have been living here for a while.”
Thompson, Greenberg, and Stanton did not dispute the need for more affordable housing. But they said they want to make sure that the arts and cultural center is in an appropriate location, and don’t want affordable housing feasibility to be the sole bargaining chip in deciding the center’s location.
“I hope this doesn’t become a choice between an arts center and affordable housing because that’s a false choice,” Thompson said.