Thank you MoCo360 for focusing on a development in Wheaton that has residents and businesses up in arms. The Montgomery County Government is trading land so that affordable housing can be built on the edge of Wheaton’s Urban District.
The news should be that nobody in Wheaton is objecting to more affordable housing in our community. People move to Wheaton because it’s affordable. That was a major reason why I moved here in 2003 when I was working in DC’s Federal Triangle. I also needed to be close to the Metro and have decent schools for my kids. I loved the racial diversity of Wheaton, its ethnic restaurants and its semi-urban feel. Wheaton has all that going for it. What I didn’t know then was how poorly the Montgomery County Government would serve Wheaton residents and businesses with decades of empty promises for redevelopment, disregarded plans and inadequate financial and human resources.
It’s coming to a head now because County Executive Marc Elrich has decided to put the long-promised Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in the subterranean ground floor of a new affordable housing building. After more than six years of consultants and studies and public meetings, Mr. Elrich selected a location that had never been presented to the public as being under consideration. Now we are told it’s “A done deal.”
Back in 2020, when assessing the deficiencies of Wheaton’s town plaza, Mr. Elrich told me and the Chair of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee (WUDAC) that a great location for the arts center would be where the town plaza sits, right above the Metro entrance. “Move the plaza and put it here,” he told us. I last saw Mr. Elrich in Wheaton in September when he walked in the annual arts parade. He told the crowd that he would have some good news for us soon about the arts center. That was before his reelection. Now that we have voted, he has delivered another disappointment. Our newly elected County Council member, Natali Fani-Gonzalez told me she “has to take what’s put in front of me and this is a done deal.” This was quite a surprise, coming from a former member of the county planning board.
There is not a single urban planner (who is not afraid of damaging their career) who would recommend locating the arts center so far away from the Metro station and Wheaton’s business center. The Wheaton Sector Plan calls for development to emanate from the urban center and Metro. The Planning Department’s recent market study agrees that developing near the Metro has the greatest potential to spur economic growth. There are dozens of small businesses there, restaurants and shops, and almost as many empty storefronts, including the huge ground floor commercial space in the M-NCPPC headquarters that the county owns and has failed to lease for four years. An arts center near there would attract new tenants, especially if the county kept its promise to improve sidewalks in the town center.
Then why has the county decided to continue to develop Wheaton like a strip mall, stringing new facilities out along Georgia Ave and away from the Metro? One of Wheaton’s largest landowners asked the county’s Director of the Department of General Services (DGS), David Dise, “why do you have professional planners on payroll if you’re not going to listen to them?” Why, indeed. Mr. Elrich chose to put the arts center in the affordable housing building because he plans to save on construction costs by piggybacking on the housing project. That approach would make sense if the location made sense. It could work on a location near the Metro if the county could attract a developer to build on Parking Lot 13. That site was supposed to have been an apartment building, but the county let the developers back out of the deal and they still got their payment, a prize piece of real estate on Georgia Ave in Silver Spring. Wheaton is left with a black spot in its town center, a surface parking lot, right next to an underutilized underground county garage with more than 400 parking spaces. An arts center near there could fill those parking spaces in the evenings when county business closes for the day. Instead, Mr. Elrich wants arts center patrons and affordable housing residents to compete for parking spaces.
Why has the county rejected Lot 13? DGS Director David Dise says Lot 13 doesn’t meet “the requirements” the consultants presented after their meetings with artists, residents and businesses in the Wheaton area five years ago. According to Mr. Dise, the ground floor of the affordable housing building meets those requirements. The public got its first chance to view the county’s plan for the arts center at the Feb. 14 meeting of the WUDAC. They are: one 150-300 seat theater; one smaller performance space without seating; two classrooms; one administrative office as large as both classrooms combined; and a theater lobby that will double as an art gallery by hanging paintings on the walls. That’s it! But the county’s consultants reported that the top priority for local artists was studio space. How did the county government convert that top priority into a “requirement” for classrooms?
A dance studio has very specific requirements from mirrors and a dance bar to special flooring. A music studio needs acoustic walls and places to store instruments and room for a piano. An arts studio needs storage for supplies and room for easels and a potter’s wheel and enough space for more than one artist at a time. Does the county propose that chairs in the classrooms can be stacked and moved aside to reveal studios? It’s just not feasible. But the county says the location Mr. Elrich selected meets the community’s requirements, the needs of artists and arts students. Nobody in the community required the arts center to have two theaters on the same level, but somehow that became the single most important requirement for the county in its search.
Any location in Wheaton necessitates some compromise on “requirements” on theater space, studio space or gallery space. But a compromise would be worth making if the arts center were located in the center of town, near the Metro. It makes no sense to compromise on the facility and the location.
Let’s not overlook the requirements of the residents of affordable housing. I can’t speak for them, but I suspect that like all apartment residents they need a childcare center and space for after school programs. A 300-seat theater on the ground floor is not serving their needs.
When David Dise was asked by the WUDAC chair when the community would have their next opportunity to express their views, he was silent. No response. A few days later, the county announced a public meeting for March 7. But will anyone be listening? Is the county willing to consider an alternative location and modified requirements? If not, if the location is a “done deal,” then any public hearing is a sham.
The saddest thing is that the county has not bothered to create a shared vision for Wheaton’s arts center and that the residents feel hopeless. After three decades of getting nothing or half measures, the Wheaton community has developed a mind-set that “something is better than nothing” and many are willing to settle for less than what is needed for an arts center and less than Wheaton deserves. But spending scarce resources on an inadequate facility in the wrong location would be worse than nothing because it would be money wasted.
County Executive Elrich needs to reverse his decision on the location for the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center and our elected council representatives need to ensure that the funding for the arts center is not lost, but not wasted. Save the money for the proper site. Find a developer for Lot 13 or another site close to Metro. Build an arts center that has more than one floor. Build the best arts center possible in that location and light a fire in Wheaton’s local economy.
Dan Thompson is the executive director and founder of the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival
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