Is Wheaton Ready for an Arts Center? A Woonerf?

Is Wheaton Ready for an Arts Center? A Woonerf?

Montgomery County officials hear community concerns about redevelopment during packed forum

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A rendering shows the future for Parking Lot 13 in Wheaton, which the county is transforming into a government office building to serve as the new county Planning Department headquarters, 12,000-square feet of retail space, a below-ground parking garage, town square and park.

Montgomery County is known for its vibrant town centers in Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring—and now Wheaton residents are ready for their day in the sun.

Walkability, connectivity, green space and community activities were some of the many topics discussed at the “What’s Next for Wheaton” forum last week which brought residents from Wheaton face-to-face with county officials, including four members of the County Council, at a standing-room-only meeting.

Key to the county’s revitalization strategy for the area is the $180 million Wheaton Revitalization Project—in the heart of the Wheaton Triangle—which will provide a government office building to serve as the new county Planning Department headquarters, 12,000-square feet of retail space, a below-ground parking garage, town square and park.

Other major projects are underway or recently completed, as well. The Wheaton Community Recreation Center and a renovated library are slated to open next spring. The area is also home to a new high school and new firehouse.

But many residents gathered at the forum last week say they want more—in particular, an arts center. And better transportation options. More parks. And more help for existing small businesses for projects such as sidewalk repairs and façade improvements.

Bill Jelen, a member of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee and moderator of the forum, asked a panel of officials who will step up to “beat the drum” for continued capital improvements and economic development for the area.

Many in the crowd expressed concern that Wheaton had been overlooked for county investments in the past, and that more attention needs to be paid to the future.

When Council President Hans Riemer stood to rattle off recent improvements in the area and the potential for the planned civic plaza, he was interrupted by someone who shouted, “The plaza is not enough and everyone knows.”

Jelen said one of the other primary concerns for Wheaton residents was transportation: the need for safe pedestrian and bike routes, better connections between Westfield Wheaton mall and other parts of Wheaton, and ways to alleviate congestion on and between the three major highways that pass through the area.

Gwen Wright, director of the Montgomery County Planning Department, agreed that there are issues. “Right now, the roads act as barriers,” she said.

The county has been focusing on widening sidewalks when new development comes in, traffic calming measures and planning for dedicated bike lanes.

Jelen said he and other committee members think Reedie Drive should be permanently closed where it crosses the planned town plaza, remaining open only from Georgia Avenue to Triangle Lane to allow access to local businesses.

“We need to think about how this is going to actually work,” he said, noting the planned civic space would be bisected by the roadway, which is frequently bumper-to-bumper with traffic.

Wright had a solution she encouraged the crowd to google: a woonerf.

Woonerfs, for those not in the know, are mixed-use streets with equal preference for cars, bikes and pedestrians. The name is derived from the Netherlands, where such “living streets” are prevalent.

“Reedie can be Wheaton’s woonerf,” Wright said. “…I think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to be exciting.”

Jelen said there is also strong community support for an arts and cultural center, but lamented the county’s pace on a feasibility study. He and others pressed county officials to commit to eventual funding for the center.

Council member Nancy Navarro and other officials conceded that there was no doubt about the passion Wheaton residents have for such projects, but she pointed out that a feasibility study is the first required step for any project to get funding through the county’s capital budget.

These are “the steps that any project takes,” she said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services, announced that a community survey about the arts and cultural center had been reopened, based on interest he heard from people in the room. The new deadline for completing the survey is Saturday at midnight.

There are two surveys: one for community members, and one for artists and art organizations.

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