Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Funding a Functioning Metro Entrance is Far
Better Use of $ than Lining Wheaton Developer Pockets

Recent days have presented us with a false argument: Not only the nutty idea that the "redevelopment" (fancy replacement term for discredited old phrase "urban renewal") of downtown Wheaton means we can't build a second entrance to the Bethesda Metro station. And not only the even nuttier claim that county officials "don't really want to redevelop Wheaton (it has been a top priority of theirs and of the developers who fund their campaigns).

No, the biggest false argument is that downtown Wheaton needs to be redeveloped at the expense of other, critical infrastructure projects.

Wheaton and I go way back. I've always lived in Bethesda, but Wheaton and Aspen Hill are among the places I've spent considerable time since childhood through today. So I'm emotionally invested in both, and certainly want the best for Wheaton's future.

The reality is that the proposed redevelopment is not only unnecessary, but is not even wanted by many small business owners in Wheaton.

Those businesses, many owned by Latino and Asian entrepreneurs, will be forced out. So will low/middle income residents of apartments near the downtown. Our elected officials say it's not their fault, and that there is little they can do prevent these de facto evictions.

In fact, it is entirely their fault. It is exactly because of their votes to pass irresponsible sector plans in areas like Wheaton, Kensington, and later Long Branch and Takoma/Langley Crossroads, that this tragedy will occur. These plans are the equivalent of a TILT in pinball, literally flipping groups of parcels to entice sales by older landowners to waiting developers.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Wheaton. The most pressing issue has been crime. But crime is not a real estate problem. It is a police problem. Everyone from citizens to the police chief himself has said we need to hire more officers. $42 million could hire a lot of new officers.

When I think of Wheaton, I think of Wheaton Regional Park, Wheaton Library, The Anchor Inn, Wheaton Plaza (fully-leased, according to Westfield - hardly a failing mall despite desperate pro-developer claims otherwise), Toys R Us, Barry's Magic Shop, the martial arts supply store on Georgia Avenue, Barbarian Books, Chuck Levin's, Irene's Pupusas, Roy Rogers, IHOP, the old arcade on University Boulevard, Wheaton Music...

The list goes on and on. A lot of those are gone already, thanks to rents rising in expectation of the Wild West, anything-goes sector plan passage.

Most of the new people on the scene have no appreciation of those places. They don't mind if Irene's is replaced with a Chipotle. Or if working people are tossed out to make way for wealthy, luxury condo owners living in a taxpayer-subsidized Disneyland.

Clearly, if one has $42 million burning a hole in their pocket, a small portion of that could be used to provide more police resources, keep existing shopping and residential centers in good shape, and make highway and infrastructure improvements.

With pressing needs addressed, Wheaton is doing just fine. Visit sometime, and you'll find that - by golly - they do have good restaurants. Some of the best chicken can be ordered in Wheaton, and many critics have said the best dim sum is at Wheaton Plaza's Hollywood East Cafe.

Change will come to Wheaton, but let the market bring it, parcel by parcel.

Developer profit in Wheaton is not an urgent concern of 99.9% of people there or countywide.

What is urgent, is that we have a failing Metro entrance here in Bethesda. It not only threatens ridership and economic activity, but also the health of riders. Our deep station was never meant to be exited on a staircase.

The second, southern entrance has been on the books for many years. In fact, some elements were already laid out when the station was built.

Although the new entrance at Elm Street is not actually in a zero sum competition with downtown Wheaton, it is a no brainer that maintaining highly-used public infrastructure in Bethesda outweighs the need for developer profit in Wheaton. Besides, wouldn't a Wheaton Library and community recreation center expenditure binge more directly benefit Wheaton residents than building Paradise Towers and Chipotle?

Improving an area doesn't require demolition. So let me leave you with the wise words of legendary Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee:

"I reuse everything...I'm the true conservationist. (T)hese new, extravagant places...they just don't get the memo on the planet Earth that you're supposed to use old places, renovate 'em, conserve and save your fossil fuels and your money."

Sounds like good advice for making tough budget decisions.

No comments: