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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Imagine Wheaton

GGW's Cavan has written a couple of posts about Wheaton, a bustling suburb with an unfairly negative reputation in the heart of MoCo. Wheaton is near and dear to my heart, as I spent a lot of time there in high school. My old high school (since relocated to Olney to keep "transit people" from applying) was a quarter mile from the Metro station and the Wheaton CBD.

It's a gritty area with significant Central American cultural ties, lots of unique little shops, and, as Cavan will tell you, a schizofrenic approach to good urbanism. But I like the potential of Wheaton, it has something many inner suburbs don't enjoy when seeking to grow smarter: the framework of a good street grid. A few roadway connections here and there, and Wheaton could be the very model of transit oriented development. Okay, so maybe there are a few other things before that could be the case... but here's my vision of what Wheaton would look like if its streets were better connected:


View Larger Map

Blue lines are new street connections. Blue place marks are new traffic signals. Zoom in and see how my lines mesh with the road network.

Wheaton has a few other issues. It's one of the only places I've ever been where there is street parking with meters fronting free parking at a strip mall (Ennals Avenue between Grandview and Viers Mill). Crosswalks are often poorly marked. The three main roads through Wheaton (University Boulevard, Viers Mill Road, and Georgia Avenue) are 6 lane traffic nightmares with little street parking and no bus lanes. There are curb cuts for strip mall parking all over the place. And of course, there's a giant freakin' mall.

Though Wheaton has plenty of interesting and quirky independently owned shops, Just Up the Pike points out the failure of the Montgomery Cinema 'n' Drafthouse, blaming some of the above examples of bad urbanism. JUTP also points out a shooting that occured at the mall this week as being the fourth major crime at the mall since its renovation. Would removing the mall and replacing it with mixed use high density transit oriented development (and less surface parking) lower crime? I like to think so.

In the mean time, Wheaton is a guinea pig for inner suburb redevelopment. It slowly gets more walkable as it fights new fights and teaches the rest of the region the lessons we must learn to develop a better sense of place around the Beltway.

20 comments:

Dan Reed said...

Why would tearing down the mall make Wheaton safer? I'm curious as to your reasoning . . . there are quite a few people who would prefer being sealed up inside the mall to an open-air environment like Downtown Silver Spring. Then again, the people who feel Silver Spring is unsafe probably don't shop at Wheaton.

Scenic Wheaton said...

Bravo! Nice piece. I agree with Dan, the mall seems to be well liked. But it might as well have a moat of dragons around it - as far as pedestrians are concerned. That traffic loop circling the mall is a nightmare.

Dave Murphy said...

Sorry, Dan... I should have leaborated on that in the post. I feel that the bad urbanism of shopping malls in transitional neighborhoods breeds crime. Frankly I was just too lazy to dig up a study to cite for that purpose. I suppose the mall wouldn't be that bad if it weren't surrounded by a sea of parking, and if it didn't so blatantly have a negative effect on the surrounding road network.

Anonymous said...

Dave Murphy said...
Sorry, Dan... I should have leaborated on that in the post. I feel that the bad urbanism of shopping malls in transitional neighborhoods breeds crime. Frankly I was just too lazy to dig up a study to cite for that purpose. I suppose the mall wouldn't be that bad if it weren't surrounded by a sea of parking, and if it didn't so blatantly have a negative effect on the surrounding road network.

RE: If "bad urbanism of shopping malls in transitional neighborhoods breeds crime" then why there are not any stories/statistics about people getting robbed and/or shot within walking distance of Pentagon City Mall, Ballston Commons, Tysons Corner I & II, and Fair Oaks Mall?????????????

Dave Murphy said...

I don't speak on Virginia malls because I don't visit them very often... Ballston Common doesn't have particularly bad urbanism, nor does Pentagon City. I've never been to Fair Oaks, and I am not familiar with Tysons' crime rates, but I would guess it has to do with the fact that they are more upscale, not in a transitional area like Wheaton.

I do know that Maryland malls have had recent crime spikes, such as Laurel Mall and Arundel Mills.

Let me clarify again... I'm not for tearing down the structure, or at least not all of it. I'd just like to see it better integrated into the surrounding town, like Ballston or Pentagon City. Right now the seas of parking partition the mall from the rest of the central business district, upset the road grid, and isolate the mall populations from the CBD populations. Build a couple garages and put some high rise apartments on those parking lots, particularly the ones near the Metro.

Jessica McFadden said...

Great post - the map and street connections you indicated would be a dream come true!

Thomas Hardman said...

Nice piece, sir.

However, if you feel like it, I would love to see your take on the potential nightmares -- and their alternatives -- that would result when Aspen Hill has Georgia Avenue running right through the middle, the ICC right to the north, and the endpoint of the Montrose Parkway East dumping our right across Veirs Mill Road from our main drag... with no crossover traffic allowed.

I might add to your vision of Wheaton that an alternative to your plan would be to complete a lot of street grid much as you propose, but to encircle the whole thing in a giant roundabout so that the traffic can circle the place, but also leave significant pedestrian access across such a "ring road". Or put all of the parking inside the ring-road, and all of the shops on the outside, and design it all so that come what may of traffic, the pedestrians can walk right over it on dedicated bridges.

Just an idea.

Ben Ross said...

It's worth thinking about how these visions connect up with political and regulatory reality. One advantage Wheaton has is that the part of the mall property toward the Metro falls under the zoning category established for Bethesda Lane (the new alleyway in Bethesda Row). This zone allows mixed use development (3 or 4 floors of residential above retail).

It is nearly the only place in the county where mixed use development can be built without a double approval process that requires initial plans to undergo a vote of both planning board and county council for a rezoning and then requires another whole process for approval of the project. This is the happy outcome of a long convoluted legislative and judicial battle over Bethesda Lane.

I suspect that mixed use redevelopment on the Metro side of the mall will get political support much sooner than the road network in the adjoining communities.

Dave Murphy said...

Ben-
I would be thrilled to see the southeast corner of the mall property redeveloped and integrated into the street plan for the rest of the town. It makes a good bit of sense. I was not aware of the zoning advantage they had there. It is frustrating to see that the county hasn't taken advantage of this.

Thomas-
I don't know about that ring road idea... it seems to me it would set a limit to the amount of growth that could occur... i.e., if we build a ring around Wheaton, it would decrease the likelihood that Wheaton's urban fabric could grow into Kensington, Glenmont, Forest Glen, etc. The idea of a by-pass isn't so bad, though.

Thomas Hardman said...

Dave, I know the scales are different, but anytime anyone's talking about how to redevelop older suburban hubs into truly urbanized areas, I like to point them to Dupont Circle.

I suppose that any circle could be used for comparison, but Dupont is my choice because it's such a perfect combination of urban features.

It's a crossroad of two thoroughfares that could be considered "major", Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues NW, and two lesser thoroughfares, "P" and 19th Streets NW. It's also a large public park with entrances on both sides of the space to Metro. Further, on the outside of the rung of the traffic circle, it's pretty purely commercial at ground level, with some mixed-use or office-only space above the ground level.

Along one of the major thoroughfares (Connecticut Avenue) is a fairly solid wall of commercial retail at ground level (with a grade-separated underpass through lane), again with office or mixed-use space above it, though only for a few floors in most cases. Along the other major thoroughfare is mostly office space though mostly in the form of converted mansions as this was once the residential street of the rich.

P Street westbound and 19th southbound from the circle are low-lying retail in most places with some office buildings, both of these streets north and east bound are primarily residential.

As you would prefer, all of this is very well integrated into the grid.

So, just imagine Wheaton transformed towards this model, only on a larger scale. You're already about 2/3rds of the way to that with your present idea.

Dave Murphy said...

Interesting, Thomas. I'd actually envisioned a traffic circle at Viers Mill, Georgia, and Pritchard perhaps with underpass lanes on GA. I guess when you said "ring road" I was picutring using the road as a boundary, which sort of goes against the notion of integrating the street grid. I think a triffic circle (even multiple circles) would be a great way to make the area a little more walkable.

Anonymous said...

Dave Murphy said...
I don't speak on Virginia malls because I don't visit them very often... Ballston Common doesn't have particularly bad urbanism, nor does Pentagon City. I've never been to Fair Oaks, and I am not familiar with Tysons' crime rates, but I would guess it has to do with the fact that they are more upscale, not in a transitional area like Wheaton.

I do know that Maryland malls have had recent crime spikes, such as Laurel Mall and Arundel Mills.

RE: In a way you described the main issue with Wheaton and Laurel Malls although I can't speak on Arundel Mills.

Both Wheaton and Laurel Malls Lack true Planing when it comes to making the two Malls more upscale on the Level of Pentagon City and Tysons Corner.

I Strongly believe that with Wheaton Mall's Revitalization it failed to reach the Upscale Status because they build the New Macy's Department Store knowing that the Hechts was going Out of Busines in which it left the Old Hechts Department Store Vacent which was a Bad look on the Mall. All they had to do was Push for a Upscale Replacement Department Store such as Nordstroms, Lord & Taylors, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillards, or Boscov's.

As for Laurel Mall they should just Rip the Entire Mall Down and Start from Scratch and build a 3 to 4 Story Mall with two Upscale Department Stores such as Nordstroms and Macy's or Bloomingdales and Lord & Taylors.

One of the main Screw ups the Planners do with most of the Shopping Malls in Suburban Maryland is getting 2nd and 3rd Rate Department Stores to anchor the Malls such as Target, Kohls, Burlington Coat Factory, or Marshalls. Anytime a Mall can attract 2nd and 3rd rate Department Stores thats a sign for failure in that shopping mall's future and will more than likely attract criminal coruption that will further drag the shopping mall into a downward spiral.

The people in upscale parts of PG County have been complaining for years that the County and Urban/Suburban Developers Refusing to build Upscale Shopping Malls in their area that is on the same level as Tysons Corner, Pentagon City Mall, White Flint Mall, Annapolis Mall etc. Some will say its about racial issues but from the looks at the lack of True Planning of Building Attractive Upscale Malls is more than likely due to the fact that Planners and Politicians Discriminately do not Respect most of Maryland as being the attractive Destination of Uspcale Shopping and Urbanism that has been Very Successful in Northern Virginia and other Major Cities/Suburbs throughout the US.

Dave Murphy said...

Anon-

About your last comment, I agree that Maryland's retail set-up is desperately unequal. Although I'd take MD over VA when it comes to urbanism.

As a Laurel resident, if they were to tear down the mall, i wouldn't want them to build a new one. I'd want a new mixed use development with retail facing the street and office or residential above the retail. I'd want a street grid going through that plot.

The thing I really don't like about malls is how they are hidden behind seas of parking. You can't just walk up to most malls (Ballston and Crystal City being a notable exceptions) and, like in Wheaton, they are a huge pock mark on the road network. In areas like Tyson's, there's no semblance of urbanism anyway, so disrupting the street grid isn't an issue. In places like Wheaton, Beltway Plaza, or the Mall at PG, the footprint of the mall and its parking lots has a devastating effect on the walkability and drivability of the surrounding area.

I suppose I'm looking at it from a different angle than you, because I'm sure the stores that are landed have much more to do with the safety of the mall, however I'm not competent to speak to that unfortunately.

Thomas Hardman said...

Dave, going back to your original concept, do we even actually need malls? Or if we do need them, why exactly do we need them?

In part, it's mostly because some places become so popular that there's just not enough street parking for them, and often people leaving their shopping at such places have just too much (or too valuable) goods to take on mass-transit, and sometimes you just can't get (or afford) a taxi when and where you need one. So, on this basis, we wind up with big-box stores anchoring malls, generally also with a scattering of smaller stores trying to catch the overflow or handle specialties not covered by the big-box stores.

That being said, in general the concept of "walkability" is a good one. High-density mixed-use is generally a good concept, though I can't sufficiently stress to people too young to have experienced them, that when a high-density project goes bad, it generally takes entire neighborhoods with it. Study "Cabrini Greens" sometime.

But enough of that.

Dan Reed may remember when he interviewed me in the recent Special Elections campaign, we met up at the Dunkin Donuts at Wheaton Metro and brainstormed a bit.

For instance, someone needs to tell me why exactly Reedie Drive isn't a tunnel under Georgia Avenue. Oh, I know, it's because Georgia Avenue itself needs to be in a tunnel, or at least it needs to be grade-separated from the surrounding terrain. In any case, it can't be tunnelized unless you want to re-do the tunnel between the two sides of the metrorail/metrobus station there...

It might make more sense, and be easier, to simply tunnel University Blvd under both Georgia and Veirs Mill Road, between roughly East Avenue and Amherst Avenues, and use the general lines of Amherst, Blueridge, Galt, East and Prichard into the traffic circle.

And by the way, keep in mind that one of the original reasons for the design as we see it for Wheaton Plaza's lack of integration into the surrounding neighborhood was the Cold War design principles of "anything big enough to be a paratroop drop zone needs to be hard to get in and out of".

Cavan said...

You have an excellent mind for contemplating the ideal. I'm flattered that you linked my GGW posts.

Dave Murphy said...

Thomas-
Tunnel for a suburban artery? I can't imagine a worse idea. Tunnels are great for freeways when they are feasible, but in Silver Spring, Montgomery Hills, Forest Glen, Wheaton, and Glenmont, Georgia Avenue is a city street. There are houses and small businesses fronting the avenue. 29 and 270 are the north-south freeways, and it would be preposterous to impose these down town areas with another one.

With regard to Cabrini Green, there was not a shred of walkability in that concept. It was basically "let's take all the 'undesirable' people and get them out of the way of the normal people". Mixed use should mean mixed income, and it should be integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods, not cordoned off.

Cavan-
Thanks for the compliment. And thanks for writing the articles for me to link, I enjoyed them quite a bit

Dave Murphy said...

Another thing, Thomas- I don't think we NEED malls, unfortunately Cold War urban planning has made them the best way to concentrate retail. Malls aren't such a bad idea if the anchors front the street and they are built on a city block. Take City Place, for example. The most successful stores in that mall are the ones that are accessible from the outside, like the Moroccan restaurant, Galaxy, and McGinty's. A Bloomingdales would never work, say, where the Steve and Barry's is located because it would fail to draw casual passers-by off the street. Completely auto-centric malls do not have this problem, because the "street" is inside the mall.

Thomas Hardman said...

Cavan, you're making the mistake of only thinking of grade-separated crossings as overpasses above-grade and cloverleafs, rather than underpasses below-grade with street-level "Texas merges". Again, I have to advise you to go downtown to Dupont Circle and actually get out of the car and walk around. Some of the most-successful and longest-lasting storefronts are those right next to the tunnel where Connecticut Avenue goes sub-grade and passes under the Circle.

Basically, three lanes plus parking becomes two lanes with no parking underground, while the third lane plus parking remains at the surface, merges into the circle, exits the circle, and remains at-grade as the other two lanes rise up to meet it. The storefronts are on the at-grade plane.

What's the difference between a tunnel and a grade-separated intersection? Really, it's the length of the underground stretch. It's very short in a GSI or overpass, and much longer than that, in a tunnel.

You needn't actually tunnel much, it could simply be a trench cut with pedestrian and some traffic overpasses. However, a tunnel allows for more pedestrian traffic over it, obviously.

Dave, you should also see the new Planning Board "Georgia Avenue Plan" which freely admits that MD-97 is in fact darned near a freeway and the surround near it needs a major redesign, especially concentrating on keeping the pedestrians and traffic from being in close proximity, especially at the high-speed high-flow areas. One of the easiest ways to do that amounts to intermittent tunnel, especially places where you've already got plans for grade-separated intersections and extant shopping and residential concentrations approximating high-density (if not mixed use).

For an example of that, try your Wheaton Plaza proposal on Glenmont.

Feel free to stop by my own blog and read the article about the Planning Board decision on Georgia Avenue's corridor, feel free to leave remarks and critique.

Anonymous said...

Dave Murphy said...

Anon-

About your last comment, I agree that Maryland's retail set-up is desperately unequal. Although I'd take MD over VA when it comes to urbanism.

As a Laurel resident, if they were to tear down the mall, i wouldn't want them to build a new one. I'd want a new mixed use development with retail facing the street and office or residential above the retail. I'd want a street grid going through that plot.

The thing I really don't like about malls is how they are hidden behind seas of parking. You can't just walk up to most malls (Ballston and Crystal City being a notable exceptions) and, like in Wheaton, they are a huge pock mark on the road network. In areas like Tyson's, there's no semblance of urbanism anyway, so disrupting the street grid isn't an issue. In places like Wheaton, Beltway Plaza, or the Mall at PG, the footprint of the mall and its parking lots has a devastating effect on the walkability and drivability of the surrounding area.

I suppose I'm looking at it from a different angle than you, because I'm sure the stores that are landed have much more to do with the safety of the mall, however I'm not competent to speak to that unfortunately.

RE: They can always remove the Surface Parking and build a 8 story above ground/4 Stories Underground Parking Garage to reduce the "eyesore" of Large Surface Parking Lots around the Malls. Then after the surface parking lots are removed then they can replace it with additional retail store fronts complimenting the Indoor Retail stores...

If you really believe in Mix Use then support it entirely by supporting Indoor and Outdoor Retail and if I'm not mistaking that is the long Term Goal of Transferring Tyson's Corner Mall from an Mostly Indoor Retail to an Indoor/Outdoor Mix Upscale Retail......

Anonymous said...

Thomas Hardman said...

Dave, going back to your original concept, do we even actually need malls? Or if we do need them, why exactly do we need them?

RE: Umm why do we need food to eat, water to drink, tv to watch shows and news, radio to listen to music, newspaper to read, a shelter to reside in, a bed to sleep on, a pencil to write, boots to wear in the snow, a mouth to speak, etc.

What I'm getting at is that question makes absolutely no sense at all. Young People and Adults like to shopp at Attractive Upscale Shopping Malls to gewt away from home for a few hours.

Just because you Hate Modernize Upscale Indoor Shopping Malls don't mean that the ENTIRE State of Maryland should get rid of them or stop building them. The easy and best solution to your hatred towards Upscale Indoor Shopping Malls is to not Patronize them, there are plenty of stand along small shops in the DC area to go to just pick one and let us Young people enjoy our lives by Choosing to shop at Indoor Upscale Shopping Malls in Montgomery County.......