Thursday, March 05, 2009

Wheaton Library: What's the 411? Part Two

By Holly Olson.

In Part Two of my series on the Wheaton Library, I discuss the arguments raised at the February 9th meeting in favor of renovating the library at its current location. MPW readers can find additional information about the position of those opposing relocation at their website.

The majority of the attendees at the February meeting were opposed to relocating the library. The main concerns that they raised about relocation included: accessibility, parking, crime/safety, the library as a community resource, and uncertainty about the future use of the site.


Opponents’ view: The current library facility provides ample parking that is both free and safe. If the library is relocated to the Wheaton Central Business District (CBD), patrons will likely have to park in a metered garage. Residents also expressed concerned about the County’s ability to provide adequate safety in public garages.

I am not going to sugar coat this one. Parking availability is a legitimate concern, particularly given that Lot 13 (the open air surface lot bounded by Reedie and Blueridge) is targeted as open space in the County’s redevelopment plans.

With that said, the County is well aware of its parking needs. In 2008, the International Downtown Association reviewed Wheaton and developed a series of short and long term recommendations for how redevelopment in Wheaton should proceed. In their Phase 1 recommendations, (0-3 years), they specifically called for development of replacement parking for Lot 13. Phase 2 (5-10 years) recommends that the County adjust parking supply and location to support Phase 2 development. Phase 3 (10+ years) calls for the County to continue to assess and adjust parking needs and supply.

Bottom line: Parking in Wheaton will need to be reviewed and monitored through all phases of redevelopment. Developing a concrete and pro-active strategy about how parking will be addressed could go a long to assuaging community concerns about parking availability.


Opponents’ view: In its current location, neighbors are able to walk or bike to the library. If the library was moved, they would no longer do this. Residents also noted that the current library location is well situated in terms of public transit, given its location on GA Ave ( a major bus route).

Walkability both to and within the CBD is a long-standing issue. An extensive study on this issue, “Wheaton Metro Station Area Pedestrian Safety Evaluation,” was conducted in 2004 by Kittelson and Associates for the MD Department of Transportation. And while the County has made some strides in terms of improving pedestrian safety, future redevelopment plans will need to go much further in terms of developing Wheaton into a walkable downtown.

It is worth noting the current and planned development along the GA Avenue corridor between Blue Ridge and Arcola should significantly improve the pedestrian experience. Currently, this corridor is a dead zone, and offers little in the way of activity and streetscaping. But with both the Centex development at the Good Council site nearing completion, and Avalon Bay planning a mixed-use development at GA and Blueridge, the corridor will be activated, making it a more enjoyable and safe route for pedestrians to access to the CBD.

As to the last point regarding transit access, the current location of the library is inferior to a location within the CBD. Yes, patrons can access the current library site by using the bus routes on Georgia, but that is nothing compared to being located on a metro station.

Bottom Line: Future redevelopment plans must emphasize pedestrian safety and walkability. New/planned development projects north of the CBD will activate the Blueridge to Arcola zone and create more opportunities for streetscaping. Relocating the library to the CBD will increase transit accessibility for many more library patrons.

Crime and Safety

Opponents’ view: Residents do not feel safe in downtown Wheaton, and in particular would not go there at night.

The perception of crime is a long-standing issue in Wheaton. The fact of the matter is that the data shows us that crime in Wheaton is generally no better or worse than other parts of the county. Nevertheless, the perception that crime reigns supreme is Wheaton is in full force, as evident at the 2/9 meeting. Residents talked about a whole host of violent criminal activity plaguing Wheaton, including murders, break-ins, muggings, shootings, etc. You name it, and according to them, Wheaton has it.

Bottom Line: The County needs to do a better job of combating this perception and addressing “nuisance crime” in Wheaton. But this is nothing new-- all one needs to do is review the Wheaton Public Safety Audit from 2004.

But frankly, until redevelopment occurs, and Wheaton has less closed store-fronts, more activity during all periods of the day and night, and is physically more attractive, people will continue to feel unsafe. This very notion of using ‘eyes on the street’ to combat both actual and perceived crime is one of the basic tenants in Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Community Resource

Opponents’ view: The library is an important resource to the community immediately surrounding the library. These neighborhoods have been left behind in terms of redevelopment and should not be asked to sacrifice their library for the sake of redevelopment in the CBD.

It is important to remember that a library belongs to the community. And in this case, the community is very large. It includes not only the surrounding neighborhoods, but the entire 20902 zipcode (which covers a huge swath of territory), and finally, the County as a whole. In terms of determining whether to relocate, one of the driving factors should be how well the current site serves the community. If relocating within the CBD will improve accessibility and increase usage, then the answer becomes quite clear-- relocate the library.

Bottom Line: The library would be moving a few blocks down the street—not miles. Residents in the neighborhood would still have the Rafferty and Rec Center, and if the County is smart, they will use the vacated library to house another type of public facility that will benefit the entire community.

Uncertainty about the Future of the Site

Opponents’ view: If the library relocates, the current site will first be offered to other County agencies, and if there are no takers, it will be sold. There has be no assurance that the site will not be sold to a developer for more townhomes.

This is a very legitimate concern. The community should not have to be asked to make a decision about whether the library should move without having a clue about what the vacated property will become. After all, who wants to give up a library and get more townhouses in return? The County did a disservice to the community by walking into the meeting on 2/9 and not offering any ideas about what would happen to the site.

My personal suggestion would be to create a children’s performing and visual arts center - where kids could take classes and exhibit their work. This would tie in with Wheaton’s designation as an Arts and Entertainment district. Housing and exhibit space could be created for adult artists in the CBD, with the children’s facility would be located just up the street. This would strengthen the ties between the CBD and the Wheaton rec corridor, while providing an alternate use for the library space.

Bottom Line: The County, along with the community, needs to generate ideas for alternative site uses that do not involve selling the property to a developer for moderate to high density residential. In particular, the County should try to maximize the site’s potential given its proximity to the Wheaton Rec Center and Rafferty Center. This would be a wonderful opportunity for the neighborhood to explore other site uses that would benefit them as well as the broader Wheaton community.

In the end, this is about more than just whether to move or not move a library. It is about what defines our community. There are no good guys or bad guys in this discussion - only different points of view. It can be easy to try and place people in distinct groups - the antis, the pro-development, etc. But in the end redevelopment is never that black and white, but rather it consists of shades of gray. I would urge all members of our community to take this notion to heart as this discussion progresses. What unites us is much stronger than what divides us - and in this case, what unites us is that we all share a stake in the success of Wheaton.

In Part Three of my series, I will discuss how relocating the library will benefit both the redevelopment effort and the community.

Holly Olson is a former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.