Council split on how best to redevelop Wheaton

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Local,Maryland,Kate Jacobson

Montgomery County residents anticipating the redevelopment of Wheaton might have to wait even longer, as county officials bicker over the best way to invigorate the community.

The project would move the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's office from Silver Spring to Wheaton, and transform the central area between Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard. The idea is to stimulate the economy with more than 500 county workers plus visitors who would shop and eat in the community daily.

But council members are split on whether the M-NCPPC should be allowed to develop its own headquarters, or if the county should explore having public-private partnerships in which developers bring their ideas on what the community should look like. Former developer B.F. Saul pulled out of the project last summer.

In the latter option, County Executive Ike Leggett, a Democrat, has recommended including two county offices -- the Department of Permitting Services and the Department of Environmental Protection -- in the space, if it is economically feasible.

The first option might cost more but would allow the county to move more quickly. Leaving the project in the hands of private developers would likely be less expensive, but the approach could be risky due to uncertain market conditions and might take longer because of more planning.

Ramona Bell-Pearson, the county's assistant chief administrative officer, said Leggett supports the public-private partnership model. She said officials from the executive branch believe including the two county agencies in the redevelopment, as well as allowing private companies to bring innovation and creativity to design, could turn Wheaton into a thriving community.

Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, D-at large, expressed frustration that the project has already dragged on too long. She said she was more frustrated, however, that officials did not have clear criteria for developers.

"I think you have to decide what you want," she said. "Since you've been talking about this for a long time, it's a source of some anxiety that some of these critical things aren't laid out yet. ... Wouldn't we be the ones saying this is what we want, how can you deliver it?"

Other council members seemed more comfortable putting the power of design in developers' hands. Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, said he envisioned a huge building in Wheaton that would house M-NCPPC, other county agencies, shops and additional office space for companies.

Others, such as Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large, expressed concern that bringing in private developers would delay the project more than it already has been.

"Though there are frustrations about it, I think these are both good options," he said. "[But] one of them gets us a clear outcome and gets us a purpose."

kjacobson@washingtonexaminer.com

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