In my experience as a naturalist, one of the hardest things in life is to live up to our own ideals. Nowhere is this clearer than in my conservation work, where – as director of Conservation Advocacy for Audubon Naturalist Society – I work to inspire residents of the greater Washington, DC, region to appreciate, understand, and protect their natural environment. My focus is on advocacy for local clean water protection and watershed restoration.
Of course, it’s never simple combining the needs of people and communities with the realities of politics. A conflict over this very issue is currently happening in my backyard – Rockville, Maryland – where county funding for a controversial project known as Wheaton Town Center is currently being decided. The location of this project is downtown Wheaton on what is now Lot 13,a County-owned parking lot surrounded by locally-owned small businesses. The proposed new design will house several local government agencies; it will also create a long-promised town square.
This all sounds good, right? What’s the problem?
This project as now conceived would thwart the principles of the Wheaton Sector Plan, as well as break past promises, because it fails to fulfill the County’s own stated goals of Diversity; Connectivity; Design; and Environment. Many of the members of my organization, Audubon Naturalist Society, as well as others who live, work, and shop in downtown Wheaton, oppose the Town Center project current design for a number of reasons: it would split up the square into pieces, bisecting it with traffic. It fails to maximize stormwater practices such as ample canopy trees, publicly-accessible green roofs, and bioswales that would capture larger stormwater volumes and help protect the health of nearby Sligo Creek and the Anacostia River. The design also threatens to harm local small businesses by severely limiting their public visibility and accessibility.
Why would we fund such a project? Funding should be conditional to design changes that fulfill the Sector Plan’s principles and the County’s commitments to local residents and the environment. By meeting the conditions I propose below, we could substantially fulfill the criteria set out in the Wheaton Sector Plan’s Principles and create a thriving town center.
Embody green stormwater infrastructure
The site will be the County’s Green Flagship that demonstrates Montgomery’s regional environmental leadership and significantly contributes to the restoration of Sligo Creek and the Anacostia. It will showcase a suite of Environmental Site Design measures and clearly fulfill the Sector Plan’s Environmental Principle that redevelopment will provide better stormwater management, greater tree canopy, and walkable streets.
Create a large, unified town square
To fulfill promises made to local residents, the Town Square must: a) occupy a central location, b) be a single connected area, and c) be at least one-third the size of the lot in question. These points are all essential to creating a central space for the community to gather for recreation, exercise, celebrations, and more.
Support and promote small businesses
By proposing to place a massive building in what is now a parking lot surrounded by small businesses, the current design compromises visibility and accessibility. The current project concept fails to promote the dozens of existing small, locally-owned shops and businesses, jeopardizing their survival. If implemented, the current design concept would result in the loss of local small businesses during the construction phase and would seriously threaten their viability after the project’s completion.
We have an opportunity to create a truly successful town center design, one that prioritizes green infrastructure (large trees, on-site stormwater management), community togetherness, and local businesses. The current design does none of these things. Whatever we build will affect our community for decades to come. The county should withhold funding from this project until its design principles reflect our own stated goals, values, and standards.
Diane Cameron is the Conservation Program Director for Audubon Naturalist Society. She specializes in watershed restoration advocacy for regulations requiring the use of green infrastructure techniques, with a special focus on restoring the Anacostia River.
Top three images: Montgomery County Department of General Services
Bottom three artist renderings: Daniel Unkle // Concept Design: Danila Sheveiko