Op-Ed: Is Montgomery County Serious About the Arts In Wheaton?

By Guest Author on February 14, 2023

By Dan Thompson, Executive Director, Wheaton Arts Parade

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich recently announced his plan to build Wheaton’s Arts & Cultural Center. While we applaud progress toward this long-promised center. The plan has several flaws.

It’s the Wrong Location.
The plan calls for the arts and cultural center to be built on the ground floor of new affordable housing on Georgia Avenue between the AVA Apartments and Leesborough Townhouses, and outside Wheaton’s business center. (See map and photo below.) We have long advocated that the arts center be built as close as possible to the Metro Station. When the arts center was discussed at public meetings, we imagined attracting audiences from Glenmont, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and even DC. People coming to see a play or a gallery exhibition and enjoying a meal at one of Wheaton’s restaurants. Visitors walking around the triangle and discovering public art and seeing Wheaton in a new light. We imagined the arts center would stimulate the local economy.

It’s Not What Artists Say They Need.
The county’s plan calls for two performance spaces, two classrooms, and an administrative office as large as both classrooms combined. That’s it! The plan doesn’t include artists’ studio space, a dance studio, or a music studio. Each of these spaces has its own requirements from things like a potter’s wheel and kiln, to mirrors and a dance bar and flooring, to sound insulation and recording capacity. Classrooms cannot be readily transformed into studios and vice versa. The county’s consultants found that studio space is at the top of the list of artists’ needs. As for an art gallery, the county proposes to hang paintings on the walls of the theater lobby.

It’s of Little Benefit to Wheaton Businesses.
The plan comes as a disappointment to artists but the proposed location does even less for Wheaton’s business community. County officials talk about preserving the character of Wheaton, its small businesses and ethnic restaurants, and its diversity. Yet, with their biggest opportunity to inject some life into the business center, they decided to abandon Wheaton’s small businesses and put the arts center among residences without a single business in sight. Has the county considered that having an arts center in the center of Wheaton might make it easier to find tenants for Wheaton’s empty commercial spaces, including in the county’s own office building on Reedie Dr?

It’s Not What Affordable Housing Residents Need.
What benefits will the residents of the new affordable housing building get from placing an arts center on the ground floor of their building? Don’t they have a greater need for a child care center and spaces where they can hold after school programs and meetings? Or is that what the developers think they are getting with this deal? Has the county promised the arts center as a community center for the residents? Is that why there are classrooms and no studio spaces in the plan?

The Community Was Not Consulted.
Elected officials and county employees tell us this is a “done deal.” How can this location be a done deal when it was never presented to the public for comment? The most recent public comments about the arts center were gathered in 2019. The public needs to know why the county rejected sites in the business center and the kind of facility that was possible at each location. No site is perfect and there have to be trade-offs. But being close to the Metro is worth some compromise and it may not require as much compromise as the county has made with its selection.

Urban Planners Would Disapprove.
A study underway by the Montgomery County Department of Planning shows why the county should reverse its decision on the location of the arts center. The study reinforces the conclusion of the Wheaton Sector Plan that redevelopment offers the greatest potential with properties near the Metro station. The study also finds that locating an arts center near the M-NCPPC building could take advantage of its underutilized underground parking. Constructing an arts center in the center of Wheaton gives the county the opportunity to continue to create a “vibrant pedestrian environment.” Businesses favor locations with a quality pedestrian environment that can help them compete for workers and customers, which for an arts center means larger audiences.

The Plan is About Cutting Costs, Not What’s Best for Wheaton.
The Montgomery Housing Partnership (MHP) needs financial assistance to build affordable housing and the county has decided to help. We applaud that decision. Montgomery County desperately needs more affordable housing. Wheaton will even get a new park as a result of the proposed land swap! The problem is that the county is trying to save money on the arts center by sharing construction costs with the housing project. That strategy would make sense if the location made sense. But spending arts center funds on this location would be a waste. The county only gets one shot to build Wheaton’s art center. If it’s not done right, there is no Plan B. Don’t do it on the cheap.

Money is the only reason why Wheaton can’t have BOTH new affordable housing AND a separate arts center located near the Metro. The county needs to allocate the funds that Wheaton’s arts center deserves. Tax dollars should not be wasted on a location that doesn’t make sense.

 Some sites that were considered as the location for the arts center. The dark line represents the border of the Urban District, but as one artist said, “they’ll just change the maps.” What can’t be changed is the fact that the location is far from the Metro station.

  1. Ground Floor of new MHP Apartments
  2. Parking Lot 14 Blueridge-Hickerson
  3. Ground Floor of new Gateway Apts
  4. Price-Fern Parking Lot
  5. Parking Lot 13 on Grandview Ave
  6. Move the Town Plaza to #5 and put the Arts Center here

#5 Parking Lot 13 was supposed to be a 12-story apartment building. The county is still trying to find a project for this site. #6 is the Marian Fryer Town Plaza which is right next to the Metro entrance. Selecting this site would mean moving the plaza, perhaps to #5.

#1 Site for new affordable housing selected by the county to house the arts center on its ground floor. This is at the northern edge of the Urban District and as far away from the Metro as possible and still within the district.