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Mobtown Beat

Thinking Outside The Boxes

Proposal to bring big-box stores to Remington thrills some residents, chills others

Frank Hamilton
The site of a proposed $65 million mixed-use development in Remington, where neighbors are still coming to grips with the project.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 1/20/2010

Normally, a developer with a project the size of the $65 million retail and housing development proposed for 25th and Howard streets in lower Remington would request financial incentives from the city. After all, the current plans call for a Lowes home-improvement store, a grocery store, an Anna's Linens, a Marshall's department store, and 50 to 60 residential rental units. But developer Rick Walker, CEO of Detroit-based Walker Developments Inc., has not asked for city incentives (though the project will be eligible for tax credits because it falls within the city's Enterprise Zone). Penny-pinchers may be pleased, but the deal leaves those who are opposed to the project, or who simply want some concessions, low on bargaining chips.

"It's like I'm buying a house without financing," says Will Beckford, director of commercial revitalization for the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), of Walker's strategy. "You can't tell me what to do with it."

Yet neighbors and local business owners have a good deal to say.

News of the development--which would occupy 11 acres, including the site where an Anderson Automotive dealership now sits--broke in early November. (Anderson, one of the city's oldest dealerships, is slated to lose its General Motors franchise in October and will close shortly before that.) Since then, the development team has met with community groups or their representatives eight times, according to Jon Laria, a Baltimore real-estate lawyer who represents the developers. Laria is also chair of a state task force charged with studying smart growth and land-use issues, and a major fundraiser for Gov. Martin O'Malley.

In these meetings and out of them, residents have voiced numerous concerns about the project, which would occupy an irregular site bounded by Maryland Avenue, 25th Street/Huntingdon Avenue, the CSX rail line, 24th Street, and Sisson Street. The community is split between those who support the project but have some worries they'd like addressed and those adamantly against having a big national retailer like Lowes in their midst. (Disagreement on the matter is at such a tentative pitch that this reporter was asked to leave a Jan. 7 meeting by the Greater Remington Improvement Association ["Mum's the Word on New Remington Development," The News Hole, Jan. 8]. Eric Imhof, the group's president, cited the "sensitive" nature of the discussion about the project.)

Roy Skeen, a general contractor who lives three blocks north of the site, is in the latter category. "What we've talked about in Remington is that we want more small-scale development, more locally owned businesses," he says. "There's a multiplier effect that comes from buying local products. You can almost create a new market just by spending your money at a local business."

There are a number of small hardware stores in the surrounding area, including Ace Hardware in Waverly, Belle Hardware in Bolton Hill, and two stores in Hampden, Sirkis and Falkenhan's. The owners of some of those stores worry about having to compete with a giant like Lowes and are opposed to the project. The BDC's Beckford insists such concerns are misguided: "My belief is that if you're competitively priced and you're the local hardware-store guy, you'll still get your customer base," he says.

Easier said than done, says Deb Falkenhan, owner of Falkenhan's Hardware in Hampden, which borders Remington. "You can't compete with these box stores when they make deals with manufacturers," she says. "After the holidays, I had people coming in looking for storage containers, and I pay more than [the big box stores] charge." Falkenhan hopes individualized service and customer loyalty will keep her in business.

In the other camp are those who are excited about the development. Long-time Remingtonian Al Letts lives on Huntingdon, a few blocks north of the site. "It would be convenient for shopping and I think it would improve the neighborhood," he says. Letts hopes the shopping center might draw more of a police presence to the area, which he says now plays host to open-air drug dealing.

Rick Reeves, whose family has operated a paint-removal business on 25th Street and Huntingdon Avenue since the 1920s, also thinks the project will be good for the neighborhood. "Without Anderson [Automotive] here, the whole thing would have gone to pot," he says. "If you didn't have that and the site just sat abandoned . . . then nobody would come here. They'd have no reason to."

Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, says residents are largely happy about the project, for the shopping opportunities and jobs--800 permanent positions, according to the developer--it would bring. But there are concerns, she says, especially about traffic. While there are several large thoroughfares in the vicinity--including 28th and Howard streets--the immediate area is crisscrossed by narrow residential streets. Residents worry that traffic coming off of Interstate 83 at 28th Street could end up clogging them.

Another common complaint is the forbidding, suburban look of the buildings in preliminary drawings of the development. The stores face inward, with entrances on an interior parking lot. Blank walls face the street. Residents have called for a more urban-friendly design, with entrances on the street.

To such concerns, Laria, the project's lawyer, responds, "I think there are going to be enormous gestures in favor of what the community has asked us to do." For instance, he says the developer may include a sit-down restaurant of "national-quality level," in response to community input. But, at least at this point, it's hard to see how more structural concerns will be addressed. Laria says retailers want their front doors near their parking and generally won't accept two entrances. (The project's design team is, however, looking to "add more activity" to Maryland Avenue by including some retail that is accessible to the surrounding neighborhood, he says.) Initial drawings were bound to look warehouse-like, he says, because they did not yet include architectural details. As for including a neighborhood driveway into the Lowes complex from the intersection of 24th and Sisson streets--another popular request--he says it may not be possible because of the uneven grade along that edge of the site.

Jessica Keller, chief of planning for the city Department of Transportation, has met with community representatives and says her staff is already negotiating with the developer on their behalf. Her team will do a traffic-impact study of the project starting sometime after Jan. 25. Keller says that date was chosen to get an accurate picture of local traffic; Johns Hopkins University's spring session begins that day. She declined to predict the outcome of the study, which will take 60 days to complete. "Do we think it will be a lot of traffic?" she says. "Yes."

Walker has yet to secure binding commitments from any of the retailers, though Laria says there is "strong interest" from a number of them, including Lowes. The plans also include a supermarket that will sit atop the Lowes, but the developer has yet to find a tenant. "It's very, very difficult to get grocery stores," Laria says. "We haven't solved that puzzle yet." Whatever the case, he says, it will be a "known supermarket with fresh produce, a quality supermarket."

The developer hopes to break ground in late summer or early fall of this year. First, however, he will need to apply for a planned unit development, or PUD. A PUD is a planning designation that would allow the mixed-use development to sit on a patchwork of land zoned for divergent uses. It is subject to approval by the City Council, which is perhaps the only real leverage both full-on detractors and lukewarm supporters have at their at disposal.

City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (D-7th District) says she is excited about the development coming in to her district, though she has certain expectations. "I do want to make sure the majority of jobs go to residents of Baltimore City, especially the surrounding community," she says.

As Laria says, "We need zoning action from the mayor and City Council, so the city is well positioned to be straightforward about what it needs." Now if its citizens can only agree on what that might be.

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