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Big Box Backlash

Citizen groups oppose Remington development on several fronts

Frank Hamilton
The Remington development site (currently home to a car dealership).

By Andrea Appleton and Hannah Bruchman | Posted 7/21/2010

In February, city residents learned that a proposed 11-acre housing and retail development at 25th and Howard streets would include a nearly 94,000-square-foot Walmart. The news has since spurred a lot of dialogue, to put it nicely. Everyone from John Waters to Denise Whiting, the owner of Café Hon, has weighed in on the matter (the former con, the latter pro).

In fact, the proposed development has incited a hydra-headed opposition. While many of the affected community associations quietly negotiate concessions with the city and the developer, other groups have taken a more vocal stance. To date, the development has triggered the formation of at least three organizations. These groups run the gamut from those who oppose Walmart on principle to those seeking large concessions from the developer to those who take issue with the way the city is addressing the inevitable spike in traffic the development will bring.

The announcement that Walmart would be included in the development proved to be particularly galvanizing. A Facebook group entitled "Keep Wal-Mart Out of Remington"--now more than 1,500 strong--appeared, with members vehemently criticizing Walmart's employment practices and effect on local businesses. Bmore Local, which formed shortly thereafter, took a more nuanced approach. The organization has proposed that 13 amendments be added to zoning legislation for the project. (For the development to go forward, the City Council must approve a planned unit development, or PUD, which would allow the mixed-use development to sit on a patchwork of land zoned for divergent uses.) The amendments include requiring the developer to preserve and reuse the stone church at 24th and Sisson streets; to maintain a certain percentage of occupancy or incur heavy fines; and to ensure all tenants pay the state definition of a "living wage," $12.25 an hour. Bmore Local is applying for nonprofit status and plans to move on to other projects once this one is settled. "We would love to see community standards city-wide," Vice President Genny Dill says.

There has been some action on the living-wage front recently. City Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) sponsored living wage legislation in early May. It would govern employers who gross more than $10 million annually, and was widely seen as targeting the proposed Walmart. The bill uses the city's definition of a living wage, slightly over $10 an hour. (A subcommittee of the Council's Budget and Appropriations Committee* will meet for a public hearing on the matter on July 22.)

Baltimore CAN, another new organization inspired by the specter of a Remington Walmart, has similar aims. Currently composed of 25 groups--including Bmore Local, as well as local branches of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the NAACP--the coalition's aim is to promote city standards for new developments, with guidelines governing everything from wages to transportation to health impacts. "We're pro development," says Matthew Weinstein, Baltimore region director for Progressive Maryland, one of the convening organizations. "But we want to deal with development in a coordinated way so that communities don't get run over." The coalition aims to have 100 member organizations by Aug. 5, when the Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the 25th Street Station project.

That meeting is likely to be a tad crowded. It is also the deadline for any appeals regarding the city's Traffic Impact Study (TIS) for the new development. (Studies that assess a development's likely traffic impact on surrounding communities and transportation corridors are required for large developments such as this one.) Because the final draft was released late last week, it's too early to say whether anyone will appeal it. But judging by initial reactions, the chances are good.

Remington Neighborhood Alliance (RNA) President Joan Floyd has been engaged in a contentious back and forth with the city's Department of Transportation (DOT) since the first draft was released nearly two months ago. In a letter to the DOT, she pointed out that the study--conducted by a company called VHB--included no information as to how data was collected (such as dates), which in Floyd's opinion made it null and void. She wrote that the draft made such basic errors as miscounting the number of lanes in certain roads. And she took issue with some of the assumptions in the study. For instance, it took as a given that 25 percent of shoppers will walk, bike, or take the bus to the shopping center--which will feature Walmart and Lowe's as its most prominent stores--resulting in what Floyd calls "the unrealistic removal of 1,000-2,000 and more cars per day from future projections."

DOT Acting Division Chief Valorie LaCour responded to some of Floyd's complaints in a letter dated June 16. She wrote that the department arrived at the 25 percent figure by using Institute of Transportation Engineers standards and reviewing data from the Home Depot on Eastern Avenue and Kane Street, which she says "has similar demographic and land use characteristics." LaCour did not address the question of miscounted lanes, and in the new draft they do not appear to have been corrected, according to Floyd. "It's something that doesn't instill confidence," she says. "This is not difficult stuff to get right." As to the dates of data collection--which are included in the new draft--Floyd points out that many of the counts were conducted late last year before the TIS study began, which "raises questions," though such data is allowable by DOT standards. A number of the traffic counts were also done during Johns Hopkins University's spring break, when traffic is diminished.

The DOT has thus far recommended only a few traffic mitigation measures related to the proposed development: an additional turn lane on North Howard Street, another study on traffic signal timing after the project is completed, and "traffic calming measures" to protect pedestrians and cyclists. The RNA recently submitted its own recommendations to the DOT and the Department of Planning. They emphasize routing shopping center traffic around residential Remington rather than through it. (As does an online campaign called Exit 6, spearheaded by Floyd's husband Doug Armstrong.) The recommendations are quite specific, and include making certain streets dead-end, adding turn lanes on Howard and West 24th streets, and adding signage directing traffic to commercial streets. The RNA will will have a consultant review the new TIS draft before deciding whether or not to appeal.

Members of the Historic Fawcett Community Association, yet another new organization, are also worried that traffic will clog their small neighborhood. The area--bound by West 24th Street, the CSX tracks, Howard Street, and North Avenue--encompasses perhaps 100 families. In the development plans, it sits near the parking garage and a loading dock for Lowe's, "right at the butt end" of the proposed project, steering committee member Megan Hamilton says. "In our view, we are the neighborhood most at risk."

For that reason, the organization had hoped for some concessions. The developer won't preserve the old church on 24th and Sisson, but at the community's suggestion has agreed that the stones from the building could be used for a wall that would skirt the development. "We're absolutely committed to using the stone to the greatest extent possible," says Jon Laria, a Baltimore real-estate lawyer who represents the developers.

But Hamilton says the wall designs the developer has produced thus far employ "a fairly nominal amount of the stone." One version includes 8-foot stone piers but is primarily metal picket. Another features a 4-foot stone wall with black metal picket along the top. Laria says a wall made entirely of stone would look "too fortress-like," but that the developer will be seeking community feedback on the designs.

There will likely be plenty. "Our community was settled in the 1800s and that church and that stone is a palpable connection to our history," Hamilton says. "If the developers have a true commitment to working with the community, the wall seems a very modest request."

As the development process proceeds, the city and the developer will likely be sifting through many requests. Time will tell which they consider modest.

* Correction: This story originally misidentified the body in question as the council's Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee.

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