In four days, the Baltimore County Council will meet to vote on a slate of county-wide zoning changes, but for many, just one item on the crowded agenda carries a make-it-or-break-it load.
The question of whether to rezone a 52-acre site in Owings Mills where the vacant Solo Cup factory sits has held more drama this summer than a seasonal Shakespeare play.
It has sparked a petition drive with more than 7,000 signatures against it, a Facebook page with 3,257 “likes” for it and enough bitter finger pointing and name calling to make even a cynic blush.
After decades of being stuck in second gear, development in Owings Mills is finally revving up — with a vengeance.
“It’s developer against developer,” said Councilwoman Vickie Almond, whose district includes the Solo Cup site, where Greenberg Gibbons is seeking new zoning to build a $140 million retail and office hub anchored by Wegmans to be called Foundry Row.
Much of the debate has centered on emotions that often follow the prospects of change brought on by new development. Owings Mills was first targeted in 1979 as a growth area in Baltimore County, along with White Marsh. While new roads, housing, office space and retail opened up during the 1980s, the community never fully rooted as its eastside counterpart did, in part because a central 100-acre lake was never built after federal environmental officials nixed the plans.
Recent growth, fueled by the $200 million expansion of Stevenson University onto a sprawling campus in Owings Mills, has sparked new vitality, but along with that push, controversy has followed.
Projected traffic concerns for Reisterstown and Painters Mill roads, where the Wegmans would be located, have been a constant fear. Questions abound about whether the project could lead to oversaturation of retail as the $500 million Metro Centre starts to build out on 47 acres a half-mile away and plans for the $65 million redevelopment of the unsuccessful Owings Mills Mall have been unveiled.
State Highway Administration officials said $100,000 was allocated by the 2012 General Assembly to study potential traffic problems in the area with the advent of multiple new developments, said spokesman David Buck. A report is due in December.
In the meantime, SHA engineers are awaiting next week’s zoning vote on the Solo Cup site before proceeding with any further action there, Buck said.
“SHA has always been in pursuit of a project at [Reisterstown Road] and Painter’s Mill, but we are not going to move forward with construction of a project there until we know what’s going in there,” Buck said. “It is on hold pending what Baltimore County approves.”
Brian Gibbons, CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, the developer of the proposed project, said that alarm over traffic gridlock has led his planners to configure a new four-lane road in the plans for Foundry Row to run along the rear of the Solo Cup site to serve as a parallel access point. It would cost him $7 million, Gibbons said.
“It’ll capture all the traffic from the west side of the property from ever reaching Reisterstown Road,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons pointed to the 2010 version of the county’s Master Plan that refers to the Solo Cup plant’s closure, saying: “Where manufacturing uses are being phased out, work with property owners to evaluate rezoning and redevelopment opportunities to accommodate a mix of employment, retail or residential uses on the site and in the area to help revitalize the surrounding business and residential communities.”
“If that language was not in there, we would not have bought the property in August 2011,” Gibbons said, adding several public hearings have been held on the proposed new zoning over the past six months. Community groups from Pikesville, Liberty Road, Reisterstown, Owings Mills and Glyndon have written letters of support for the redevelopment.
Yet strong questions over the rezoning have percolated.
A petition drive held this summer to block the Solo Cup site rezoning has amassed more than 7,100 signatures. Gibbons said the petition’s text stating, “I oppose spending millions of our tax dollars to support new retail on Reisterstown Road, particularly when we’re making cuts to schools and other important county programs” and “I oppose a public process that puts the interests of developers over local residents and merchants” is misleading and incendiary.
“The poll was done as an act of desperation,” he said. “The people who were approached were purposely misled about the facts of the project. It’s been an ordeal, and I am disappointed it has been reduced to the level it’s been reduced to.”
Almond, who declined to reveal how she plans to vote on Tuesday evening, said she has been personally attacked verbally and in web postings by opponents of the Solo Cup site rezoning quest. An aide in her office said Thursday that phone calls and emails to the councilwoman have at times flooded in on both sides of the issue.
“I would say that nine out of 10 phone calls, texts, emails or people I meet in the grocery store or the Home Depot say they want their Wegmans,” Almond said.
“The other side — against the rezoning — have taken it a bit too far attacking my integrity and personality, and it’s just not right and I hope that stops. It isn’t a personal issue.”
Responding to charges that Almond, a freshman council member who was formerly a community activist and chief of staff for state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, did not understand all of the issues, she said: “I do know what I’m doing, and I’ve done my job well.
“I’ve been around for a while,” Almond said, adding that the rezoning battle has been educational. “It’s been the most exciting, challenging, learning experience I’ve ever had. And I think I have a good attitude for the most part because I’m taking all of the good things from this job. With every position if you’re an elected official, there are difficult people and difficult issues, and it’s not easy. I learn something new every day.”
Gibbons said this week he has been focused on getting the facts of the project out, that only a portion of the total 1.8 million square feet at the site will be developed for a total of 415,000 square feet, much smaller than another of the company’s developments in the county, the 980,000-square-foot Hunt Valley Towne Centre.
“These projects, the Foundry Row, the Metro Centre and the mall are three different projects,” Gibbons said, adding that he’s already leased 72 percent of the project, including the 130,000-square-foot Wegmans store.
Howard Brown, president of David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd., the developer of Metro Centre, said the Foundry Row project would overlap and clash with his mega mixed-use development that will ultimately include 300,000 square feet of retail, 1.2 million square feet of office space, a hotel and 1,700 apartment units.
Brown said this week that he believes the rezoning vote is incorrect and that the proposal for the redevelopment of the Solo Cup site should be subjected to a stringent planned unit development process by the county planning office.
“To rezone a property when the intersection is failed is irresponsible,” he said of the Painters Mill and Reisterstown roads intersection, where an average 38,100 vehicles passed through each day, according to State Highway Administration data from 2011. “That traffic would impact all the future development in Owings Mills.”
Brown said that council members, a majority of whom he believes will vote for the rezoning, are too inexperienced to take on the rezoning of that particular parcel in Owings Mills. He cites the county’s master plan that sets in motion the transit-oriented development of Metro Centre, which has $57 million in state and county money invested to date toward infrastructure and a new branch of the Baltimore County Public Library and a new campus for the Community College of Baltimore County.
“They are not planners,” he said of the council members.
A Maryland Public Information Act request filed on Tuesday by the Say No to Solo Coalition requested emails, texts, written and electronic communications between Almond and Greenberg Gibbons. The request centers on the May 2012 International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas and seeks documents showing Almond’s registration for the annual event “as either associate or employee for the Greenberg Gibbons development firm.”
Almond termed the request “totally ridiculous.”
Brown said he did not plan to attend the council’s vote next week, but would push to have the rezoning placed before voters as a referendum on the 2014 ballot if it is passed.
“This thing will be pushed out to 2015,” he said, “and would be voted on across the county [district] lines.”
He said he has not reached out personally to Almond, saying, “I have no reason to call her.” Until the vote takes place, Brown said, he is in a holding pattern.
“All politics are local,” he said.