Open retail strife has broken out in White Marsh as the owners of the area's mall and other established retail centers foment opposition to a proposed upscale outlet mall along Interstate 95.
Paragon Outlet Partners proposed building a 525,000-square-foot center with about 100 outlet stores, including brands such as Calvin Klein, Coach and Kate Spade, that would draw customers from across the region and off I-95. The Baltimore-based firm specializes in such malls, developing centers closer to population centers than outlets historically have located.
"Baltimore does not have an upscale outlet mall right in its backyard," said R. Kelvin Antill, development partner for Paragon. "The site is highly desirable to us. An outlet mall tends to draw from a larger region than the regional malls."
The center, which Paragon hopes to open by 2016, is one of seven the firm is developing at a time when the outlet industry is booming. But in White Marsh, the proposal is prompting pushback from neighboring malls.
White Marsh Mall's owner, along with the owner of the "Main Street"-style The Avenue at White Marsh and four other area shopping centers, is trying to rally community support to delay a hearing Thursday that could decide the project's fate.
A previously approved development plan for the 88-acres known as Nottingham Ridge, bordered by I-95, Route 43 and Route 7, allows more than 1,250 housing units and a blend of stores and offices. A Baltimore County administrative law judge will consider Paragon's request to change the development to expand the retail and reduce the residential portion to 250 apartments.
"The proposed development will have a significant impact on our retailers," wrote Lisa Bisenius, White Marsh Mall's general manager, in an email.
Mall owner General Growth Properties and Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns The Avenue and other nearby centers, hired Fontaine & Co., a Baltimore-based advocacy and public affairs firm, to help make their case. They've surveyed area residents and enouraged them to attend community meetings, testify at Thursday's hearing and contact Baltimore County Council members with prepared talking points.
After residents take the survey online, they receive an email directing them to an online form to use to contact the county, saying local residents and businesses are concerned about traffic congestion and environmental harm and a more than $88 million loss in sales for local retailers.
"Federal Realty's interest is in gathering market analysis information and keeping our retailers apprised," wrote Lisa Geiger, marketing manager for the northeast region for Federal Realty, in an email. "We believe our responsibility includes assisting our merchants with identifying the risks and opportunities presented by this potential development."
The existing shopping centers' campaign is not unusual, said Mark Millman, CEO of Millman Search Group, an Owings Mills-based retail consulting and recruitment firm.
"It's a sign it's going to impact their business significantly," he said.
Often, one developer will spend millions to keep another out. The current tiff echoes a fight two years ago over the former Solo Cup site in Owings Mills, where one developer is building a Wegmans supermarket and two other area developers fought the project by trying to rally community support.
"It's very common for a developer or retailer to look at the competition and try to eliminate or modify or reduce the competition within the market," he said. Plus, he added, "It … lets the tenants know they're attempting to do something."
The White Marsh retailers' survey, conducted in 20 ZIP codes, found that 64 percent of the 349 respondents opposed the outlet center, with more than half expressing concerns about traffic, a lack of community input and impact on local retailers.
Antill countered that Paragon's research, conducted by phone and in door-to-door interviews, showed support for additional shopping choices.
Bisenius, who said the mall contributes more than $10 million annually in property and sales tax revenue, said the community should be allowed to comment on the proposal and changes should "not be rushed through the process administratively."
Community members have not had enough time to study the project's potential impact on traffic, public safety and the environment, said Heather Patti, president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association.
"Our main concern is, why aren't we allowed to have any kind of input?" said Patti, who disavows any influence from the other center owners. "This is going to change the face of our community forever. Suddenly, we've become the mecca of retail sales. Can we make it work for the community?"
Patti faults the County Council for allowing the proposal to go to an administrative law judge without taking a vote. County Councilman David Marks, who represents White Marsh, said current law requires an administrative judge to review any major change to planned unit development zoning.