Residents at a public meeting Monday said downscaled plans for a Walmart-anchored shopping center in Remington seem "cheap," and two Baltimore City Council members threatened to seek renewed council scrutiny of the project unless neighbors' concerns are addressed.
Recent changes to the proposed center, 25th Street Station, which is being developed by WV Urban Developments, LLC, are classified by the Planning Department as "minor revisions," needing only Planning Commission approval.
But City Councilman Carl Stokes, standing before an audience of more than 100 people at Saints Philip and James Catholic Church, warned Walmart representatives at the meeting that he and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke may push the council to reclassify the revisions as "major," meaning the council, too, would have to approve them.
Clarke, sitting in the audience, nodded vigorously.
That could slow down the project, which seemed to be back on track after the property owner settled a legal dispute with the developer earlier this year. It would invite more public hearings of the kind that dominated north Baltimore news in 2010, when the council approved the already contentious project as a planned unit development.
"It would delay the process," said Sharon Guida, who chairs the Charles Village Civic Association land use committee.
"Walmart doesn't want a major amendment that brings the City Council representatives into play," Guida said.
But a top city planner said there's no reason under the zoning code to reclassify the amendments as major, because the project has been scaled back since Lowe's pulled out as a potential co-anchor. Laurie Feinberg, director of comprehensive planning, told the audience that if the Planning Commission grants revised final design approval with minor amendments, she doesn't think the council could appeal that decision.
"There is no-end round," Stokes agreed. "The law is the law."
He stressed that he and Clarke would not try to "redo" the planned unit development itself, but could "proactively encourage" Walmart and WV to improve the project.
Critics have long maintained that the shopping center would be too massive for residential Remington and that a Walmart could put small hardware stores out of business.
Supporters say the center would be a boon to fast-growing Remington and all of north Baltimore, which lacks a big box center, forcing people to shop at Walmart and Target stores in Towson.
"I would like to see a Walmart in this area before my 1-year-old grandchild enters college," said Eloise Thompson, of Remington.
But many at the meeting said the development as revised is not pedestrian-friendly or aesthetically inviting, and needs parking entrances farther away from neighbors' homes.
And they said it seems a little bare-bones now, compared to the 2010 design that the council approved.
"It feels like you're playing it cheap," said Dana Moore, of Charles Village.
"I don't want people to think we're not giving the same effort," said Dan Condatore, project architect for Massa Montalto Architects. He said the revised design reflects the "economics of the retail business."
"Hopefully, we're looking at a much changed design," Stokes said as the meeting ended.
WV next goes back to the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel, which last month held off on giving final design approval to the revised plan.
Members of the panel questioned the aesthetics of the project, saying brick walls proposed on either side of the Walmart entrance are overpowering, blank and in need of landscaping, screening or sidewalk enhancements, as the Target chain does with a red ball motif outside its stores, including the one in Towson.
"It's nothing but a brick wall with car bumpers up against it," panelist Gary Bowden said at the panel meeting Sept. 26. "It's too bleak."
In a statement emailed to the Messenger on Tuesday, Amanda Henneberg, Walmart’s senior manager of communications. wrote, “We appreciate the community’s involvement in this process and look forward to presenting changes at Thursday’s UDARP meeting that respond to both the community’s and the Urban Design and Review Panel’s input. This project represents a great opportunity to create jobs and help people save money and live better with convenient access to essential products such as fresh produce and affordable pharmacy items. We look forward to continuing to work with WV Urban and the communities surrounding the project as we seek to finalize the planning and approval process and get construction on the store underway.”
The city's Site Plan Review Committee will take up the project Oct. 16, and Stokes has tentatively scheduled another community meeting for Oct. 24.