A Baltimore City-mandated citizens' advisory committee that few people knew existed until this month scrambled to meet Saturday, ahead of a Monday deadline to make recommendations to the Planning Department about a proposed shopping center with a Walmart store in Remington.
Although 15 area residents attended the meeting at Corky's Grill near the development site, only two were committee members, so the five-member committee lacked a quorum and can only issue "a report of those present," said John Viles, who chaired the meeting.
The planned unit development mandates an advisory PUD Design Review Committee, with one representative from each of the five community associations in the immediate development area — the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, the Greater Remington Improvement Association, the Old Goucher Community Association, the Charles Village Civic Association, and the Historic Fawcett Community Association.
The only committee members in attendance were Bruce Willen representing the Old Goucher Community Association and Viles representing theRemington Neighborhood Alliance. They said that unbeknownst to them, the committee was constituted Sept. 26 when the Planning Department formally issued the developers' revised plans. By city ordinance, the committee then had 30 days to convene and report its findings.
Viles said Saturday that even after the committee was authorized, no one knew of its existence until about two weeks ago — "so here we are at the last minute."
Megan Hamilton, founder of the Historic Fawcett Community Association, Judith Kunst, president of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, and Sandy Sparks, a member of the Charles Village Civic Association's board, were expected to serve on the committee, Viles said. He said he personally got commitments from Sparks and Kunst to represent their associations.
Hamilton said she decided it would be "inappropriate" for her to serve on the committee because the Historic Fawcett Community Association p is inactive. Hamilton said she is "disappointed" the Greater Remington Improvement Association and Charles Village Civic Association were not represented at the meeting.
Sparks said she did not attend because she thinks the committee was "premature" and that neighborhood associations were already discussing the project on their own and together.
Sparks also said she thinks the committee is ill-defined, with no chairman and no explanation of what it is or how it should operate.
"There's no there there," Sparks said Sunday. "It needs to be fleshed out as a committee and it hasn't been."
Kunst could not be reached for comment.
Willen and Viles voted to recommend that the City Council consider recent changes to the shopping center as "major amendments" — which would require the council to revisit and hold new public hearings on a hotly debated PUD that the council approved in 2010.
Other recommendations included saving an old stone church near the site that developers want to raze to make way for a truck entrance and a Walmart loading dock; mandating regular maintenance of hundreds of trees that are planned as part of the landscaping of the site; and making the entrance to the Walmart more pedestrian-friendly.
Viles and Willen also are recommending several changes to planned entrances.
Current plans call for two public entrances, one at Huntingdon Avenue and 25th Street and another farther north on Huntingdon, with a third entrance and loading dock for delivery trucks at Hampden Avenue and 24th Street — the site of the church. Viles and Willen recommend relocating the truck entrance and dock from Hampden Avenue and 24th to Huntingdon Avenue, and putting a driveway on Sisson.
"The main thrust of this is to keep traffic out of the residential neighborhood and keep it on the commercial streets where it belongs," Viles said.
One issue that dominated the discussion was making the project more accessible to pedestrians.
"A lot of people have told me this plan is geared more to people who are coming from outside the neighborhood,' Willen said.
There was also discussion of Royer's Chapel, a long-vacant stone church, built in 1891, that those at the meeting agreed would be a bad place for a Walmart loading dock that would face a block of row houses on 24th Street. The developer of the shopping center, WV Urban Development, maintains that the dilapidated church is not worth saving.
WV wants to demolish the church and, in a symbolic gesture, use the stones for a retaining wall around the perimeter of the project at 24th and Sisson.
Supporters of saving the church say it's part of the character of the neighborhood and that tearing it down is no longer necessary because Lowe's has pulled out as co-anchor of the center, which makes the project less dense and would allow the development team to change the loading dock location.
'It's going to happen'
The meeting and a walking tour of the site afterwards came at the end of a busy week in which the developer presented updated plans to several community groups, based on criticism from residents and from the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel. UDARP is scheduled to discuss the project again on Oct. 31. The proposed changes would make the center and its 104,000-square-foot Walmart store more aesthetically pleasing and better integrated into the community, as well as more accessible for pedestrians, development officials say.
Some residents still want the City Council to send the project back to the drawing board, arguing that proposed changes constitute major amendments to the PUD.
Councilman Carl Stokes has said it's unlikely the council would go that far.
One person who wants to see the shopping center built sooner rather than later is Steve Karabelas, owner of the 23-year-old Corky's Grill.
"It's going to happen," Karabelas said. "It's just a matter of how long it's going to take to happen."