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Approval of Walmart shopping center still in doubt

Three years after the Baltimore City Council approved the 25th Street Station shopping center with a Walmart, a city councilman says he may seek a second vote on the project.

Councilman Carl Stokes said this week his constituents are split 50-50 on the project in Remington, even after the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel approved the Walmart redesign Oct. 31.

The Planning Commission, which for now has the final say on approving the redesign, is scheduled to hold a public hearing Nov. 21. The commission must decide whether the loss of Lowe's as a co-anchor and subsequent changes to the plans constitute "major amendments" that would require the commission to return the project — approved by the City Council in 2010 as a planned unit development — back to the council for reconsideration.

If the Planning Commission approves the changes as "minor amendments," Walmart and WV Urban Developments, the developer of the 11-acre site at 25th and Howard streets, would have no more obstacles in their path.

Stokes, who represents the area, said he is politically conflicted because his constituents are. Two of the five community groups in the immediate area are calling for council review, two are not, and the fifth is dormant.

Those favoring council reconsideration are the Remington Neighborhood Alliance and the Old Goucher Community Association. Both are concerned that entrances to the shopping center are misplaced and that an old stone church would be torn down to make room for a Walmart loading dock, among other worries.

Those in favor of the Planning Commission approving the center as it stands now are the Charles Village Civic Association and the Greater Remington Improvement Association.

The fifth group, the Historic Fawcett Community Association, is inactive, founder Megan Hamilton said.

Stokes, who organized a community meeting Oct. 24 in an effort to build consensus on the issue, said Monday that consensus is still elusive and that he will keep trying before the Planning Commission hearing.

"I'm still waiting for the community to weigh in," Stokes said. "The community hasn't given me a place to go with this."

Stokes also said he is personally conflicted. He said he believes the changes to the project should be viewed as major amendments, but that the Planning Department disagrees. City planners say the council appproved 25th Street Station in 2010 as a planned unit development, or PUD, under city zoning laws, and that the proposed changes now wouldn't alter the PUD as approved.

"I think the rationale is strong that it's a major amendment, but if you read the law, it's very hard to come down that way," Stokes said. "It has to be a redesign of the PUD, not this one (Walmart) building," in order for changes to be considered major, he said.

Stokes said he is also mindful that although area residents are deeply divided on details like the landscaping of the Walmart and where the loading dock would be located, a clear majority of his constituents have made clear they want a shopping center with a big-box store. As a result, Stokes said he questions what the benefit would be of sending the project back to the council.

"I do not support a revote on whether the Walmart comes or not," he said. "I want to know, what are we trying to achieve if we put it back before the council."

He said it "would be cool with me" if the point is to pressure the developer to revise the plans more to the community's liking.

"But I don't want to kill the project, because the comunity voted for it. That would be unfair to the community," he said.

The divide has placed Stokes in an uncomfortable position, he conceded.

"I've got this great job — not — of balancing a constituency that's split 50-50 on this," he said.

Stokes said he abstained from the 2010 council vote as a new councilman in 2010 because of reservations about the development.

Stokes also emphasized that even if he decides the changes are major amendments, he could only recommend that the Planning Commission send the project back to the council, and that the council has no power to do so unilaterally.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents much of north Baltimore, said she would support Stokes if he advocates council review, but that without Planning Department support, "it's kind of become moot."

She noted that in response to past criticism by the urban design panel and some residents that the design of the Walmart building was boring and not well integrated into the neighborhood, developers have made landscaping and building design changes that finally won the panel's approval after three meetings.

Now, as the project faces its final hurdle before the Planning Commission, Clarke said she is satisfied that "at least communities have had a lot of input. Whatever the outcome, we're in a better place than when we started."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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